Monday, 28 September 2009

Winged Rocketry, James C Sparks

The cover-flap blurb for Winged Rocketry states, "this fascinating book retraces the history of rocket planes fro the first crude version fired by coolies in ancient China, on to the secret German space bombers and fighters of World War II and to the great barrier-breaking rocket planes of the United States". And so it does. But not in any great depth.

If anything, Winged Rocketry reads mostly as an introduction to its subject, rather than a deep study of it. Its emphasis is on readability - a not unexpected emphasis, given that the author was for many years the Public Affairs Officer for the Mercury and Gemini programmes in the Office of Information of the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force. While readability can never be a bad thing, it often results in a tendency to dramatise, which often undermines authority.

Take, for example, Sparks' description of Chuck Yeager's historic flight in the X-1 on 14 October 1947. Sparks tells us that:

"[Yeager] had awakened in the middle of many a night, in the throes of fantastic nightmares, most of which were associated with violent explosions, or the fear of being sealed inside the fiery bomb in a last plunge to earth." (p 109)

Unless Sparks is telepathic, there's no way he could know this (this book predates Yeager's autobiography by almost twenty years).

Despite such flourishes, Winged Rocketry is mostly a solid read about rocket planes. As the blurb indicates, it opens with apocryphal tales of rocket-powered flying experiments in ancient China - all of which, obviously, failed. It then follows the German experiments between the wars and during World War II, which led to the Messerschmidt Me-163 Komet and the Natter - both lethal aircraft to fly. There is a chapter devoted to each. Next is the proposed manned variants of the V-2 and the Sänger "Antipodal Bomber".

After Germany, the only experiments in rocket-powered flight of any consequence took place in the US - the X-1 programme, and the D-558 Skyrocket, both of which are covered in the book; as are the Bell X-2 and North American X-15.

Of course, research with rocket-powered aircraft did take place in other countries, most notably the UK. The Saunders Roe SR.53 was a mixed jet- and rocket-powered interceptor, which first flew in 1957, and would likely have led to the SR.177 entering service with the RAF. Duncan Sandys' infamous 1957 Defence White Paper, however, put paid to that, as it did the TSR-2 and a variety of other imaginative aviation projects. None of this is mentioned in Winged Rocketry.

It's only towards the end of Winged Rocketry that the book becomes interesting, and then for the wrong reasons. At the time it was written, there was an expectation that some of the lines of study by NASA and the armed forces would lead to real aircraft and spacecraft. Although the X-20 Dyna Soar had been cancelled in 1963, Sparks describes the future of lifting body research - i.e., their use as spacecraft - as if it were certain to happen, even going so far as to write, "The trend in futuristic space vehicles is rather firmly established at present" (p 158). Of course, no manned lifting body ever made it into orbit. And these days, they are better known from the opening credit sequence of the television programme The Six Million Dollar Man.

The final chapter of Winged Rocketry describes some of the proposed designs for space planes, both military and civil. None ever got further than the drawing-board, although in 1968 it was perhaps expected they would do so. Sparks certainly believed so. It's a shame he was wrong.

Winged Rocketry, Major James C Sparks (retd) (1968 Dodd, Mead, No ISBN, 180pp + index)


Anonymous said...

My Late Uncle Wrote that Book. He Was SO FULL of Shit..

Nathan sparks said...

If he was so full of shit, then why is winged rocketry the very means of personal space travel and the certain future for a dependable transportation into space. And he knew chuck Yeager very well and that would explain what sounded like a personal conversation between the two. I'm no expert on space flight or books for that matter, but for "anonymous" to write his late uncle was full of shit makes him sound like a spoiled brat. - Nathan sparks

Devin Duncan said...

I lived down the street from Col. Sparks and he visited our home on a regular basis. He did know Chuck Yeager, he was a PR front man for NASA's early projects. And he had a kid's passion for rockets, U-Control model airplanes and pretty much anything that got off the ground on purpose. He wasn't full of shit, he was full of curiosity, ingenuity and enthusiasm to get a new generation to have fun with flight. RIP Col. Sparks, from Devin Duncan... that 13 year old kid down the street.