cover image Come Fly with Us: NASA’s Payload Specialist Program

Come Fly with Us: NASA’s Payload Specialist Program

Melvin Croft and John Youskauskas. Univ. of Nebraska, $36.95 (456p) ISBN 978-0-8032-7892-9

In this well-researched, exhaustive history of a unique NASA program, geologist Melvin and jet pilot Youskauskas (Footprints in the Dust) show how the agency allowed “a new breed of space traveler” aboard select space shuttle flights, beginning in 1983. Known as payload specialists, these people did not receive full astronaut training, but did have to accomplish a specific mission, or “payload,” to fly. The authors acknowledge the program was sometimes controversial, particularly after the fifth slot went to Jake Garn, a Utah senator “with no obvious reason to be on board.” Nonetheless, the authors praise the program on the whole, highlighting the fresh perspectives it provided to shuttle crews—most charmingly, when scientist Rodolfo Neri Vela, declaring that the first Mexican to go into space could not “leave Earth without his tortillas,” inadvertently revealed the easy-to-handle, largely crumb-free bread as an ideal spaceflight provision, far preferable to “NASA’s previous attempts to package sandwich-making ingredients.” However, the program was halted for several years after payload specialists Greg Jarvis and Sharon Christa McAuliffe died in the 1986 Challenger disaster, and ended permanently after payload specialist Ilan Ramon died in the 2013 Columbia disaster. Rigidly chronological, the narrative lacks a unifying chapter-to-chapter arc, but space-travel fans will delight in myriad details and copious interviews. (Feb.)