The history of aviation and aerospace is fascinating because the achievements were technically challenging and the impact on society has been so clear. Through the major phases of the industry’s growth ideas evolved across the globe, with the pioneers taking risks that sometimes worked and many times did not. It is an industry where innovation cannot be concealed – success results in a demonstration of your capabilities flying across the sky. My favorite sources from books and audiobooks to learn more about this industry are listed below.
Wrights and the First Pioneers
This phase of history begins with the early understanding of physics and chemistry which led to systematic exploration of flight through balloons, kites, and culminated with the first powered flight.
The Wright Brothers: How they Invented the Airplane, by Russell Freedman. While noted as a children’s book, for which it won an award, this is a well researched book with excellent photography. Finding this book and reading it to my son reinvigorated much of my own interest in this area. The photos and reference guides have been valuable when reading through other texts.
The Wright Brothers by Fred C. Kelly (6 hours).
Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers, written by Fred Howard (21 hours). This book covered more of the work that the Wright’s had done around pioneering not just the practical, but also the theory of aviation in the early days.
Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life has several chapters dedicated to Franklin’s participation in the early work with balloons while he was in France. Not only did Franklin disseminate the early achievements, he served as a financial sponsor. Balloons also serve a prominent role in The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, by McCullough in his description of the German siege of Paris.
From Lindbergh through the modern age, commercial aviation has made the world a smaller place. In this phase, the technical challenges of the early pioneers now become commercial challenges. New products are created – products such as a seat on the flight and also products like the 747 from which the seats are sold.
The Flight of the Century, which focuses on Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, is written by Thomas Kessner (11 hours). The book details how Lindbergh’s technical approach to his solo flight was so different than his competitors – rather than over-engineer a heavy three engine plane, he focused on a high quality single engine approach. Lindbergh’s promotion of passenger aviation and pioneering navigation of routes for the airlines is also discussed in detail.
Turbulent Skies: The History of Commercial Aviation by T. A. Heppenheimer is part of the Sloan Technology series. The book focuses on the history of commercial aviation in the US with a significant focus on the role of the US government subsidizing the industry through postal fares and the growth and collapse of Pan Am airlines.
747: Creating the World’s First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life in Aviation is written by the chief engineer of the 747 program from Boeing, Joe Sutter (11 hours). The book begins with an early history of Boeing through the lense of a young Sutter growing up in Seattle. He charts the company’s growth, including its divestment of Pan Am, high risk pursuit of new models which enabled the pioneering of new routes. This is a great book on the history of flight and an exceptional book on technical product management. Sutter’s discussion of how they would release new models of the 737 and 747 to enable airlines to pursue new markets is a great example of listening to customers and focusing on specific problems in order to drive technical achievement.
I’ve just downloaded The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight, but have not yet listened to it.
Sputnik, Apollo & the Space Race
The technical requirements and industrial investment required to put a satellite into orbit, put a human into orbit, and then to land and return a crew from the face of the moon are staggering. The program management skills was successful and showed a skillful balance between focusing on safety and enabling risk-taking.
Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, by Craig Nelson starts with the Mercury program and goes through the last of the Apollo missions. Nelson focuses on the astronaut core and the mission control team but does not shy away from the fundamental scientific and engineering challenges.
Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond by Gene Kranz (19 hours).
Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivals That Ignited the Space Age, written by Matthew Brzezinski (12 hours). This book focuses on the achievements of Russian aerospace pioneer Sergei Korolev, whose bold moves guided the Russian strategic missile development, launched Sputnik and lead to the Russian manned space program.
Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program, written by Pat Duggins (7 hours). I’ve just downloaded this in the past week, no feedback yet.
My favorite part throughout this aviation and aerospace history is seeing the great players interact. The Wrights were highly dependent on Langley, whose own well-funded efforts met with failure. Lindbergh talks of being awed in meeting Orville Wright. Lindbergh then awes the Apollo 11 crew with a meeting upon their return to Earth.