Kings of the High Frontier
is a book by Victor Komans
about groups racing to get into space before a door shuts forever.
Executive summary: Worth buying, but not worth rushing out for. Thought provoking, indeed controversial, technically accurate, yet the plot is only OK, and the writing is a bit trashy, but it ends well. Overall, I'd give the book 6.5 out of 10.
Some spoilers below:
The basic plot of the novel follows five different groups as they race to beat a legal deadline that would close off access to space to normal people "forever".
The concept that Victor works with is that NASA is positively harmful to space; inherently expensive, incompetent, deliberately blocking space access. NASA is seen as a way for the government to extend its military power and control over space and ultimately harmful to freedom, capitalism, democracy and mankind. He doesn't like the UN much either; although I'm not quite so sure why.
In the story a second Shuttle disaster occurs - only far, far worse- the entire upper Echelons of NASA, and hundreds of public watching a launch are wiped out in an epic; if perhaps improbable accident.
This creates a launch vacuum into which his cast of slightly too many work in their hidden and not quite so hidden attempts to reach orbit, ranging from Russians stealing ICBMs, through students building somewhat implausible rocketry in the middle of New York, to smugglers building bases to operate from, to a very public attempt for a billionaire building his rocket in the public eye, to a corrupt politician using a military black project. All of the vehicle ideas are well thought out, and so far as I can tell, quite realistic from an engineering and physical standpoint.
However not one of the vehicles fails to reach orbit, and knocked together hardware is unlikely to be quite that reliable. This stretches credibility rather; and several of the rockets he describes are SSTO which would be even tougher.
The quality of the writing is not excessively high. It's a bit trashy somehow; and the plot is not particularly subtle.
However the portrail of political intrigue and bureaucratic incompetence is rather better done.
From a plot perspective, I would have prefered to see atleast one or two of the attempts fail- that would have raised the tension greatly. Instead it comes across as rather dogmatic, very black and white, with the good guys always winning, with little grey, and the real story is lost in his attempts at political indoctrination.
Overall, the book is thought provoking; but its doubtless very controversial in very many American circles; it picks up an icon of America- the white elephant that is the space shuttle and explicates not the technical flaws, but the flaws in the system that made it.
Personally as a British subject, I had no problem with that controversy, and I'm pretty sure he's got a large grain of truth going for him, but the plot of the story is overambitious, a bit too embroidered, and for quite large sections of the book, insufficiently gripping. Still, the ending is definitely a feel-good, and for my money that is no bad thing.
Inspired, and for some inspirational. However flawed as a work of writing. Still, if you want an interesting and thought provoking book, get it, whatever its faults, it's fun!