Sunday, September 18, 2011

L. Ashwell Wood: Behind the Scenes part 6

by Jeremy Briggs

The previous part of this article on L Ashwell Wood’s cutaway of a space shuttle design from the 1970 Inside Information On Space Travel book covered the original art painted by Wood. This time we will look at the real life designs of the space shuttle from the time period that would have influenced his painting.

Inside Information On Space Travel was published by Benwig Books in 1970 as part of a series of factual information books for children. Each book featured a series of colour cutaways plus several black and white illustrations all painted by Wood who also wrote the books.

The Space Travel book featured the then current Apollo lunar landings and looked to the immediate future with the illustration of the Skylab space station, which was the next step for the NASA space programme, on its front cover. It also included illustrations of two different types of future space shuttle, a cargo carrying shuttle in the “To Space Stations And Back” illustration and a passenger carrying shuttle in “What Of The Future?” So where did the ideas for these illustrations come from?

Firstly a quick history lesson: in the late 1960s and early 1970s there were many concepts for the post-Apollo method of getting astronauts into Earth orbit. The overriding factor in these was affordability and the main concept to help make orbital flight cheaper was to reuse the flight vehicle rather than effectively throw it away each time as had been done with rockets up to that point. This reusability requirement saw many American aerospace companies put forward designs for a reusable shuttle that would return to Earth and land like an aeroplane no matter how it took off. In general those designs began with two different aeroplane-like craft, the smaller one piggy-backed on the larger one so that the larger one could carry the smaller one up to a great altitude before the smaller one separated and went the rest of the way to Earth orbit. This would eventually evolve into the smaller craft being launched on rocket boosters to get into space which was the genesis of the craft that became NASA’s Space Shuttle.

One of the designs for this latter concept came from Grumman who produced this picture to illustrate their concept for a shuttle that carried satellites and astronauts into Earth orbit. Despite the angled wings this concept is very similar to the NASA Orbiter Vehicle that actually flew with main engines at the rear and a payload bay for transporting satellites into space. If we take this Grumman image and flip it to show a direct comparison with Wood’s shuttle, there can be little doubt that this then is the image he used as the basis for his cutaway.

Wood’s painting has two further space vehicles, a mini-shuttle and a space station. Taking the space station first and despite the then construction of NASA’s Skylab station, which was launched in 1973, there were many designs for larger space stations also coming from the various aerospace companies. Most of these designs showed a modular approach based in part, like Skylab itself, on the legacy of the Apollo programme. This illustration from North American Rockwell shows two shuttles docked at an Earth orbiting station.

While Wood’s original artwork for his space station is actually less than half an inch across, and the shadow effect around it shows that it was originally slightly larger, it bears more than enough of a resemblance to the North America Rockwell station in both its design and orientation that there is a high probability that Wood used this image to base his own station painting on.

The space shuttle design used in this station painting is much closer than the Grumman design to the final version of the Space Shuttle that NASA actually flew, which is not surprising as North American Rockwell became Rockwell International who were the aerospace company that designed and built all of NASA’s Orbiter Vehicles. One of the other North American Rockwell illustrations for this concept shuttle, which they called DC-3, shows the shuttle in orbit launching a satellite with a space station in the background.

In this illustration the satellite being deployed from the shuttle’s payload bay is elongated with a rounded nose, engines at the rear and ‘wings’, which would actually be solar arrays, mounted on the top rear of the main body. It also has a stand mounted radio antenna mounted above and about half way along the main body. By flipping this illustration of the DC-3 satellite launch and focussing on the satellite and the space station in the background again there is a good probability that Wood used this image to base his own on, realigning it to the orientation of the satellite in the Grumman image.

The difference here is that the DC-3 illustration is of a satellite and Wood’s is of a mini-shuttle. I suspect that L Ashwell Wood confused the slightly earlier shuttle concepts of two different manned space craft attached to each other, with the bigger one carrying the smaller up far enough that it could then go the rest of the way into orbit, with this later design of a single space craft boosted into orbit by other means that would then be able to deploy satellites. There does not seem to have been any real world design concepts whereby the smaller craft was carried into space enclosed within the larger one as Wood illustrates. It does however make for an interesting illustration to spark a child’s imagination.

The other shuttle illustration in the Inside Information on Space Travel book is for a passenger carrying ‘space liner’, a shuttle sized vehicle able to carry many passengers from Earth to an orbiting space station. This Lockheed design for such a vehicle, called Starclipper, is a similar design concept to the Grumman shuttle with its main engines at the rear and angled wings. The Starclipper also has two jet engines attached to the top of the main body which protrude rather like antenna. It wasn’t unusual of shuttle concepts at the time to include jet engines to allow the shuttle to be manoeuvred in the atmosphere as it came in to land on a runway. Indeed the DC-3 design above has over wing boxes that were intended to house its jet engines.

By realigning the Starclipper image into the same orientation as Wood’s space liner we can see that this then is where he got his design of a space liner from. The irony here of course is that an artist so well known for his own cutaways used a cutaway produced by Lockheed to produce a non-cutaway illustration of his own.

While some may consider that these illustrations show that he was copying the designs of others, they really show that Wood was researching these shuttle design concepts just as he would have researched the real vehicles of his other illustrations and, as such, was not short changing his child readers with the fantasy spaceships that other artists created.

Having researched the shuttle designs for these illustrations it is just a pity that L Ashwell Wood died in 1973 and so did not get to see a real shuttle fly into space.

Grumman Shuttle.
North American Rockwell DC-3 and Space Station.

Lockheed Starclipper.


  1. A marvelously informative article Jeremy!

    Incidentally, have you ever come across the wonderfully-named 'Dyna-Soar'spaceplane project? Offhand I can't remember if Eagle ever featured it in a cutaway drawing but I'm sure I saw some artist's impressions of it as early as the late 1950s! This visionary craft really captured my imagination as a child and it's remarkable how much of its basic design was still visible in L. Ashwell Wood's drawing - not to mention NASA's actual space Shuttle.

    ...And best of all, a version of the Dyna-Soar was included in the range of space-age vehicles designed for Gerry Anderson's aborted 'Project SWORD' series, which meant that I was able to get hold of my very own scale model (even if it did have ridiculous friction-drive wheels!).

  2. The Russians had an idea for a space shuttle that would be carried to high altitude by plane and then be launched from there. However the collapse of the Soviet Union halted development and then the collapse of it's hangar destroyed the actual shuttle. It had only made one unmanned flight, launched from the ground by rockets.
    They did build two of the plane supposed to carry it though, the Antulov AN-225, one of the biggest aircraft in the world. They are now used for carrying cargo.

  3. For Mike: the single Antonov An-225 Mriya (NATO codename Cossack) that was built was the Soviet equivalent of NASA's Boeing 747 jumbo jet Shuttle Carrier Aircraft used, as the name suggests, for transporting the Buran shuttle betweeen locations rather than as first stage to get it into orbit. I had the chance to see this remarkable aircraft fly at the Farnborough airshow in 1990 and it does indeed still fly today for outsized loads.

    For Phil: I also know of the Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar and featured it in my Designed For Flight article in Spaceship Away issue 11 that covered artist Keith Watson's spacecraft designs in Dan Dare. He based his SF Ferry 8 on the cover of Eagle Vol.15 No.25 (20 June 1964) on the Dyna-Soar and that issue of SA shows the Boeing publicity photo that he based his spaceship on.



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