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Space Shuttle studies and model rockets

In 1969, the model rocket company Estes Industries introduced a kit called Orbital Transport. The rocket consisted of two parts, a larger carrier rocket and a small glider. When launched vertically from a standard model rocket launch pad, the carrier rocket would take the glider up to altitude, and then the glider would detach and glide back to the ground while the carrier rocket descended under a parachute.

My Estes Orbital Transport, which I built mostly in 2000 and flew just once in 2003. It is a “clone” of Orbital Transport, built not from a kit but from plans using stock parts. The markings are hand-painted rather than using decals, which I didn’t have.

My Orbital Transport, which I built from plans in 2000 and flew just once in 2003. The markings are hand-painted rather than using decals, which I didn’t have.

The 1969 Estes catalog had this to say about the design of the kit:

Spectacular in flight and a true show model on the ground, the Orbital Transport is the launch vehicle of the 80’s. Based on the latest proposals for a reusable air breathing (scramjet) booster for orbital vehicles, the Transport is an exciting experience to build and fly.

What were these “latest proposals” that the catalog referenced?

Between August 1965 and September 1966, a joint NASA-US Air Force panel studied the possibility of building spaceplaces to succeed the expendable boosters and single-use capsules that were then launching people into space. The panel studied three classes of spaceplanes, namely:

  • Class I: A reusable spaceplane launched atop an expendable booster, such as the Saturn I-B or Titan III-M.
  • Class II: A fully reusable two-stage spaceplane, both stages winged and both powered by rocket engines. The orbital second stage would ride piggyback atop the suborbital first stage.
  • Class III: Another two-stage spaceplane, similar to Class II, but with air-breathing engines (scramjets) in the first stage.
Three different types of spaceplanes studied by the joint NASA-USAF panel in 1965-66 (L-R): Class I, launched atop a Saturn I-B booster; Class II, with two reusable rocket-powered stages; and Class III, with a scramjet-powered first stage. Class III is shown on the right in a three-view. (Source: USAF illustration printed in Heppenheimer, The Space Shuttle Decision, p. 83)

Three different types of spaceplanes studied by the joint NASA-USAF panel in 1965-66 (L-R): Class I, launched atop a Saturn I-B booster; Class II, with two reusable rocket-powered stages; and Class III, with a scramjet-powered first stage. Class III is shown on the right in a three-view. (Source: USAF illustration printed in Heppenheimer, The Space Shuttle Decision, p. 83)

The panel envisioned all of these spaceplanes flying, one after the other, with the technology developed in one class being used in subsequent classes. In the panel’s optimistic timeline, Class I would fly by 1974, Class II by 1978, and Class III by 1981.1

The joint NASA-USAF panel issued its report in 1966, three years before Estes introduced the Orbital Transport. The design of the Orbital Transport kit is clearly based on the Class III spaceplane, and several details of the kit are drawn directly from the 1965-66 study. The carrier rocket, which represents the first stage of the Class III spaceplane, has open boxes under its “wings” (fins), which represent air-breathing scramjet engines. The 1980s date for the design (as the catalog description says) is also from the study, because Class III was supposed to be flying by 1981.

The Estes model rocket design included one fanciful element that was not present in the NASA-USAF study. While Class III was intended for launching satellites and possibly servicing a space station, Orbital Transport was a passenger transport, a space-airliner. The decal set that came with the kit identified it as being operated by “Astron Aerospace Lines,” and the decals for the glider had a row of windows with a stripe through them, like the airliners of the 1960s.

The NASA-USAF study proved to be fanciful as well. More than 55 years after the panel issued its report, a spaceplane like Class III has never been seriously considered. In the latter half of the sixties, NASA tried hard to make the Class II design work, but it was too big and too expensive, and the engineering challenges inherent in its design were too great. NASA at last fell back on a version of Class I, and in January 1972 (fifty years ago this month), President Nixon approved NASA’s plans to build a reusable spaceplane with a partially reusable booster—what would become known as the Space Shuttle. The shuttle first flew in 1981, the year that the vastly more sophisticated Class III spaceplane was supposed to start flying.

President Nixon (R) meeting with NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher to approve the Space Shuttle program, January 5, 1972. (Source: NASA)

President Nixon (R) meeting with NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher to approve the Space Shuttle program, January 5, 1972. (Source: NASA)

The Space Shuttle concept as it appeared when initially approved in 1972. The basic elements of the design are all in place, but the liquid-fuel boosters pictured here would be replaced by solid boosters in the shuttle as built. (Source: NASA)

The Space Shuttle concept as it appeared when initially approved in 1972. The basic elements of the design are all in place, but the liquid-fuel boosters pictured here would be replaced by solid boosters in the shuttle as built. (Source: NASA)


The Estes Orbital Transport has been out of production for a long time (except for a brief reissue in the early 2000s), but Semroc makes a reproduction of it. I made my Orbital Transport by “cloning” it, which means that I built it from plans using stock parts (rather than using a kit, which wasn’t available at the time). I got the plans from JimZ Rocket Plans.

  1. T.A. Heppenheimer, The Space Shuttle Decision: NASA’s Search for a Reusable Space Vehicle (Washington, DC: NASA History Office, 1999), 82-83. []

How I got my book published

After finishing the manuscript for my book, A Technological History of Cold-War India, it took more than a year to get from full draft to published book that I could hold in my hands. Going into this process, I didn’t know quite what to expect. While I had written long manuscripts before this one, I had never formally published anything longer than a magazine article.

I should start by pointing out that A Technological History of Cold-War India is an academic book, and academic books differ in several key ways from popular history books intended for the general market. Academic books are written and read by academics, and they are supposed to be well-researched and intellectually rigorous. Most importantly of all, they have to pass peer-review. Popular history books, on the other hand, have to be marketable. They need to sell enough copies to recoup their production costs and, ideally, make a tidy profit for the publisher. For academic books, the author’s educational qualifications are everything; for popular history books, what matters most is whether the author can write in an engaging way that will appeal to a broad audience.

Since academic books differ from popular history books, the publishing process is different as well. As I understand it, most popular publishers require authors to get a literary agent before submitting a proposal. For academic books, there isn’t much of a need for an agent, as getting a PhD is enough of a gatekeeper for authors. Instead of finding an agent, academic authors can skip straight to the next step, submitting a proposal.

The proposal

A book proposal is like a first date: a publisher meets your book project and has to decide if it will be worthwhile to explore this relationship further.

Authors typically write and send out multiple proposals for a book, but I sent out only one, to Palgrave Macmillan, the publisher that ultimately picked up my book. The reason why I chose that publisher was because it has a series about history of technology (Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology), and I met one of the editors of that series at a conference (Roger Launius), and he encouraged me to send them a proposal.

It is not unusual for authors to send out proposals before they even finish the first draft of a book, and I did start writing a proposal for Palgrave years before I finished the draft. But the project bogged down so much that I had no idea when I would get a draft done. Ultimately, I didn’t submit a proposal until I had the first draft complete.

Although I was beset by self-doubt as I wrote the proposal, it was actually a fairly straightforward thing to write. I simply followed a template that Palgrave had on their website. The proposal asked for things like an overview of the project, chapter outline, description of market and competition for the book, and a list of questions like expected length of project, keywords, and funding information. All told, my proposal was nine pages in length, including chapter outline.

I sent the proposal off with the first three chapters of my manuscript and my CV in August 2020, a little over a month after I finished the first draft. Then I waited.

The contract

I heard back on my proposal less than two months later. My proposal and the first three chapters had already passed peer review. The reviewer left comments that were broadly positive, but recommended some revisions to the project, including lengthening it. The editorial contact at Palgrave asked me to provide a response to the reviewer’s comments, after which she drew up the contract.

The contract was 17 pages of hard-to-understand legalese. Once I had read it all and e-signed it, I could say that I had a book “under contract” with Palgrave Macmillan. It was time to get to work on the revisions that the reviewer had recommended.

The final draft

The reviewer’s main critique of my project was that it was too short. He recommended adding 30,000 words to it. My editorial contact said that I didn’t necessarily need to add 30,000 words (an arbitrary amount), but I should expand it somewhat. Thus I had my work cut out for me.

My deadline for final submission was April 15, 2021. I planned to do the revisions during winter quarter (10 weeks from early January to mid-March). I had a slightly lighter class load that quarter, only one of my classes was new, and I was still teaching completely online and mostly asynchronously so I had some flexibility in my schedule.

Back when I wrote my dissertation, I had stayed on-track with my work by making a grand plan for what to work on each week and sticking to it (as I explain in my previous post). When it came to adapting the dissertation to a book, though, I found that this sort of planning just didn’t work, because I did not have a clear idea of the scope of the project when I started on it. But now that I was preparing the final draft, I did have a pretty good idea of what the final book was going to look like. I made a plan for what to do each of the ten weeks of winter quarter, and I stuck to it until it was done.

Learning LaTeX

I had two options for preparing the final manuscript: Microsoft Word and LaTeX. Since I had written the manuscript in OpenOffice, I would need to convert it one way or another. I don’t much care for Microsoft Word, so I took the plunge and taught myself how to use LaTeX.

LaTeX is a compilable markup language for preparing publication-ready manuscripts, and it is industry standard for publications in science fields. A couple of friends of mine who got PhDs in the sciences in the past 20 years had tried to sell me on LaTeX, but I had never had an occasion to use it yet in the humanities.

Springer, the parent company of my publisher, has LaTeX template files that I could use to make my book final manuscript. I started by using an OpenOffice plugin, Writer2LaTeX, to convert the original .odt files of each manuscript chapter to LaTeX’s .tex format. I tried using a desktop compiler, TeXstudio, to compile the draft, but I just couldn’t get it to work. It was missing packages or something. After beating my head against this for a while, I tried an online compiler, Overleaf. This apparently had the necessarily packages, and it worked just fine.

Using Overleaf to prepare the final draft of my book.

Using Overleaf to prepare the final draft of my book.

It took me a while to figure out how to use LaTeX, but I’m glad I went to the effort. Now that I know how to use LaTeX, I would like to use it on future projects.

By early March, I was far enough along to submit a penultimate draft to my editorial contact. Five weeks later, she got back to me saying that the full draft had passed peer review—a critical last hurdle in the publication process for an academic book.

Other stuff: index and illustrations

Before I could submit the final draft, there were a couple of other things I had to take care of, namely: the book’s index and the illustrations.

I had two options for creating the index: make it myself or let a computer do it for me. I wanted to do it myself, and I had known that ever since I tried reading a book once about the Cold War from a Russian perspective. The index was clearly machine-generated. It consisted of a bunch of more or less random terms, with no subheadings under any of them. Every time India was mentioned in the text, it got a page reference in the index, whether the mention was relevant or just a passing reference. I could only assume that “india ink” would appear in the index too.

To make the index, I placed tags in the LaTeX code; on compiling, the index would be generated with an entry for each of the tags in the code. A basic tag that looked like this

\index{India}

would create an index entry for “India” with the corresponding page number. To reference an entire section about India, I would put this tag at the beginning of the section

\index{India|(}

and this tag at the end

\index{India|)}

This would create an index entry for India with the page range from the first tag to the last one.

Since the whole book is about India, an entry with just the name of the country would not be very useful. To make the index really useful, I would need to add subheadings. An entry for India’s 1971 treaty with the Soviet Union would look like this:

\index{India!treaty with the Soviet Union}

Making the index—and fixing the innumerable errors that cropped up in my first tries at it—took a lot of work, but I’m glad I went to the effort because the index that I created ought to be useful to whoever reads the book.

Another thing that I had to do before I could submit the final book was create illustrations. I had used Inkscape to make illustrations for my dissertation way back when, and I used the same program to edit the pictures I had already made (mostly maps) and add several new ones (a few more maps and some infographics). This was a big time-consumer, and it made me miss the April 15 final manuscript deadline by a month.

When it came time to turn in the final manuscript, I used an online portal that was accessible by a secret link sent to me by my editorial contact. I had to upload a .zip folder of my project (I just used a .zip that I downloaded from Overleaf). And then I hit submit, and that was that. Four years, four-and-a-half months after starting DTB, and more than ten years after starting my research on Cold-War India, I had finally submitted the final draft of my book.

Page proofs

I wasn’t quite done, of course, but I could take a break. I had to take a break, in fact, because there was nothing I could do until my editorial contact got back with me with my completed page proofs.

The typesetting of my book proceeded behind-the-scenes over the summer. As my bad pandemic-era luck would have it, I didn’t get the page proofs until the second week of fall quarter. I had ten days to read through my entire book and make any final edits before they were set in stone, and I was supposed to be teaching four classes in-person during that time!

My editorial contact gave me a link for the proofing program, on an online portal. In the portal, I directly edited the ebook version of my book, and I also had a .pdf of each chapter of the printed version for reference.

The editors had made very few changes in the text of my book. Except for the high-level peer-review, I was ultimately responsible for virtually every word in the book. This was a lot of responsibility, and I probably could have benefited with one or two more pairs of eyes to look over the text before I submitted it.

Nevertheless, there were lots of little problems with the proofs as I got them, including misspelled words and paragraphs mysteriously combined with each other. I went through every chapter multiple times, and I was afraid that I’d missed something still.

When I’d done everything I could think to do, I hit submit on the page proofs. Now I really was done.

Publication

Less than a month after submitting the proofs, I got an email saying that my book was published! Over the next couple of days, links to order the ebook and the hardcover edition showed up on the publisher’s website. I got emails saying that my complimentary copies of the book were on the way, and I checked the tracking obsessively until it said that the package had been delivered to my college’s mail room.

Overall, publishing my book was a pretty straightforward process, although it took longer than I expected. Publishing was also a hurry-up-and-wait process, as I would work feverishly on something on my end before submitting it and waiting for the wheels to turn on the other end. I’m happy with how things turned out with my book, but there are a few things I’ll do differently if and when I publish another academic book. I will get more people to help me revise the book before I submit it, and I will get some trained graphic designers to look over my illustrations if I am responsible for them again.

Showing off my newly-published book!

Showing off my newly-published book!

How I wrote my book

Working on Chapter 9 of A Technological History of Cold-War India, supervised by a figurine of Chiang Kai-shek.

Working on Chapter 9 of A Technological History of Cold-War India in early 2020, supervised by a figurine of Chiang Kai-shek.

The book that I just published, A Technological History of Cold-War India, is the result of more than ten years of work. I started the project way back in my first year of graduate school. A couple of disparate papers that I wrote for graduate classes became the germ of my dissertation, which I finally completed and defended in 2016. Then it would take me another five years of on-and-off work to get from dissertation to published book.

Writing my dissertation—unlike the book—was actually a fairly straightforward process. While some people take years to write their dissertations, it took me only about four months of consistent, obsessive work to transform the disparate chapter drafts that I had written over my first five years of grad school into a coherent dissertation. At the beginning of my dissertating, I made a plan for what I would write each week for the next four months. Then I got to work and didn’t stop until I was done.

The challenge of writing a book

After defending my dissertation (and taking a much-needed break of several months), I set about turning my dissertation into a book. This proved to be much harder than writing the dissertation, and it took far longer—three and a half years until first draft for the book, rather than just four months for the dissertation.

There are a couple of reasons why writing the book took so much longer than the dissertation. One reason was that I wasn’t under very much pressure to get the work done. In graduate school, after my funding ran out, I had to pay several thousand dollars’ worth of continuing enrollment fees every semester until I graduated. These fees made me feel like I was sitting on a ticking time bomb as I wrote. For the book, on the other hand, the only deadline was five years after I graduated; at that time, my dissertation became publicly accessible on databases, so I wanted to have a book under contract by then. As it turned out, I completed the draft of my book and signed a publication contract for it almost a year before the five-year deadline.

The most significant reason why it took me so much longer to write the book is because writing a book is inherently harder than writing a dissertation. Dissertations are written to be read by literally only four people on planet Earth: the members of your dissertation committee (five people if you count your external reviewer). Books—even academic books that are rarely read outside of the ivory tower—have to appeal to a broader audience.

A useful guide in writing my book was From Dissertation to Book, by William Germano. I actually read the book once before I even wrote my dissertation, and then I read it again as I was starting to write my own book. Germano argues that, despite their superficial resemblance, dissertations and books are not the same thing, but are in fact different mediums of work. What works in one medium may not work in another. Screenwriters know this, which is why movies based on books are always different from the source material.

In the same way, as Germano explains, writing your first academic book is a process of adaptation from one medium to another. Your dissertation proves that your are an expert on your topic and deserve to be granted the elite title of Doctor of Philosophy. A book, on the other hand, has to make a meaningful contribution to scholarship. Dissertations tend to go very deep on an incredibly narrow topic. Books need to address a somewhat broader topic that will be of interest to more than four people; consequently, a book doesn’t have to go as deep into its topic.

The question of structure

Germano emphasizes the importance of structure for a book, and the need to modify the structure of your dissertation for the new medium of book. The table of contents of my dissertation looked like this:

Dissertation TOC

The table of contents of my dissertation, “Building Nonalignment: Technological Interchange and India’s Third Five-Year Plan (1961-1966)” (2016).

My dissertation was based on four case studies, and each of them had its own chapter. There was also a fairly long introduction (10,600 words) that introduced the main ideas of the dissertation, and a shorter conclusion (3,200 words) that brought the story closer to the present.

To introduce the topic to the readers, the book needed more context than the dissertation, and thus I added two chapters to the beginning, one about Indian technology, industry, and economics, and one about India in the Cold War. (I also added an all-new introduction, but it was shorter than the one in the dissertation, only 4,400 words.) The first new chapter repurposed some material from the original introduction, but by and large these chapters were new.

The case study about Exercise Shiksha (a joint Indo-US-UK air exercise held in North India in November 1963) was the first part of this project that I researched and wrote, way back in my first year of grad school. The chapter had always sort of confused me, but it was only when planning the book that I finally figured out why: it is in fact two different stories. The air exercise is one of the stories, but the other story is the Indian Air Force’s quest for modern fighter jets. In making the plan for my book, I split the Exercise Shiksha chapter into two separate chapters.

The chapter about Tarapur Atomic Power Project (India’s first commercial nuclear plant) had also been a little unwieldy. Because I had found so many documents about the project in the US National Archives (as well as some in the Indian National Archives), I had a great deal to say about the project, and the chapter was long. I ended up splitting that chapter into two as well—one chapter about the planning and international agreements for the project, the other about its construction and early operation.

The final chapter list thus ended up looking like this:

Comparison of the chapter lists of my dissertation and published book.

Comparison of the chapter lists of my dissertation and published book.

I went through a similar process in restructuring the individual chapters. One of the chapters that didn’t get split into two was Chapter 3 in the dissertation (Chapter 7 in the book), about the Umiam Hydroelectric Project, which was built in the Khasi Hills of Northeast India in the early sixties. The dissertation chapter had this structure:

The section outline of Chapter 3 of the dissertation, “Umiam Hydroelectric Project.”

The section outline of Chapter 3 of the dissertation, “Umiam Hydroelectric Project.”

The section “Modernization in the Khasi Hills” consisted mainly of deep-background material that I had included in my dissertation to prove my expertise in the topic. Since that level of detail is unnecessary in a book, I cut that section from the book and just preserved bits and pieces of it in other sections, including a new section called “A dam on Khasi land.”

“United States capital and Indian development” was a broad section that didn’t have anything to do with Umiam Dam. I moved parts of it to earlier chapters in the book (Chapters 2 and 3), and deleted the rest from this chapter.

“The Umiam environment” had been a miniature environmental history of Umiam Dam and its reservoir, but it had also gotten fairly off-topic by describing in great detail the tourism facilities at the lake operated by the Meghalaya Tourism Development Corporation Ltd. This had mainly served to pad out the dissertation, and it wasn’t really a part of the story I was trying to tell now. It got cut from the book as well.

Once I finished restructuring the chapter, it ended up looking like this:

Comparison of the chapter outline of the Umiam Dam chapter in my dissertation (L) and its appearance in the table of contents of my published book (R).

Comparison of the chapter outline of the Umiam Dam chapter in my dissertation (L) and its appearance in the table of contents of my published book (R).

To a greater or lesser extent, every chapter of the book had to be restructured so that it focused on the narrative that the book was trying to tell and didn’t get lost in the weeds of irrelevant details.

Edits large and small

Before starting to write the book, I read through my entire dissertation very carefully and made detailed notes on what I wanted to change in the book. This included little things like word choice and big things like structure and themes.

I collected these notes into a file called “Plans for adapting dissertation to book.” I prefaced the to-do list with six general guidelines for editing the text:

  • Tone down discussions of theory and historiography, and restrict them to one section of the intro.
  • Avoid the long, deep-background diversions that I included to show I was master of the topic. That’s what a dissertation is about, not a book.
  • Similarly, eliminate most content notes, because they probably aren’t worth keeping if they don’t belong in the body.
  • Add more people to the story. Characterize the people who are in there already.
  • Add more imagery and descriptions.
  • Use semicolons less.

I also started a file called “Concept,” in which I wrote out my basic ideas for the book. Items in the concept file included:

  • Working title (I cycled through several bad ones until I settled on A Technological History of Cold-War India)
  • Project codename: DTB [Dissertation-to-Book] (it was essential to have a codename because the title kept changing)
  • Topic: Indian government attempts to industrialize the country and indigenize foreign technologies in the Cold War. A story of technology, economics, and international relations.
  • Various versions of the Argument, including a super-succinct tweetable version!

I updated the Concept file continuously throughout the project, as I came up with ideas for how to improve the book.

Keeping on-track

When I started this project, I had no idea how long it was going to take. At first, I thought the project would take a year at most. When that year passed with many chapters left to rewrite, I kept telling myself that I would finish it the next summer, but summers came and went with little or no progress on the book.

As I mentioned before, one of the challenges for finishing this project was that I wasn’t motivated by the kind of pressure that I’d had during graduate school. I wasn’t losing thousands of dollars a semester if I didn’t finish the book in a timely manner. On the flip side, I also kept getting preoccupied by other kinds of work, mostly teaching new classes. I kept restarting the project, then stopping because I got overwhelmed by other work. Since I was getting paid to teach and not to write an unpublished book manuscript, the teaching took precedence.

It was also easy to get distracted with other projects. The vagaries of life made the sort of large-scale planning that worked for the dissertation impractical for the book. Instead, I found that the best way to make consistent progress on this project was to set a goal to work on it for a small but consistent amount of time every single working day for an academic term—usually 30 minutes. This wasn’t much, but over time it would add up and I could make real progress. I wrote whole chapters in 30-minute blocks of time over the course of several months. Sometimes I would have to drop even that, because I was too busy with my paid work, but even so this was one of the keys to finishing the book manuscript.

Reaching the end

I worked through each chapter sequentially before declaring it done and moving on to the next one. I started with the first full-length chapter (Chapter 2 in the published book), planning to circle back at the end and write the Introduction and Conclusion. Somebody told me in an English class long ago that this is how authors write books. I had done the same thing for my dissertation, and it seemed to work because my thoughts were more organized by the time I got back around to the Introduction.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, I was just finishing up the last full-length chapters, and it was about time to circle back to the Introduction. But then the pandemic hit North America with a vengeance and everything shut down within a couple of days. My institution shifted to online instruction in mid-March, just before winter quarter finals.

For a brief moment, I was thrilled at the prospect of teaching remotely, because I was convinced that this would give me the time to finish my book manuscript at last! But then when I actually started teaching online and realized how exhausting and time-consuming it really is, I decided that I was being delusional and should stop placing unrealistic expectations on myself. I tried working on the book for the first couple of weeks of spring quarter, but I gave up before long. (I think that many academics had a similar experience of being excited about making progress with their work during the pandemic before realizing that it was going to be hard enough just to survive in these trying times.)

In the end, the pandemic did help me finish my book manuscript, but not in the way that I had originally anticipated. When spring quarter 2020 ended, I was still stuck at home because the pandemic was still raging, but now I didn’t have much else to do besides work on my book. After a few false starts and much consistent work, I finished the first complete draft of my book in early July 2020. The draft was 86,000 words in length, some 7,000 words longer than the dissertation. It was the product of three and a half years of work.

The next step was getting this manuscript published—but that, my friends, is another story.

My book, A Technological History of Cold-War India, on top of my dissertation, “Building Nonalignment.”

My book, A Technological History of Cold-War India, on top of my dissertation, “Building Nonalignment.”

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