At a fundamental level, this book is a basic history of the development of the Space Shuttle between the point of approval in 1972 and first flight in 1981. But it is also the story of how a creature of compromise designed by various political entities in Washington each with their own priorities and prerogatives, came to fruition. The story of developing this unique vehicle is ably told in Heppenheimer's book and should be a topic of both considerable significance and public interest in the post-"Columbia" accident era as this nation's political leaders make decisions about how to proceed--or perhaps not to proceed--with human spaceflight in the twenty-first century.
Heppenheimer does not argue an overarching thesis in this work; instead he provides a very helpful synthesis of the development of the shuttle. As such, this book should appeal to a general rather than a strictly engineering audience. Specifically, this work is akin to earlier works on Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo and as such should become something of a basic reference in the history of American space flight efforts.
I should also say something about the nature of the historiography concerning the Space Shuttle, and the place of this book in it. There are no satisfactory general histories of the Space Shuttle program. By far, the best work to appear on the technical history of the Space Shuttle is by Dennis R. Jenkins. But that is a narrowly technical history that pays virtually no attention to the political, economic, and managerial aspects of the development effort. It also does not pretend to be a history in the sense that Jenkins uses primary documents and seeks to draw connections to larger issues. It is also, in essence, another large format illustrated history, but its illustrations are technical drawings.
As a result, Heppenheimer's Space Shuttle developmental history fills a major void in the historical literature, just as his book, "The Space Shuttle Decision," did upon its publication.