It was hard for a space-obsessed kid growing up in the 1980s not to feel just a little bit envious of the previous generation. The late 1960s had marked the climax of one of the most glorious adventures in human history, and the first one that, thanks to the miracle of mass media, everyone could share in in real time. Even the most non-technical and non-scientific among us could understand the clear progression that climaxed in that “giant leap for mankind”: Apollo 7 tested the Apollo capsule in Earth orbit; Apollo 8 voyaged to the Moon and circled it; Apollo 9 tested the lunar lander in Earth orbit; Apollo 10 was the dress rehearsal; Apollo 11 was the big one, July 20, 1969, the day that changed everything forever for humanity. Or so it must have seemed at the time. By the early 1980s it could feel hard to believe the Moon landing had actually happened. In place of Apollo we got the space shuttle, NASA’s glorified space truck. In place of the clear milestones of Apollo we got a space program whose strategy seemed akin to the missions of the shuttles themselves: go up, circle around for a while doing some things people weren’t really too clear about, then come back down. Oh, we dutifully put together our shuttle model kits and dreamed of seeing an actual launch, but something was missing.
The program to make a reusable space plane was first conceived even before that first Moon landing, when 2001: A Space Odyssey was in cinemas showing a vision of the near future in which a flight into Earth orbit was as routine as a flight for the opposite coast. To achieve such a vision, clearly something would have to change. An Apollo Moon rocket weighed slightly over 450,000 pounds without fuel, of which 12,250 pounds — less than 3 percent of the total — would make its way back to Earth at the end of a mission in the form of the non-reusable command module. The rest was cast away at various stages of the mission, making Apollo 11’s trip to the Moon, if one of — perhaps the — most inspiring voyages in human history, also one uniquely wasteful and completely unsustainable as a model for a future of routine space flight. After all, while NASA had been enjoying effectively blank checks from Congress through the Space Race, it didn’t take a Nostradamus to realize that that was likely to change in a hurry as soon as the Moon was achieved and American pride satisfied.
The budget cuts, when they came, were even more draconian than anticipated, costing NASA three of their planned ten Moon landings — another, Apollo 13, never made it there for other reasons — and forcing them to similarly scale back Skylab, the United States’s first (and to date, outside of the International Space Station, only) space station. The space shuttle survived only by making a series of painful compromises and an unholy alliance with the Air Force that would see it used for classified military missions — basically, to launch a new generation of bigger and heavier spy satellites — about 30 percent of the time. It was a partnership that neither NASA nor the Air Force really wanted. Robert Seamans, a former NASA administrator who had become Secretary of the Air Force by the time the deal was made, thought it was “asinine” to try to coordinate with a civilian agency and put astronauts’ lives at risk instead of just building a cheaper, simpler unmanned rocket for the purpose. But his and other practical voices were overwhelmed by those of the bureaucrats and the politicians.
The Air Force partnership had tragic consequences for the shuttle. In order to carry the big spy satellites the Air Force anticipated launching, the shuttle’s cargo bay had to be bigger and wider than it might otherwise have been, giving the shuttle its distinctively chunky, less than aerodynamically ideal shape. While occasionally useful, much of that space went empty much of the time. In case the Cold War should ever turn hot, the Air Force also demanded that it be possible to launch the shuttle from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, deploy a satellite, and land again back in California within one orbit without ever flying over Soviet territory, thus minimizing its exposure to space-borne or terrestrial weaponry. In aeronautics jargon, this necessitated that the shuttle have a considerable “downrange” or “crossrange” capability to glide off its normal orbital path, which in turn necessitated the shuttle’s delta-shaped wings that made it less than a pilot’s delight. John Young, the first man to pilot a shuttle to Earth from space, compared it to trying to fly a brick. Other pilots would call landing the shuttle a “controlled plummet,” while passengers compared it to a “dive-bomber run.” Worse, the final design generated far more heat on reentry than would have NASA’s earlier concepts, heat which engineers could combat only through the use of heavy, cludgy thermal-protection tiles that were a constant worry and labor sink throughout the program’s history. Each of the 35,000 tiles on the shuttle was a one-off piece that had to be custom manufactured, and every single one of them had to be carefully inspected by hand after every single launch in the hopes of averting disaster on the next mission. In spite of NASA’s best efforts, the disaster that was perhaps inevitable finally came on February 1, 2003, when the Columbia burned up on reentry. A more elegant shuttle could have minimized or even eliminated the tiles altogether, and saved the lives of seven astronauts.
Well before the Columbia and even the Challenger disasters, a feeling dogged engineers and astronauts alike that the shuttle just wasn’t as safe as it should be in still other ways. This was largely down to yet more concessions and compromises to budgetary realities. In place of a reusable booster section which would have blasted the shuttle into space and then glided — possibly with the aid of a human pilot — back down to a soft runway landing, the shuttle got a massive external fuel tank that would just be cast away, Apollo-style, and a pair of solid-fuel booster rockets that floated back via parachute to drop into the ocean. Essentially little more than hollow metal cylinders filled with propellant, the boosters could be reused, but were problematic in other ways. The shuttle was the first manned space vehicle ever to use solid rockets as a primary means of propulsion; they had heretofore been considered too dangerous because they can neither be throttled nor shut down entirely if something should go wrong during a burn. And, unlike earlier spacecraft, the shuttle was equipped with no emergency escape mechanism whatsoever for launches. Just as the heat tiles’ failings cost the last crew of the Columbia their lives, this lack may have cost the last crew of the Challenger, who appear to have been alive and conscious for at least some portion of their fatal fall back to Earth.
I don’t mean to say that the space shuttle wasn’t a crazily magnificent feat, nor to cast aspersions on the engineers who made it (usually) work in the face of all the cutbacks and compromises, nor to say that I wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to fly in it, safety questions and all. The shuttle certainly made for a cool sort of spacecraft, and an almost unbelievably comfortable one. If hardly the lap of luxury by earthbound standards, it was ridiculously roomy by comparison with the American spacecraft that preceded it and those (if any) that appear likely to follow it. Certainly the earliest astronauts in their “Spam in a can” capsules, who had to fight just to get a window, would have loved this craft that an astronaut got to actually fly.
Yet it’s hard for even the most generous observer to avoid noting just how massively the space-shuttle program overpromised and underdelivered. Originally projected as capable of launching again just one week after returning to Earth, the timetable was revised by the time of the Columbia‘s maiden flight in 1981 to one month. No shuttle ever came close to meeting even this timeframe. What with all of the repairs and inspections that were needed — not least to those pesky tiles — a shuttle that launched three times in a year was doing very well for itself. Nor did the huge savings supposedly enabled by this reusable spacecraft ever really materialize. The cost of each launch averaged over the life of the program ends up in the $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion range, at least ten times what it costs the Russians to put a three-man crew into space via their trusty old Soyuz space capsule and a conventional expendable rocket — and, while fourteen people died aboard the Challenger and Columbia, the Russians haven’t lost a cosmonaut since 1971. The shuttle lacked the romance of the Apollo program, but that was rather implicit in its purpose all along. More damningly, it failed in its goal of making spaceflight a safe matter of (relatively) inexpensive routine.
For much of the shuttle’s lifetime, NASA had trouble answering a fairly fundamental question: just what was it really good for? In the optimistic early days of the program they floated the idea that the shuttle might be a viable commercial proposition, an actual moneymaker for the agency. Other countries as well as private companies would pay NASA to truck their satellites into space. But this never materialized in any significant way; the shuttle was far, far too expensive to launch, not to mention too prone to unexpected delays and other problems, to compete with cheap, reliable unmanned rockets for commercial satellite launches. Twice West Germany paid NASA to launch the shuttle and give them free use of a Spacelab laboratory module installed in the cargo bay, but that was about as good as it would ever get for the shuttle as a commercial entity.
The shuttle also failed to live up to expectations as a tool for the military. Work on the planned alternative launch site for military missions at Vandenberg fell far behind schedule, and was finally abandoned in the wake of the Challenger disaster after over $4 billion had been spent. Of 27 military personnel recruited and trained to serve as astronauts on the shuttle, only 2 ever made it into space due to disorganization, turf wars, and poor inter-agency communication. Instead the military had to content itself with essentially sub-contracting its payloads out to NASA; the missions launched from the Kennedy Space Center and featured the usual rotating crew of civilian astronauts. These so-called “Department of Defense” missions, which numbered nine between 1985 and 1992, always felt a bit farcical. Their satellite payloads, despite usually being officially considered “classified,” were an open secret at best around the Kennedy Space Center; during the run-up to the second of these launches, to put a Defense Satellite Communications System into orbit in October of 1985, even reporters were walking around in “DSCS” tee-shirts. Never happy about being bound to the shuttle in the first place, the military started working in earnest to find an alternative following the Challenger disaster and the subsequent thirty-month hiatus in launches. That alternative turned out to be, inevitably, a cheaper and simpler unmanned rocket in the form of the Titan IV, latest in a venerable line of military and civilian workhorse launchers.
Lots of good science was done aboard the shuttle betwixt and between all these dashed expectations. Yet it was hard for even a space-loving kid, much less the general public, to get all that excited about experiments in applied plasma physics or materials science. After the novelty of the first few flights which proved the crazy contraption actually worked, it was just hard to get excited about the space shuttle in general. Only one tantalizing prospect seemed like it had a chance of changing all that: a permanent station in space, to be built, supplied, and maintained by the shuttle.
This idea of a space station had been bound up with that of the shuttle itself right from the beginning. After all, that inspiring 2001 future had featured both, hadn’t it? Without a space station, where was the space shuttle to actually go? (“Nowhere,” some would soon be saying.) In this, NASA’s original vision for the post-Apollo future, the space shuttle was to be just that, the shuttle bus ferrying people, materials, and equipment up to where the real action was happening. The shuttle wasn’t supposed to be exciting in itself. The real excitement would be happening up there, as a permanent settlement in space grew and developed and just maybe started thinking about building its own spacecraft right there in orbit to visit the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, perhaps Halley’s Comet (which was conveniently due for a visit in 1986). NASA anticipated building both parts of the program — the station and the ancillary shuttle to service it — in tandem. It was only when the budget cuts started to bite that they had to make the hard decision to go ahead with the space shuttle alone as a necessary precursor to the station. If the shuttle without the space station felt like a spacecraft without a purpose, that’s because it largely was.
And so NASA continually tried to find a way to get the space-station project out of stasis. During the mid-1970s some planners floated the intriguing idea that it might be possible to reuse the recently abandoned Skylab as the core of a more permanent station. Plans were mooted to send an early shuttle mission to Skylab with a rocket pack that could be used to push it out of its decaying orbit. Later missions would then have refurbished, repaired, and reactivated the station for habitation. Such plans were doomed, however, by delays in the shuttle program and by heavy sunspot activity that caused Skylab’s orbit to decay more quickly than anticipated. On July 11, 1979, Skylab crashed to Earth, raining debris down on Western Australia and causing NASA considerable embarrassment almost two more years before the eventual maiden flight of the Columbia.
The space-station project remained alive after that as a theoretically real thing, but generated little more than sketches and plans for which NASA could never seem to amass more than a fraction of the necessary funding. In his January 1984 State of the Union Address, President Reagan gave the project a badly needed shot in the arm via a would-be Kennedy-esque pronouncement.
Our next frontier [is] space. Nowhere do we so effectively demonstrate our technological leadership and ability to make life better on Earth. The Space Age is barely a quarter of a century old. But already we’ve pushed civilization forward with our advances in science and technology. Opportunities and jobs will multiply as we cross new thresholds of knowledge and reach deeper into the unknown.
Our progress in space — taking giant steps for all mankind — is a tribute to American teamwork and excellence. Our finest minds in government, industry, and academia have all pulled together. And we can be proud to say: We are first; we are the best; and we are so because we’re free.
America has always been greatest when we dared to be great. We can reach for greatness again. We can follow our dreams to distant stars, living and working in space for peaceful economic and scientific gain. Tonight, I am directing NASA to develop a permanently manned space station and to do it within a decade.
A space station will permit quantum leaps in our research in science, in communications, in metals, and in lifesaving medicines which could be manufactured only in space. We want our friends to help us meet these challenges and share in their benefits. NASA will invite other countries to participate so we can strengthen peace, build prosperity, and expand freedom for all who share our goals.
Couched in empty political tautologies as it is (“America has always been greatest when we dared to be great?”), that declaration did lead to some action: an official Space Station Program Office was established at the Johnson Space Center, strategic plans and blueprints were created with more enthusiasm. Any momentum was abruptly dissipated, however, by the Challenger disaster of January 28, 1986, an event which stopped American manned spaceflight in its tracks for two and half years of investigating and soul-searching. The shuttle program would never quite be the same again, while hopes for the space station were all but dashed. Reagan’s successor George Bush gave NASA another apparent boost in a major speech on July 20, 1989, refloating the old idea of the station, now to be named Freedom, as a base for launching future missions to the Moon and Mars. But that speech was just another in an emerging tradition of Presidents making grand pronouncements about space exploration that come to nothing. Just as had happened with the space shuttle, project Freedom was steadily scaled back and compromised in the face of dwindling budgets. In 1993, NASA’s independent Freedom was finally folded into the International Space Station, itself only a shadow of what NASA had originally planned for the station to be.
Even at that, though, the ISS finally provided the space shuttle with a purpose for which it seemed eminently suited. Beginning with the first ISS building block which the Endeavor carried into orbit in 1998, the aging shuttle fleet got from the station a new lease on life and a new sense of purpose; this was what the shuttle had been designed to do all those years ago. But then came the Columbia disaster of 2003, and all the old doubts resurfaced. It was almost with a sense of relief that NASA retired the shuttle at last in 2011, before any more lives were lost, even if doing so left them with no way to get people into space at all for what looks to be, at best, some years to come. It was hard to escape the feeling as the shuttle fleet was parceled out to museums that something had gone horribly wrong in the aftermath of Apollo, that a brilliant beginning had been squandered.
(A very good short summary of the shuttle program and its discontents is found in The Final Countdown by Pat Duggins. For more on the shuttle as a military vehicle, see this article at Smithsonian Air and Space. For more on the drawbacks of the shuttle’s design and the alternative once proposed by Max Faget, see this article at The Space Review.)