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Project: Space Station, Part 3: The Game

Project: Space Station

Stan Kent and his company AstroSpace may have exited the stage, but Avant-Garde Publishing, the new owners of HES, weren’t ready to give up on Project: Space Station. They reached out to Larry Holland to finish the game.

Holland shares with Stan Kent some impressive academic credentials, but he’s otherwise his polar opposite: a quiet just-get-the-job-done sort who has always avoided interviews and public exposure as much as possible. After earning a Bachelors in anthropology and archeaology from Cornell in 1979, he spent two years out in the field, working on digs in Africa, Europe, and India, before starting on a PhD at Berkeley. He settled there near Silicon Valley just as home computers were beginning to take off. He bought himself one of the first Commodore 64s, learned to program it, and was hired by HES in early 1983 to port action games like Super Zaxxon to it. He proved himself clever and reliable at the work, enough so that it was decided to dump Project: Space Station in his lap. It was just the chance Holland needed to show what he could really do. He pared down and refined AstroSpace’s shaggy mixture of advocacy and simulation, synthesizing a bunch of disparate pieces that looked more like engineering tools than pieces of a game into something that fit on a single disk side and was actually fun — and all without sacrificing the spirit of the original concept.

Project: Space Station starts you out on July 1, 1985, with two space shuttles, $10 billion(!), and high hopes. You’ll have to plan and build your station module by module, while also, this being the new era of space exploration, earning enough from commercial satellite launches and the results of the experiments you run up there to keep the project going. From the perspective of today especially, Project: Space Station is a simulation of an alternate history in which the American space station not only got funded and built in the 1980s but all of NASA’s manned-space initiatives — most notably the shuttle — lived up to all of their plans and hopes. In this timeline shuttle launches are truly routine. You can assign a couple of astronauts to a shuttle, launch it, bring them down a few days later after having delivered their payload, then launch them again a week later like the space truckers they are. In a small concession to reality, every ten launches or so the shuttle might lose some thermal tiles, thus needing an extra ten days or so for repairs, but the thing blessedly never blows up or burns up. You even have clients asking you to hoist satellites for them for $40 million to $70 million a shot, and the shuttle is cheap enough to operate that you can turn a profit on that; pack several satellites into the cargo bay and send ‘er up before your arch-rival, the European Space Agency with their boring unmanned rockets, steals the job from you.

Project: Space Station Project: Space Station

The first thing you notice when you first start Project: Space Station is how friendly it strains to be. I’ve made it a point to mention in the past how the innovations of the Lisa and Macintosh trickled down to cheaper machines in a way that gave the Apple computers influence far out of proportion to their actual sales numbers. That influence is all over Project: Space Station; this program simply couldn’t have existed a couple of years earlier. Everything is presented via icons and menus, navigable with the trusty joystick, while the space-station design screen has you sketching out your station by pulling modules into place with a “mouse” pointer. There’s even a — get this — context-sensitive help system to guide you through the game along with some canned tutorials to get you started. Hardware limitations inevitably restrict all of this in practice, but Project: Space Station feels like it was looking ahead about ten years into the future of software — or just looking very carefully at what was happening on the Mac, which largely amounted to the same thing.

The other obviously extraordinary thing about Project: Space Station is the fact that it runs entirely in real time. There were plenty of grand strategy games already available for machines like the Commodore 64; SSI alone had published dozens of them by 1985. But, true to that company’s roots in cardboard wargaming, most of these felt like tabletop rules sets that had been translated to the computer. Project: Space Station, however, is undeniably a born-and-bred computer game. There are no turns here. As you navigate through its screens the clock is constantly ticking, sometimes much to your consternation, as when you find yourself with research projects that need to be tweaked, a shuttle costing you money in space that needs to be landed ASAP, a precious satellite contract about to be awarded to those pesky Europeans, and another shuttle on the launch pad about to begin its countdown. Where do you begin? This game does nothing if not teach how to prioritize and how to manage your time. It also does a great job of not making you feel like you’re just tinkering with a dry spreadsheet, a syndrome that afflicted many other contemporary strategy games, a genre not exactly known for its graphics at a time when graphics in general were, shall we say, somewhat limited in comparison to today. Project: Space Station‘s graphics are actually quite nice for the era and the machine. But more importantly, you get to do such a variety of stuff in this game that it stays fresh and interesting for a surprisingly long time. When you’re tired of budgeting, there’s a shuttle to land via a real-time action game; when you’re tired of tweaking research projects, there’s that new laboratory module to move into place via an EVA.

So, let me walk you quickly through the different sections of the game, each of which is represented by and always accessible via its icon at the top of the screen.

Project: Space Station

The Plan section is the expected spreadsheet portion of the game, where you allocate funds to your different departments; buy the actual pieces of the station which you’ll be assembling, erector-set-like, in orbit; hire and fire astronauts; and provision and schedule shuttle launches. The most interesting and surprising part of this section is the astronaut-selection process. Each of the 32 possible astronauts has not only a professional specialty but also a personality. You have to consider whom you put together, because personality clashes can and will result if you put, say, a control freak together with a more laissez-faire kind of fellow. You’ll grow attached to some of these folks, and you’ll feel awful if you kill one or more of them by stranding a shuttle in orbit or botching an EVA.

Project: Space Station

Shuttle launches are affected by the weather; you’ll want to watch it carefully, and delay the launch if conditions are too unfavorable. Occasional mechanical snafus will also cause delays. Once the candle is lit, you take control, guiding the shuttle into orbit via a little action game that doubtless would have horrified the original Project: Space Station team with its lack of realism but is nevertheless a nice, not-too-difficult break from the strategic side of the game. If you stray too far off course, the shuttle will end up parked in orbit far from your station, making any EVA operations to expand or repair it much more time consuming and hazardous.

Project: Space Station

Shuttle landings also involve a simple action game. Rough landings can result in damage to the shuttle and extra repair time before it can fly again.

Project: Space Station

The Station section is there mainly to let you transfer astronauts between a shuttle in orbit, which can hold up to six people, and the station, whose capacity depends on how many crew modules you’ve bought, flown into orbit, and linked up, along with how much additional station infrastructure you’ve built to support the crew: power modules, radiator modules to disperse heat from the power modules, emergency modules to protect the astronauts from the occasional solar flares. And of course there’s not much point in having people at the station without something for them to do — meaning research projects, which require laboratory modules, which require yet more power modules, which… you get the picture.

Project: Space Station

The EVA section is the most fanciful part of the game. You venture outside shuttle and station using worker pods that have everything to do with 2001: A Space Odyssey and nothing to do with anything NASA was likely to come up with in the mid-1980s. You use the pods to construct the station, clear occasional debris that’s made its way into the station’s orbit, and launch commercial satellites; in the screenshot above, I’ve just attached a Payload Assist Module to a satellite to boost it into geosynchronous orbit. It’s very easy to run out of fuel or damage a pod so badly that it’s no longer functional. When that happens, you’d best have a backup pod that you can use to rescue the first before oxygen runs out. Once you’ve experienced a single time the excruciation of waiting for an astronaut to die from oxygen deprivation, unable to do anything about it, you’ll make sure you always do, believe me.

Project: Space Station Project: Space Station

Finally there’s the real heart of the game, the R & D section; after all, it does bill itself on the box as a “science simulation in space.” You can have up to four research projects running at once, assuming you have a station that can support them. While you receive a generous initial budget which you can supplement with satellite launches, your research should eventually become the heart of your revenue stream, as it is the heart of the game’s rhetorical argument for a space station as a fundamentally practical, commercial proposition that will eventually pay for itself and then some. Some projects can also yield practical improvements that will make your station run more efficiently. There are 40 impressively specific projects to choose from, divided into 9 categories: Agriculture, Astronomy, Bio Medical, Earth Watch, Geology, Materials Science, Meteorology, Physics, and Space Technology. It’s a big thrill when one yields a major breakthrough, enough so that you’ll probably be willing to ignore questions like why it’s necessary for people in space to examine the satellite imagery used to make a crop survey.

I don’t want to overstate the case for Project: Space Station. While thoroughly entertaining in its early stages, it does have a litany of little problems that are very likely to turn you off eventually. Many involve research. If you don’t happen to be watching an R & D project when a milestone is completed, it’s very easy to miss it; once replaced by something else, each R & D notification from each project is lost forever whether you’ve actually read it or not. That’s a very bad thing because each project yields exactly three milestones, after which it continues to suck money from your budget but doesn’t earn you much of anything. You’re thus often left uncertain whether a given project has run its course or a big windfall might be just around the corner. Even more infuriating is when a project starts saying a “key scientist” is needed for research to continue, without telling you whom or even what type of scientist you should be looking for. Gameplay then devolves into a tedious — and expensive — ferrying up of shuttleloads of possibilities and swapping them in one at a time, whilst you wonder what the hell sort of a research team would just tell you they feel the need for someone else but not whom or what for.

There are a number of other areas like this where the game’s ambitions outrun the capabilities of an 8-bit 64 K computer with a blocky low-resolution screen, where you feel like the game just isn’t telling you things you really ought to be able to know. Which research projects are expected to yield the most immediate returns for the early days of your station? When can you expect the next injection of financial assistance from Congress, and how much will it be? If a research team is suffering personality clashes, who exactly is having a problem with whom? And then there’s the goal problem, in the sense that there really isn’t one. The whole affair must presumably spin down into entropy at some point, when you’ve done all of the research projects and can no longer sustain your station, although it seems that can take a very long time; on his now-defunct blog dedicated to the game, Geof F. Morris posted screenshots of a station that lasted into 2007 in game years. I would venture to guess that Larry Holland was not so much unaware of these problems as just unable to push the hardware any further to correct them. Project: Space Station‘s sensibility is so modern that it can lead us to expect more from it than a Commodore 64 can deliver even under the control of a great programmer.

The game didn’t have much commercial luck. It was released at last in late 1985, some three years after Stan Kent had first conceived it and just a few months before the Challenger, which features as one of the two shuttles in the game, blew up on its way to orbit and suddenly made Project: Space Station‘s sunny optimism about a future in space feel tragically anachronistic. Avant-Garde Publishing went under shortly thereafter, marking the final end of the HES label. Yet Project: Space Station wasn’t dead yet. It ended up in the hands of Accolade, who rereleased it in 1987 as a member of their Advantage line of budget games, with some small but important changes: the Challenger was replaced by the Discovery, and the starting date was moved up to 1987. It made no great impact then either, and faded away quietly into commercial oblivion at last.

Surprisingly given its (lack of) commercial performance, Project: Space Station spawned a modest, oddly specific sub-genre of space-station-building games that also included Electronic Arts’s Earth Orbit Stations as well as Space MAX from the perfectly named Final Frontier Software and the more fanciful E.S.S. Mega from Coktel Visions, which replaced American with European boosterism. Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space, a management simulation of the Moon race, might also be considered something of a spiritual heir. All except that last share with the space shuttle itself today a certain melancholia. Thoroughly of their time as they are, they can be a bit disconcerting to us in ours, showing as they do ambitions never fulfilled, grand adventures never quite undertaken.

Project: Space Station is even more fascinating as a piece of history than many of the titles I write about, being a document of our sunniest expectations for a future in space prior to the Challenger explosion that changed everything. But even taken as just a game, it’s impressive and noble enough that I’d recommend you play it for a little while in spite of its issues. You can download the original Commodore 64 version from here if you like, or find its ports to the Apple II and IBM PC on other sites. Most games — even the equally-noble-in-its-own-way Ultima IV — treat life so cheaply, sending you off to slaughter in the name of becoming a hero. It’s nice to play a game that’s all about preserving the precious lives of your astronauts, that shows that a game can be absolutely without violence and still be riveting, that shows that heroism need not come with a body count. Would that ludic history had many more like it.

(Larry Holland — who in later years tended to be billed as Lawrence Holland — has generally managed to avoid talking much about his personal life and background as well as his early career. The best print source is a profile in the spring 1992 issue of LucasArts’s newsletter The Adventurer. While I generally try to avoid wikis or overly fannish sources, his page on Wookiepedia is also very complete and appears to collect just about everything we know about him, scanty though it may be.)

 
 

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Project: Space Station, Part 2: The Dream

A proposed NASA space station with shuttle docked

As long as there has been a space program, there have been space-program boosters. With budgets dwindling and interest waning after Apollo 11, however, NASA suddenly needed them as never before. Various people started various organizations to educate, to advocate, to lobby, sometimes even to agitate the case for space. Briefly among the more prominent of these folks during the early 1980s was Stan Kent, a precocious English rocket scientist still in his mid-twenties.

Growing up working class in the industrial city of Wolverhampton in the West Midlands, Kent wrote to NASA asking for more information about the Titan rocket used to hoist the Gemini space capsules into orbit. Much to his family’s surprise, they sent it, cementing a passionate love affair with space and with NASA. (NASA was notably wonderful about this sort of thing in their 1960s heyday; many a starry-eyed kid all over the world received a similar thick envelope filled with pictures and articles for no charge but the cost to mail a letter to Houston.) At age 15, he demonstrated for the first time what would prove to be a lifelong knack for self-promotion. Determined to find a way to study rocket science, he entered a contest to design a functioning powered aircraft which won him national attention inside his home country and was enough to recommend him to a wealthy philanthropist in Santa Clara, California, named Austen Warburton. With Warburton’s assistance, he came to the United States to attend university at the age of 17, and graduated from Stanford with a Masters in aerospace engineering in 1978 at the age of 22, winning the prestigious Herman Oberth Gold Medal in the process for his paper on “The Space Shuttle External Tank as a Reentry Module.” He was soon working for Boeing and later Lockheed, and doing consulting jobs for NASA itself.

Kent’s public space advocacy began in 1979, when he got wind of proposals within NASA to stop monitoring the two Viking probes that had landed on Mars three years before simply because they couldn’t afford to continue to pay people to do it. He organized a Viking “charity” which presented NASA administrator Robert A. Frosch with a check for $60,000 to go toward continued monitoring on January 7, 1981. The sum would increase to over $100,000 in the months to come, then increase dramatically again when he organized with former astronaut and Moon-walker Pete Conrad to sell off recovered pieces from the old Skylab space station by way of further fundraising. (By that time Viking 2 had already gone offline due to a failed battery. Viking 1 would continue to transmit — and, yes, to be monitored — until a botched software update took it offline on November 11, 1982.)

Under the aegis of Delta Vee, the nonprofit corporation he set up with the assistance of Warburton and some aerospace colleagues, Kent stumped the country on behalf of space, appearing on television, on radio, in Omni magazine (with whom he did much of his advocacy in partnership), and in countless newspaper articles. He worked to set up a nationwide network of “neighborhood space centers” — “the McDonald’s of space” — and gave speeches to anyone who would have him. Far from your stereotypical rocket scientist, Kent made space cool in what the L.A. Times described as his “new-wave haircut, beige suit, purple shirt, and bright red tie”; he looked like “he might be a member of a rock band.” In September of 1981 he testified before the Congressional Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications at the age of just 25. His pitch emphasized a new, more pragmatic take on space very much in keeping with the dawning hyper-capitalism of the 1980s. The NASA that Kent described was fundamentally a practical enterprise whose work would bring scientific and technological breakthroughs to make life better for ordinary Americans, along with economic benefits to the country; Kent was fond of citing such dubious surveys as the one done in 1972 by Chase Econometrics, which claimed that every $1 spent on the space industry injected $10 to $15 back into the economy within five to seven years.

In that spirit, he and his partners soon set up a second, for-profit corporation they named AstroSpace. Its initial purpose was to research and hopefully to exploit a pet idea Kent called SOLARES: “Space Orbiting Light Augmentation Reflector Energy System,” a way to beam concentrated sunlight down to Earth for use as energy. In the meantime, though, the home-computer boom was happening. Soon Kent hit upon a more earthbound project for his company: to create a computer game that simulated the building and operation of the permanent space station that he and so many others felt represented the next logical steppingstone to Mars and beyond. By 1983 he had sold the idea to Jay Balakrishnan of Human Engineered Software, who loved big, high-concept edutainment titles.

Project: Space Station was certainly that. The game that Kent and Balakrishnan described (separately) to InfoWorld magazine in 1984 — it was quite obviously the HES product that the latter was most excited to discuss — filled nine disk sides. Balakrishnan:

It’s an absolute simulation. First of all, to start you have to go to Congress to requisition a budget. You have to choose your scientific team that will comprise the space mission. There’s a book, almost like a story, with different fictitious characters that you can select your team from. There’s a whole page of biographical data on each person — where they went to school, whom they married, whether they’re stable individuals or not, and so on. Then you must decide on what kind of industry you’re going to develop in space — for example, if you want to make ball bearings or crystals or whatever.

Then you design your space station. Each one is a different module. You might build a plant area, living quarters, etc. Then you run a simulation. Now the plant starts working, giving oxygen and life, and the industry starts working. You see that it’s a viable operation. Finally, after you have overseen everything, you resign your post. You were the director of a successful space industry, so you get your gold watch at the end. Of course, during the game all kinds of random things can occur. Maybe you’ve gone over budget. So you go back to Washington, D.C., and appeal for a higher requisition to keep the business going.

Together Kent and Balakrishnan organized an “advisory” board for the project that consisted of Kent’s colleagues in the aerospace industry along with the high-school students who would be the game’s most obvious target market, all “overseen” by the hapless, computer-illiterate Leonard Nimoy (who must have been wondering by this point why he’d signed on with HES at all).

I find this original conception of Project: Space Station fascinating as an early example of a computer game with an explicit real-world rhetorical goal. One could call it without hyperbole propaganda, a political advertisement for a NASA space station. The justifications it makes for such a project are the same as those Kent was making in his speeches, and, indeed, those that Ronald Reagan more obliquely referred to in his State of the Union address of 1984. In Project: Space Station, players would enjoy success not so much in the form of exploratory firsts or pure scientific breakthroughs but rather that of crop surveys that would make American agriculture more efficient, new semiconductors that would make American computers more powerful, lasers that would revolutionize American manufacturing, even the proverbial cure for cancer. If it wasn’t always entirely clear why some of these research projects had to be done by people in space, well, that was a problem Project: Space Station shared with some of Kent’s speeches.

AstroSpace's original Project: Space Station

AstroSpace's original Project: Space Station AstroSpace's original Project: Space Station

AstroSpace's original Project: Space Station

This huge game being developed by a bunch of aerospace people with no experience in game development was of course all but doomed to failure. Kent and company did manage to get far enough to produce some intriguing screenshots that, as published in the April 16, 1984, issue of InfoWorld, stand today as the only tangible artifacts left to us from this version of Project: Space Station. The whole thing collapsed by the end of that year, with HES going bankrupt and being absorbed by Avant-Garde Publishing and AstroSpace coming to an abrupt end along with Kent’s time as a space advocate. He made an extreme and kind of bizarre change in life direction, opening back in Santa Clara a night club called One Step Beyond that became a regular stop on the college-rock touring circuit for some years. Today he writes erotica, hosts naughty events at a sex shop, and is something of a fixture of the Southern California nightlife scene while apparently still keeping his hand in from time to time as a rocket scientist. In 2012 he consulted on the perfect combination of all his interests: a proposed Playboy space station.

(Stan Kent’s space advocacy is chronicled in the August 3 1980 Washington Post, the January 8 1981 and November 12 1982 New York Times, and the July 22 1982 L.A. Times. The two InfoWorld articles that describe Kent’s original vision for Project: Space Station are in the April 16 1984 and September 3 1984 issues. A transcript of his testimony before Congress is contained in the government publication “Future Space Programs, 1981: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications of the Committee on Science and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives, Ninety-seventh Congress, First Session, September, 21, 22, 23, 1981.” The space-advocacy movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s and the place of a space station within are treated at length in Reaching for the High Frontier by Michael A. G. Michaud, available online from The National Space Society.)

 

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Project: Space Station, Part 1: The Reality

Space Shuttle

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.

An early space-shuttle concept which used short, straight wings and a different reentry profile to reduce heat buildup.

An early space-shuttle concept which used short, straight wings and a different reentry profile to reduce heat buildup.

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.

Artist's conception of the shuttle servicing an American space station.

Artist’s conception of the shuttle servicing an American space station.

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.)

 

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