Political History of the Space Shuttle

This is a lecture 4 of the Systems Engineering curriculum from MIT and edX, Engineering the Space Shuttle.

Links to the lectures:

  1. Origins of the Space Shuttle or The Making of a new Program
  2. Development of the Space Shuttle
  3. Bureaucratic Space War
  4. Political History of the Space Shuttle
  5. Space Shuttle Orbiter Subsystems

This lecture gives incredible insight into what goes into political and management decisions that define the future of all people on this planet. Breakthrough technologies like electrification, telegraph, computers, internet, and atomic energy – cannot be created without political support and significant investment and risk. However, political and management support is not achieved based on logical technical arguments, rather it is achieved on satisfying individual preferences and interests.

Again and again in this lecture John Logsdon stresses that the shuttle was approved primarily to maintain national image of the United States and to win the next election. The main product was to create heroes, those were the people flying in the shuttle.

Good engineers first of all must become people’s leaders and great communicators. A scientist working on atomic project wrote once:

When explaining a hard technical or scientific problem to management or the political leadership, you do not have to be correct, you have to be understood.

If you want to make a difference in life and create breakthrough technologies, first of all you need to learn human psychology and develop leadership skills. Your engineering and technical skills are secondary.

The lecture can be summarized in the following paragraph:

The reasons for approving the shuttle had very little to do with the specific technical characteristics of the system. It is my argument that the main reasons were national prestige, national image, and aerospace employment rather than the actual performance characteristics of a particular configuration, as long as the shuttle could be developed within a 5 billion dollar per year peak funding profile and as long as the shuttle could do things for the Department of Defense that made it useful to both civilian and military users.

Below I copied the most remarkable and important quotes from the lecture.

That was the political environment at the time, it wasn’t the shuttle or something else, it was the shuttle or nothing.

We are being driven, by the uncontrollable items, to spend more and more on programs that offer no real hope for the future: Model Cities, OEO, Welfare, interest on the National Debt, unemployment compensation, Medicare, etc. Of course, some of these have to be continued, in one form or another, but essentially they are programs, not of our choice, designed to repair mistakes of the past, not of our making. Stopping Apollo and not starting new programs would be confirming, in some respects, a belief that I fear is gaining credence at home and abroad: That our best years are behind us, that we are turning inward, reducing our defense commitments, and voluntarily starting to give up our super-power status, and our desire to maintain our world superiority. America should be able to afford something besides increased welfare, programs to repair our cities, or Appalachian relief and the like.

That link of human spaceflight to national image of the United States plus the employment impacts in the 72 election, that were the fundamental reasons for going ahead with the shuttle.

German experimenters were the first to examine seriously what developing a reusable launch vehicle (RLV) might require. During the 1920s and 1930s, they argued the advantages and disadvantages of space transportation, but were far from having the technology to realize their dreams. Austrian engineer Eugen M. Sänger, for example, envisioned a rocket-powered bomber that would be launched from a rocket sled in Germany at a staging velocity of Mach 1.5. It would burn rocket fuel to propel it to Mach 10, then skip across the upper reaches of the atmosphere and drop a bomb on New York City.

You would do well not to look too closely at what goes into the production of sausages or into Congressional legislation

Just to give you a sense of this kind of grandiose thinking at that point, you take the space-based station and other stuff in this maximum program and you see talking total Space Shuttle flights a year, peaking in 1983 with 66 flights a year, including 34 to service six-man base and a six-man orbiting station at the moon.

When NASA first presented its post-Apollo plans to the Congress in the spring of 1970, the program was called ‘Station Shuttle’, and they were coupled at the hip, and so it was the integral justification from the NASA side

And here we are 35 years later, and the major issue in getting started on exploration remains: What do you do with the Shuttle? What do you do with the station? They are now seen as mortgages that have to be paid or obstacles to the next systems or however you want to characterize it.

NASA was at the other end, obviously, because by now, in 1971, the Shuttle was a survival project for NASA as it viewed itself as a large organization built around human space flight in developing large scale systems.

One of these of the three firms, and all evidence points to North American Rockwell, had a relationship with the OMB where they were feeding OMB questions that would embarrass their competitors or result in not doing the shuttle at all and continuing on with the existing systems, where North American Rockwell was building at least the Apollo Command Module

They were two Austrian somewhat crazy economists. Again, that may be the same thing, crazy and the economist. . . . This is economist designing technical systems! Another thing that would make me nervous. . . . Bush 41 later used the term, which I think is properly applied to this analysis, calling in voodoo economics.

NASA made its last best case in the memo to the White House on November 22nd 1971. Number one, the US has to stay in the human space flight business. It’s not subject to analysis, that’s a belief!

This was 1971, the supersonic transport had been canceled, defense spending on Vietnam was ramping down, and NASA had no new program. . . . they sat down in the White House and mapped NASA jobs in key election states and said: Hey, if we want to win the 1972 election . . . So, that the political people were worried about winning places like California and Florida and saw in the shuttle program a way of providing the indication of future jobs in key electoral states. Some of the people I have talked to over the years say that at least for the political levels of the White House that was the major reason for going ahead with this program, to have aerospace employment impacts for the 1972 election.


Professor John Logsdon. George Washington University

Introduction by Jeff Hoffman

This is the final lecture about the history of the Space Shuttle, how the Shuttle was conceived and the various factors that influenced its final design. In the first lecture you heard Dale Myers talk about the origins of the Space Shuttle from the point of view of a NASA insider. Now you’ll hear Dr. John Logsdon discuss this from an independent outsider’s point of view. Professor Logsdon is a world recognized authority on space policy. In the original 2005 lecture I give a fairly detailed introduction for John which I won’t repeat here. In the time since 2005 John has retired as the head of Space Policy Institute at George Washington University but he still actively follows space policy issues and he remains one of the go-to people whom the media call on when space policy issues arise.

You’ll have another chance to hear Professor Logsdon at the very end of this course when we present a panel discussion, held in early 2018, with myself, John and flight director Wayne Hale, in which we look back at the Space Shuttle from the 2018 perspective. In this current lecture professor Logsdon emphasizes the political reasons why President Richard Nixon gave final approval for NASA to proceed with the Space Shuttle program despite significant opposition within the government’s Office of Management and Budget.

There’s an old saying that “You would do well not to look too closely at what goes into the production of sausages or into Congressional legislation” – and I think that this warning applies to the political considerations that led to the approval of the Shuttle. I hope that what you hear from John doesn’t lead to a cynicism about the Shuttle. Remember, when you’re proposing to spend billions of dollars of public money, politics has to play an important role, and job creation has always been and continues to be an important factor in political decision-making, especially concerning space activities.

Once you’ve finished this lecture, you should be ready to answer a set of questions to test and cement your knowledge about the history of how the Space Shuttle came into existence. Those of you who signed up to receive certificates of completion for this course, need to answer these questions, the questions are not technical and answering them will not take a lot of time. I strongly recommend that all of you sign up for certificates but even those who don’t will benefit from looking at the questions and just seeing how much of the lectures you actually remember.

As a final comment on these lectures about the economic and political background of the Space Shuttle please remember, that for all of the controversy and compromise that went into the original design, once the Space Shuttle was approved, NASA and the aerospace industry still had to build it and make it work. Starting with Lecture Five, this will be the topic of the next series of lectures on the design and operation of the various Space Shuttle subsystems.

But for now, let’s listen to John Logan’s perspective on the political considerations that were so critical in the final decision to go ahead with building the world’s first reusable Spacecraft.


Introduction by Jeff Hoffman (2005)

We are very fortunate that Professor John Logsdon who is the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, which is part of their Elliot School of International Affairs, is going to talk to us today.

This is going to be the last lecture on the policy which led to the original requirements on the Space Shuttle; and as we’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, when you’re looking at systems engineering of any large scale project, well, anything really, it’s absolutely critical to get the requirements straight; and we can’t really understand a lot of the technical issues with the Space Shuttle and the challenges that we had to face without understanding how it got to be that way.

Professor Logsdon has written numerous articles about the Shuttle. The work where he really achieved a national recognition was his book on the Apollo program, the decision to go to the Moon, which was a History of the Apollo program.

Professor Logsdon is a recognized expert in Space policy. You will see numerous articles by him in Space News, and he is often the first person who gets called by the New York Times or National Public Radio, one of the other media for comments on various developments in Space.


Political History of the Space Shuttle

What I’m going to do this morning is somewhat different from what you just have announced, in the sense that I’m not going to talk about the political history of the Shuttle requirements as much as the political history of the Shuttle and how the requirements interacted with that political history. So, maybe the same thing, but I’m not a technical person.

Next Tuesday is the hundredth anniversary of the publication of the equation E equals MC squared. My degree in Physics is almost before that. Not quite.

One of the things we’ve been doing at George Washington University seemingly forever, started in 1990, is a project to collect the seminal documents that defined the evolution of the US Space program.

Exploring the Unknown NASA History Series Publications

There are now seven volumes, called ‘Exploring the Unknown’ printed, and there’s one more to follow.

The volume 4 deals with access to space and one section of it deals with the Shuttle:

Chapter Two

Developing the Space Shuttle1

by Ray A. Williamson

Early Concepts of a Reusable Launch Vehicle

Spaceflight advocates have long dreamed of building reusable launchers because they offer relative operational simplicity and the potential of significantly reduced costs compared to expendable vehicles. However, they are also technologically much more difficult to achieve. German experimenters were the first to examine seriously what developing a reusable launch vehicle (RLV) might require. During the 1920s and 1930s, they argued the advantages and disadvantages of space transportation, but were far from having the technology to realize their dreams. Austrian engineer Eugen M. Sänger, for example, envisioned a rocket-powered bomber that would be launched from a rocket sled in Germany at a staging velocity of Mach 1.5. It would burn rocket fuel to propel it to Mach 10, then skip across the upper reaches of the atmosphere and drop a bomb on New York City. The high-flying vehicle would then continue to skip across the top of the atmosphere to land again near its takeoff point. This idea was never picked up by the German air force, but Sänger revived a civilian version of it after the war. In 1963, he proposed a two-stage vehicle in which a large aircraft booster would accelerate to supersonic speeds, carrying a relatively small RLV to high altitudes, where it would be launched into low-Earth orbit (LEO).2 Although his idea was advocated by Eurospace, the industrial consortium formed to promote the development of space activities, it was not seriously pursued until the mid-1980s, when Dornier and other German companies began to explore the concept, only to drop it later as too expensive and technically risky.3

As Sänger’s concepts clearly illustrated, technological developments from several different disciplines must converge to make an RLV feasible. Successful launch and return depends on all systems functioning in concert during the entire mission cycle as they pass through different environmental regimes. In the launch phase, the reusable vehicle and its booster, with any associated propellant tankage, must operate as a powerful rocket, lifting hundreds of thousands of pounds into LEO. While in space, the reusable vehicle functions as a maneuverable orbiting spacecraft in which aerodynamic considerations are moot. However, when reentering the atmosphere and slowing to subsonic speeds, aerodynamics and heat management quickly become extremely important, because the reusable vehicle must fly through the atmosphere, first at hypersonic speeds (greater than Mach 5), then at supersonic and, ultimately, at subsonic speeds. Finally, the vehicle must fly or glide to a safe landing. Because RLVs must be capable of flying again and again, and because they must reenter the atmosphere, they are subject to stresses on the materials and overall structure that expendable launchers do not have to withstand. Hence, building an RLV imposes extraordinarily high demands on materials and systems.

1. In addition to the discussion of the Space Shuttle in this essay and the documents associated with it, there are several other places in the Exploring the Unknown series in which substantial attention is paid to issues related to the Space Shuttle, with related documents included. In particular, Chapter Three of Volume I discusses the presidential decision to develop the Space Shuttle; see John M. Logsdon, gen. ed., with Linda J. Lear, Jannelle Warren-Findley, Ray A. Williamson, and Dwayne A. Day, Exploring the Unknown: Selected Documents in the History of the U.S. Civil Space Program, Volume I, Organizing for Exploration (Washington, DC: NASA SP-4407, 1995), 1: 386–88, 546–59. Chapter Two of Volume II discusses NASA-Department of Defense relations with respect to the Shuttle; see John M. Logsdon, gen. ed., with Dwayne A. Day and Roger D. Launius, Exploring the Unknown: Selected Documents in the History of the U.S. Civil Space Program, Volume II: External Relationships (Washington, DC: NASA SP-4407, 1996), 2: 263–69, 364–410. Chapter Three of this volume discusses issues associated with the use of the Shuttle to launch commercial and foreign payloads. Future volumes will contain discussion and documents related to the use of the Shuttle as an orbital research facility.

2. Irene Sänger-Bredt, “The Silver Bird Story, a Memoir,” in R. Cargill Hall, ed., Essays on the History of Rocketry and Astronautics: Proceedings of the Third through the Sixth History Symposia of the International Academy of Astronautics, Vol. 1 (Washington, DC: NASA, 1977), pp. 195–228. (Reprinted as Vol. 7-1, American Astronautical Society History Series, 1986.)

3. Helmut Muller, “The High-Flying Legacy of Eugen Sänger,” Air & Space, August/September 1987, pp. 92–99.

What I’ve done is build this talk around the original documents that trace the policy history of the Shuttle and I’ll use them kind of as a back drop.

As NASA approached the end of the Apollo program, it’s leaders or at least some of them were thinking about what followed Apollo and at that time the head of the Manned Space Flight in the late 60s, a very creative character named George Mueller, who is still active and is one of the founders and moving spirits in a thing called Kistler Aerospace that wants to provide alternative commercial access to Space.

Address by

Dr. George E. Mueller
Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight
National Aeronautics and Space Administration

before the

British Interplanetary Society
University College
London, England

August l(J, 1968 7:00 p.m.

AS DELIVERED

Mueller gave this talk in August of 1968. As far as anyone can tell, it’s the first use of the term ‘efficient Earth to orbit space transportation system – an economical space shuttle’.

Document II-3

Document title: Dr. George E. Mueller, Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight, NASA, “Honorary Fellowship Acceptance,” address delivered to the British Interplanetary Society, University College, London, England, August 10, 1968, pp. 1–10, 16–17.

Source: NASA Historical Reference Collection, NASA History Office, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC.

This 1968 speech to the British Interplanetary Society by NASA’s Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight, George Mueller, was one of the first attempts to set out a comprehensive vision for the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program after Apollo. Central to making his vision feasible, said Mueller, was a reusable Earth-to-orbit launch system—a “space shuttle.” This was one of the first public uses of the term by a senior NASA official. The twelve figures referred to in this speech are omitted here.

Extract:

Essential to the continuous operation of the space station will be the capability to resupply expendables as well as to change and/or augment crews and laboratory equipment. A basic consideration is the relationship between the original cost of the space station and the costs accumulated by resupply support operations. Our [5] studies show that using today’s hardware, the resupply for a single three-man orbital space station for a year equals the original cost of the space station. This type of cost analysis has led us to carefully evaluate concepts for more efficient resupply systems.

Manufacturing in space, fuel and supply storage for deep space operations, life support for crews on board space stations, require not tons, but thousands of tons of material, to be shuttled in and out of space.

Therefore, there is a real requirement for an efficient earth to orbit transportation system – an economical space shuttle. This need has been under study by long range aerospace planners for over a decade. The objective of these investigations is to find a design that will yield an order of magnitude reduction in operating costs. The elements to which we must look for cost reductions are, aircraft manufacturing techniques, aircraft development test procedures, maximum flexibility for multiple use and volume production, long life components for repetitive reuse, and airline maintenance and handling procedures for economy of operation.

The desirable operating characteristics of a space shuttle which would satisfy the needs which have been described are listed on this chart, (Figure 5). The shuttle ideally would be able to operate in a mode similar to that of large commercial air transports and be compatible with the environment of major airports.

[6] It would take off vertically, as shown in this concept (Figure 6), from a small pad at an airbase or major airport.

Crews similar in size to those required for intercontinental jet dispatch would service the craft for launch.

The space shuttle, upon its return from orbit, would reenter the atmosphere and glide to a runway landing, with practically no noise. The landing would be completely automated with prime dependence upon the spacecraft guidance system but with ground control backup.

Cryogenic tank trucks containing liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen would refuel the craft on its pad. Seven years of accident-free experience in handling cryogenic fuels have advanced this technology to practical safety. These non-toxic fuels are 10 times more powerful than gasoline and have demonstrated their efficiency.

The cockpit of the space shuttle would be similar to that of the large intercontinental jet aircraft, containing all instrumentation essential to complete on-board checkout, as shown in this illustration (Figure 7).

Programmable automatic equipment would perform the systems and subsystems tests necessary for take-off and flight support. Malfunction detection would be automatic.

I assume that continental and intercontinental air traffic control centers will have been established so that the space shuttle could take its place in the air traffic and space traffic patterns under these controls.

[7] Interestingly enough, the basic design described above [for] an economical space shuttle from earth to orbit could also be applied to terrestrial point-to-point transport.

If the space shuttle were used as a global transport for point-to-point traffic in military, commercial or cargo service, its safety and comfort standards could be comparable to those of large transport jets.

The economics of the space shuttle must be evaluated in comparison with today’s means of accomplishing similar missions.

Until now it has been essential to optimize space transportation systems on the basis of performance. Only a decade ago, technology was pushed to its limits in order to barely achieve orbital flight. Our first Vanguards and Explorers cost in the order of $1,000,000 per pound of payload to fly into space. The next chart (Figure 8) illustrates the economy achieved by the Saturn V, which delivers payload at a cost roughly 3 orders of magnitude less than Explorer I. Extrapolating, we could reasonably expect a cost reduction of at least another order of magnitude, given the will to accomplish it, with present techniques.

If, however, the development of a space shuttle such as I have described were implemented, it seems that a reduction in cost by two orders of magnitude is achievable.

[8] Any significant technological breakthrough in such areas as propulsion and structures would accelerate this process.

The use of a space shuttle for point-to-point global transportation would depend upon its cost equivalence to the then operational supersonic or hypersonic equipment in commercial use.

Current aerospace contractor studies show that, if the cost of rocket engine replacement parts can be reduced to the current level of those of jet engines, the total operating cost of a space shuttle flying a nominal route (New York to Tokyo or 5,850 nautical miles) would be 10.6 cents per passenger nautical mile. Comparison cost rates and times for cruise aircraft and space shuttle are shown in the next table (Figure 9). Although more than supersonic transport, it is less than hypersonic transport even now.

Turning now to the basic elements on which such a cost reduction depends, I believe that a pattern exists in aviation practice for decreasing both development and operating costs of space vehicles. Reliability and hardware maturity are achieved in aircraft flight testing by incrementally expanding the test regime until the full operational envelope is covered, with full recovery of the article for analysis and correction of deficiences [sic] after each flight.

Mueller’s concept of the Shuttle, which had a lot of influence in one strain of its development, was rather grandiose in character, especially the notion that the Shuttle would operate in a mode similar to large commercial air transports and work in and out of major airports. Landing would be completely automated with prime dependence upon spacecraft guidance with ground control backup. Then he says, basic design could be applied to point-to-point transport if the space shuttle were used as a global transport. Safety and comfort standards could be comparable to those of a large transport jet.

It was probably not like business class in a 747, right? Maybe like the Concord. But that’s certainly what they were talking about with the National Aerospace. If you can develop a plane that can take off from a runway and fly into orbit, and you remember when we talked about the rocket equation we’ve tried to make it clear why this is such a difficult thing to do, but if you could do it then you don’t have to go all the way to orbit, you could just go halfway to orbit and land in Tokyo after you take off from London or New York.

This is kind of Holy Grail reduction in cost by two orders of magnitude. That was the mental set of the guy who I would call at least the policy father of the Space Shuttle, is that you could have an aircraft-like operations, two orders of magnitude, of the level of safety and reliability and operability that it could even be used for commercial transport.

As you know, NASA was successful in carrying out its mission of getting humans to the moon in July of 1969. When Nixon came into office in January of 1969, he had a transition task force on Space and that task force told him that there was a need for some decisions on what to do after Apollo. With the focus on getting Apollo done the then head of NASA Jim Webb didn’t like long-range planning, he wanted the politicians to tell NASA what to do rather than the other way around. NASA was woefully unprepared for what it wanted to do after Apollo and the country hadn’t discussed it at all.

Nixon appointed a so-called Space Task Group and asked it for definitive recommendations on the post-Apollo space program. That task group was chaired by the vice president who traditionally is the head of the space portfolio in most administrations. At that time that was a well-known ‘space expert’ named Spiro Agnew. You’re all too young for that to even be a joke. He was later caught taking bribes in the White House and resigned in shame. He’s a typical Maryland politician, which means corrupt. That’s my home state.

The Space Task Group was captured by NASA, by its then administrator Tom Paine who was a very bravado character, he told NASA that they should be swashbuckling, and by Mueller who had developed a long range plan for NASA, and ultimately by Wernher von Braun who was brought up to Washington to add the charisma to the plan. The report that was submitted by the Space Task Group to the White House two months after Apollo 11 had these recommendations for what NASA should do.

This was what NASA really wanted to do (see the first, highlighted in yellow column): Mars starting in 1981, hundred person space base in the mid-eighties. Program that was ultimately recommended was program 2 (red highlight in the table) which had Mars in 1986, and you see these comparative accomplishments. And in here was an earth to orbit space shuttle for some time between 75 and 77. That’s where the Shuttle entered into National Policy, it was in the country’s reaction to NASA’s post-Apollo proposal.

Again, just to give you a sense of this kind of thinking at that point, you take the space-based station and other stuff in this maximum program and you see talking total Space Shuttle flights a year, peaking in 1983 with 66 flights a year, including 34 to service six-man base and a six-man orbiting station at the moon. So, truly grandiose ideas of what might be done.

Q. ‒ To what extent was the space station’s existence support the shuttle back in the 1970s?

The space station was a reason for the existence of the shuttle. At this point the reason to have a space shuttle was to take crew and supplies to the station. Period! At least in the core NASA planners’ ideas. You had people like Mueller who left the agency in September 1969 with these very grandiose ideas, he was succeeded by Dale Myers who I understand has already talked to you. And Myers was very instrumental in the negotiations that led ultimately to the decision to go forward with the station.

I remember the first time I heard the word Space Shuttle. As Jeff said, I’ve been at this a long time. I finished the book, ‘The Decision to go to the Moon’, published by MIT Press but out of print. In late 1968 we tried to market it as a paper back, going to put a rocket and a girl on the cover and the inside story of why Kennedy sent us to the moon. Didn’t work. I had footnotes and all, because it was a PhD dissertation. And talking to an audience like this, you understand what a PhD dissertation looks like.

I went down to my first launch, which was Apollo 11, and for some reason I did not rent a car, so I was figuring on hitching a ride from Orlando to Coco Beach, and the person that I ended up driving with was a man named LeRoy Day. LeRoy was at that time running the Phase A studies of the Space show, and he told me what he was doing. It was the first time I had heard of the concept.

When NASA first presented its post-Apollo plans to the Congress in the spring of 1970, the program was called ‘Station Shuttle’, and they were coupled at the hip, and so it was the integral justification from the NASA side, although people like Dale Myers were already negotiating with their counterparts in the Department of Defense for potential military use of the system.

Almost clearly, this table 4-3 above is before any military involvement or really commercial involvement came in, because when you look, there’s only two unmanned satellites per year. There was not much consideration of other users of the Shuttle at this point because this was enough to justify the investment in a new vehicle. Again, the logic was that you could put these things in space like space stations, but the logistics costs would drive you crazy if you were doing it with expendables. And so, the only way to operate a permanent outpost in orbit or beyond was to have reusability in the supply system and in the transportation system. That was in essence to the number one requirement.

The Nixon Space Doctrine

“We must think of (space activities) as part of a continuing process … and not as a series of separate leaps, each requiring a massive concentration of energy. Space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities. … What we do is space from here on in must become a normal and regular part of our national life and must therefore be planned in conjunction with all of the other undertakings which are important to us.”

‒ President Richard M. Nixon, March 7, 1970

In reality, the Nixon administration was not having any of this. Nixon made a statement in response to the Space Task Group report. You can see that it says March of 1970, so it took him six months to respond to the report. Meanwhile, NASA’S budget was getting chopped to pieces.

It was essentially a fundamental 180-degree change in policy from Apollo. Apollo was “a series of separate leaps requiring a massive concentration of energy.” “Space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities.” “Must be planned in conjunction with all the other undertakings.” In other words, space has to be compared in its priority to all the other demands on the federal budget. And at least for the Nixon administration, but in reality for every administration since, the answer has been essentially the same.

NASA Budget as a Percentage of Federal Budget

When Kennedy made his speech saying we should go to the moon in 1961, the NASA budget jumped 89% the first year, 101% the second year, 38% the third year, and it’s like a roller coaster that gets to the top of the first hill, and the program has been living on that momentum ever since. And you came down that hill very quickly.

By the 1973 or 1974 NASA was down below one percent of the federal budget. So it’s kind of a constant measure, as the budget goes up, NASA gets essentially the same share of the federal budget, about 7/10 or 8/10 of 1 percent, and has gotten that share for 35 years.

I would say, this is the way the democratic political system makes policy choice, it is through budget allocations. And if you have the same budget allocation essentially for 35 years, I would say that’s where space ranks in the scheme of national priorities according to the political leadership in the White House and Congress

Just to flip ahead to 2004, one of these fundamental premises in the Bush’s vision for space exploration is that NASA will stay at this level of expenditures and everything that you want to do, going back to the Moon and eventually to Mars has to be within that budget envelope, which means, you have to design to that.

The fundamental systems engineering triad we talked about on several occasions: cost, schedule, performance, – that clearly demonstrates, cost is a fixed parameter. We don’t have the freedom either for the shuttle or in this future program that cost is going to go up by very much.

Just in case anybody ask what these two blips are. The first one is the replacement of Challenger after the 1986 shuttle accident, it is one time cost of building another orbiter. The second next to it was Bush 41, you may remember that he announced a space exploration initiative on the 20th anniversary of Apollo and provided an increase in budget resources to carry out that initiative which, when Bill Clinton was elected, quickly got undone and you see the result in the past few years.

In a sense, that decision that space had to be planned in the context of all other priorities, has had impacts over 35 years. First thing is, NASA never accepted it and has always tried to do more than it had the resources. And one of the things Jeff didn’t say was that I was a member of the Columbia accident investigation board after the last accident. One of the things we said in our report was that NASA for too many years had been trying to do too much with too little and it created the kinds of stresses in the organization that led to some of the organizational sloppiness that was at least a contributing factor in the Columbia accident. It told NASA that it could not pursue in the 1970s of post-Apollo program that was anywhere near its ambitions and so NASA had to reinvent its program from what it had proposed in 1969.

This is a letter from the then head of NASA Jim Fletcher transmitting NASA’S recommendations for the next year’s budget. Every year NASA submits its formal budget proposal to the White House which starts the process.

NASA had decided that the key element in the program for the 70s is not the space station by now but the Space Shuttle. It supports the last four of the president’s six objectives, highlighted in the page above. These are:

c. Reduce substantially the cost of space operations,

d. Extend man’s capability to live and work in space,

e. Hasten and expand practical applications of space technology, and

f. Encourage greater international cooperation in space.

Reflecting on that decision NASA announced: We have made a major decision to defer development of a space station or “Skylab II” to a later time and orient the space station studies we will continue in FY 1972 toward modular systems that can be launched as well as serviced by the space shuttle.

The station that NASA was planning in 1969 would have been launched by the Saturn V and would have been 33 feet across (10 meters). It would have lots of habitable space, be big, 12 person minimum, building up to a 50 person, may be eventually a 100 person outpost. This represented a major shift that said: the shuttle becomes our number one priority, not the station, and the shuttle has to be designed to launch space station modules. That was the overriding NASA goal.

I would argue or suggest that this decision made in late 1970 only separated in time shuttle and station, the intimate link between the two programs remain. It was just do them in sequence rather than at the same time.

And here we are 35 years later, and the major issue in getting started on exploration remains: What do you do with the Shuttle? What do you do with the station? They are now seen as mortgages that have to be paid or obstacles to the next systems or however you want to characterize it.

What this also meant is that the traffic model that was justifying the shuttle, of all these launches to space stations and lunar bases that you saw, was no longer operative. And so, beginning at the start of 1970 and all the way through this two-year complex decision process, the Office of Management and Budget kept saying, “Well, how do you justify this investment?” You’re talking about a multi-billion dollar investment in the future, what is the justification for it?

This was the first time in the early 1970s that the White House through its Office of Management and Budget used cost-effectiveness analysis. A cost-benefit analysis is a tool in budget allocations, it has not been done, certainly not been done in the space program of the 1960s. OMB insisted that NASA show an economic justification for this investment and they wanted it to come out such that there was no justification.

How much economics do any of you get in this environment? I’ve never had an economics course except with Jesuit undergraduate college called Christian economics, which may be a contradiction.

I’m going to say something I don’t have a clue of what it means, which is that OMB insisted that NASA use a 10% discount rate, which is the future value of current money, and is much higher than the discount rate applied to many other investments, because this was a long-term and risky investment. That meant that the economic justification for the shuttle had to be very strong.


My note:

A dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow because of inflation, opportunity cost, and risk. Bringing the future value of money back to the present is called finding the Present Value (PV) of a future dollar. To find the present value of future dollars, one way is to see what amount of money, if invested today until the future date, will yield that sum of future money. The interest rate used to find the present value is the discount rate.


Throughout this process there was this constant pressure on one hand to justify the shuttle economically and the only way that could be done was finding other users. As a result, NASA became not just a kind of a suitor of the military as a user of the shuttle, but the economic justification for going ahead with the shuttle became totally dependent on the military willingness to use the vehicle. Military is a euphemism, many of the payloads that were being discussed there were intelligence payloads operated by the organization called the National Reconnaissance Office. At that time the existence of the National Reconnaissance Office itself was classified so you could not say NRO satellite; you can say it now – NRO existence was declassified in 1992. At that point all were called Air Force or DoD satellites, many of which, including the most demanding, were intelligence satellites.

The primary determinant of the size of the shuttle’s payload bay width was the ability to launch space station modules. Professor Young may be able to comment. If I understand it, the kind of human factor studies at the time said that people would be unwilling to live in tubes less than 14 feet (4 meters) across for long durations so the shuttle had to be able to accommodate a 14-foot-wide module. The length could be adjusted. But the military payloads, think Hubble pointed down rather than pointed up, and I think there’s been enough discussion of it that I’m not revealing classified material, the reconnaissance equivalent of Hubble was the next generation reconnaissance satellite and that was basically 55 feet long (17 meters). The decision was that you needed a payload bay 60 feet long (18 meters) in order to capture many military and reconnaissance payloads. That was a determinant of the size of the payload bay which drove the size of the shuttle.

There were two other military requirements.

First was the desire to be able to go into polar orbit, which meant a West Coast launch site. You can’t launch into polar orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station or Kennedy Space Center without flying over Boston. I guess, you lunch south flying over Miami and Cuba which for range safety is not a great idea. If you launch from Vandenberg Air Force base in California you’ve got several thousands of miles of open ocean in front of you.

The Air Force was in a nice position here because it could make up any requirements it wanted. That’s where the crossrange came from. We’ve talked about crossrange leading to delta wings leading to heavier orbiter because of more thermal protection. All of that came from the requirement of getting the Department of Defense to say they would use the shuttle as a way of justifying to the economist the large upfront investment.

This diagram is the outcome of the phase A studies in the late 1960s and early 1970s that resulted in phase B proposals, and then in June of 1971 a rapid shift so that in six months the configuration evolved what was finally built.

Preferred shuttle of Johnson Space Center and its chief designer Max Faget.

I presume if you talked about crossrange, you also talked about the difference between the preferred shuttle of Johnson Space Center and its chief designer Max Faget, which was a straight wing minimal crossrange shuttle (highlighted in the image above), probably technically simpler to build and less expensive to build, into a delta wing configuration that match the Air Force crossrange requirements.

What happened in June of 1971 was critical to this whole process. At this point of its studies NASA had concluded to build a two-stage fully reusable shuttle that would match the crossrange requirement and be big enough to launch space station modules. It would cost in the order of 10 to 14 billion dollars in investment cost with a peak funding of 2 billion a year during the 1970s. OMB in May of 1971 said, “Well that’s fine, but you can only have 5 billion with peak spending of 1 billion a year. If you want shuttle all it has to fit within that budget curve.”

I presume, Aaron and others are going to talk about the kind of hectic trades that got from a fully reusable shuttle to first moving the liquid hydrogen tanks outside the orbiter airframe and throwing them away, then coming up with the idea that you could put both the external oxygen and hydrogen fuel tanks on the outside and throw them away, to the notion that you could use strap-on solids to assist in take-off and move the orbiter down to the bottom so its engines could be used as part of the take-off thrust, to the final configuration.

At that point, June to December 1971, there were hundreds of different variations of shuttle design being floated around and other designs to do something that was approximating but not totally meeting all of the payload requirements that had been laid out.

I’m sure you’re going to be talking about a lot of the engineering choices that were involved in this, and I’m not capable of talking about them but, as apprentice young system engineers, the notion that you could take from here, to hear totally different concepts in six months and know what you’re doing should make you’re a little nervous.

So why the shuttle was ultimately approved? OMB, the Office of Management and Budget, was on one spectrum of the participants in this debate, it really didn’t believe, its staff did not believe in the value of human space flight, its staff was and is the guardian of the federal budget and believed it was under the policy guidance of the Nixon administration to cut federal expenditures dramatically across the board and so, through this whole process, through a variety of interventions and changing demands on the NASA and political interventions, getting leaked information from the aerospace industry and asking NASA nasty questions that it didn’t want to answer, the career staff of the OMB, they say in retrospect, went too far in trying to kill the Shuttle, so they were at one end of the spectrum.

NASA was at the other end, obviously, because by now, in 1971, the Shuttle was a survival project for NASA as it viewed itself as a large organization built around human space flight in developing large scale systems.

If you look at the chart above, all of the industry had study contracts. The major aerospace companies, each had a concept and they were lobbying or contending for the adoption of their concept, rather than what you see now which is work shares of a single concept, but this was a decision totally inside the executive branch at this point. Congress was more or less supportive with the exception of one Senator Fritz Mondale, Walter Mondale, who kept asking some difficult questions. NASA also had its preferred concept, it was an MSC, Manned Spacecraft Center, what’s now Johnson Space Center. It was Grumman and McDonnell Douglas that came up with the idea of putting rockets on the side, at that point they weren’t necessarily solid rockets, to enable a cheaper configuration.

What you ended up with, after all these design requirements, was the preferred orbiter of the Manned Spacecraft Center and the NASA Orbiter with the Grumman and McDonnell Douglas concept of an expendable external tank and recoverable strap-ons – I don’t want to say solid.

So, what came out of this was an amalgamation of everybody’s ideas.

I said in passing, I’ll say again, one of these of the three firms, and all evidence points to North American Rockwell, had a relationship with the OMB where they were feeding OMB questions that would embarrass their competitors or result in not doing the shuttle at all and continuing on with the existing systems, where North American Rockwell was building at least the Apollo Command Module.

Players in this included the economic analysis.

Here is a report that was given, as this debate heated up, to NASA in October of 1971, done by a company called Mathematica, which was founded by Oskar Morgenstern. Morgenstern was an economist and the head at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. He and his young colleague Klaus Heiss were two Austrian somewhat crazy economists. Again, that may be the same thing, crazy and the economist. They had the contract to do the external economic analysis for the Shuttle and they came up through their analysis with the conclusion that reasonable to system is economically feasible at the current level of activity and that a thrust assisted, that’s the strap-ons, Shuttle is the economically preferred choice.

You can read in this page:

A reusable space transportation system is economically feasible, assuming that the level of unmanned U.S. space activity will not be less than it has been on average over the last eight years.

A thrust assisted orbiter shuttle (TAOS) with external hydrogen/oxygen tanks emerges at present as the economically preferred choice. Examples of such concepts are RATO of McDonnel Douglas and TAHO of Grumman-Boeing.

This is economist designing technical systems! Another thing that would make me nervous.

And this goes back to the comment earlier, the demand for space transportation by NASA, the department of defense, but particularly by commercial and other users, is the basis for economic justification.

The economic analysis had as an input a demand model that was totally unconstrained: everybody’s wish list of things that might be launched but weren’t funded for the next 15 years, – and that’s where the 50 or 60 shuttle launches, which was part of the image at the time the decision was made, came from. This demand model was done by the Aerospace Corporation and given to Mathematica to play with for its economic analysis.

It’s not clear how influential this set of recommendations was in the final decision to proceed. Klaus Heiss, who is still very active, claims it was very influential. Well, you’ll see what my explanation of why the shuttle was chosen.

This table has the economic comparisons that were made. The launch vehicle investment non-recurring costs were clearly much greater for the new shuttle system. But the recurring costs of operations were much less than using the current system, almost 6 billion dollars difference. This is for 514 space shuttle flights over 11-year period, that’s about 48 or 49 flights a year and was the model that was being used at this time.

It is always interesting when people do modeling like that. Notice they chose the number 514, not 513 or 515. It sort of gives you the impression that they know what they’re talking about. If they had just put ‘approximately 500’, that’s really as much as anybody knew at the time.

One of the things to watch here is that a lot of the cost were payload savings. There was this illusion at the time – it’s proven to be an illusion – that because of the characteristics of the shuttle you could make the payloads much less expensive, you didn’t have to design them to space program standards. So here are the payloads, instead of having a cost of 18 billion dollars a year over this period, they were going to cost only 12 billion – that’s 6 billion dollars savings in payloads. It’s that combination of operation costs and payload savings that gives you the 7 billion dollars advantage in the economic argument for going ahead with the shuttle.

Bush 41 later used the term, which I think is properly applied to this analysis, calling in voodoo economics. And I think most of the people involved in this decision recognized that.

Technical decisions in the White House often at this period in time depended on its Office of Science and Technology, now called OSTP or Office of Science and Technology Policy, and it’s President’s Science Advisory Committee, now called PCAST or President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

The science advisor, who was actually an engineer and not a scientist, named Edward David, commissioned a PSAC (President’s Science Advisory Committee) study to look at the NASA’s proposals as a basis for the position he would take in the White House debates.

The chairman of this study was Alexander Flax who was the president of the Institute for Defense Analysis, a think-tank in Washington, and this document above was a summary report that Flax and his panel prepared:

Most of the members of the Panel doubt that a viable shuttle program can be undertaken without a degree of national commitment over a long term analogous to that which sustained the Apollo program. Such a degree of political and public support may be attainable, but it is certainly not now apparent.

In retrospect, I think this advice was sound advice that was provided.

“Planning a program as large and risky (with respect to both technology and cost) as the shuttle, with the long-term prospect of fixed ceiling budgets for the program and for NASA as a whole, does not bode well for the future of the program. Already some decisions regarding the shuttle system and program have been taken which introduce additional hazards to the success of the program technically, operationally, and economically in order to reduce projected peak-year funding requirements.”

At that point, he was referring to strap-ons, firing the main engines at lift-off.

Basically, what the PSAC panel recommended, was postponing a decision for a year or more while some of the uncertainties were studied.

The general view of the Panel was that:

  1. No significant role for manned spaceflight had been identified in space applications (military and civilian) or scientific experimentation. The NASA suggestion that the shuttle would allow scientific experimenters to conduct their activities as participants in spaceflight evoked no enthusiasm from the scientists. It must be noted here that new approaches such as the ones proposed by NASA have often not been recognized or appreciated by the putative users and beneficiaries until after they have been demonstrated, but the fact remains that at least, at present, the scientific community in the large doubts that the potential benefits of the space shuttle will be significant for science in relation to the large cost involved.
  2. An option for manned spaceflight activities should be retained into the future in view of the potential contributions of manned programs to national prestige, international cooperation, space exploration (although the Panel was divided as to the relative effectiveness of manned versus unmanned exploration), and the possibility of unforeseen future needs (military or civilian).
  3. The space shuttle program cannot be justified on a purely economic basis for the unmanned part of the space program in view of the marginal benefits which can be shown and the high risk (based on past experience with major advanced technology programs) that both recurring costs and operational costs may be sufficiently in excess of present estimates to cause economic losses rather than savings over the 13-year period of operation from 1978-1990.
  4. The space shuttle program must be justified on the basis of: (a) the capability it will provide for new, different and more effective utilization of space for military and civilian purposes; (b) its contribution to retaining national leadership and prestige in space technology and advanced technology generally; (c) its unique value in providing easy, safe and flexible access to space by men at relatively low cost, if a program involving intensive and frequent manned spaceflight activity is to be undertaken.
  5. In order to meet these criteria for justification of the space shuttle, it is necessary to postulate expanding rather than level space budgets for DOD and NASA over the next ten years. If the shuttle is to achieve the potentials which it may offer, it must generate (as many innovations have in the past) demands for space operations well beyond those now contemplated and funds would have to be made available to develop the necessary program for utilization of the shuttle.

You can counter that the scientific community was not interested, obviously. Basically, the justification was really kind of arm-waving intangibles some of which I think are very real, like prestige and cooperation.

Objections can be and were raised to every alternative program on the grounds that, although it was cheaper than the shuttle program, the potential benefits were so much smaller that the cost of such program could not be justified. Such objections effectively left only two alternatives for the next ten years: either (1) proceed with the shuttle program now or soon, or (2) drop manned spaceflight activity after Skylab A and the possible Salyut visit and do nothing new in space vehicle and space operations technology. Most of the Panel rejected these “all or nothing” views.

The bottom line of the PSAC position let the conclusion that if you had to make a choice in 1971, you had two choices, either proceed with the shuttle program now or soon, or drop manned spaceflight after Skylab, and nobody likes choices like that. But in the large degree that was the consideration or the mental set as this debate came to a head towards the end of 1971.

That brings into sharp relief. Remember the comment the professor Cohen made when he was talking about ‘what a systems engineer do when presented with requirements that you’re not really happy with and don’t know if you can meet’, but on the other hand recognizing as they came to that basically, if they didn’t build the shuttle that was being specified they probably were going to end up with nothing at all? And I think what John just showed was justification that, in fact, that was the political environment at the time, it wasn’t the shuttle or something else, it was the shuttle or nothing. Well, except at the end, people like PSAC and OMB kept suggesting alternatives.

This was a chart prepared in November of 1971 by George Low, who was a deputy NASA Administrator and kind of the technical representative, showing the investment costs versus the cost of operations for various things.

Notice that the investment costs are in billions while the operations costs are in millions.

The options were:

  1. Two-stage fully reusable – 10 billion investment, low operating costs;
  2. The baseline 15-by-60 foot payload bay, eight billion; within three weeks, it was five billion;
  3. Phased development: develop a simpler one first and then a more complex obiter, later with a large payload bay, and various rocket assist configurations, developing a smaller payload and a smaller bay, or
  4. Developing a Titan III launched glider.

The argument was, it made sense to pick something along this line on the knee in the curve.

NASA made its last best case in the memo to the White House on November 22nd 1971. Number one, the US has to stay in the human space flight business. It’s not subject to analysis, that’s a belief! NASA argued that this should be a policy premise that the United States had to have humans in space, and the shuttle is the only meaningful new space program. The operative word there is ‘new’. You could have kept launching Apollo capsules and Saturn 1Bs or something. Saturn V had been cancelled by then. Shuttle is a necessary next step for science applications, military, position in internal competition and cooperation. The cost and complexity is one-half of what it was six months ago. Again, as engineers, that statement ought to be very nervous that in six months you can cut cost and complexity in half. Starting the shuttle now will have a significant positive effect on aerospace employment. Not starting will be a serious blow to both moral and health of the Aerospace Industry.

Let me talk about that last one. Those were NASA’s five best reasons for going ahead and employment impact was one of them.

This is an undated memorandum from somebody within OMB. Peter Flanigan was Nixon’s top person right at the intersection of policy and politics, he was overseeing the space program and had asked for impact of the shuttle on the airspace industry, and this is what came back.

Here’s the additional employment impact for the space shuttle main engine program, not very much in early 1971, but in 1972 fairly significant employment impacts in either California or Florida.

On the Airframe, depending on when the decision was made to go ahead with the shuttle, the impact in 1972 was not very big, but big enough.

Thus, although a peak of 70,000 jobs might ultimately result from the shuttle in the mid-1970’s, the number of actual jobs by the end of CY 1972 would be relatively small.

You have to recreate the environment at the time. This was 1971, the supersonic transport had been canceled, defense spending on Vietnam was ramping down, and NASA had no new program. Doing the article that Jeff mentioned on the space shuttle decision, I ended up one afternoon in Santa Fe, New Mexico, talking to John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s top guys. He said, they sat down in the White House and mapped NASA jobs in key election states and said: Hey, if we want to win the 1972 election… Again, this is political history well before your time. At that point the leading candidate was Ed Muskie of Maine who was viewed as a serious candidate, that wasn’t George McGovern who was not, for better or worse, a serious opponent. So, that the political people were worried about winning places like California and Florida and saw in the shuttle program a way of providing the indication of future jobs in key electoral states. Some of the people I have talked to over the years say that at least for the political levels of the White House that was the major reason for going ahead with this program, to have aerospace employment impacts for the 1972 election. You can judge whether that’s a good reason or not.

The decision kept getting postponed to very late in the budget process. OMB kept asking for more studies. This was a letter to the deputy director of OMB Cap Weinberger, later Secretary of Defense, in which NASA said:

We have concluded that the full capability 15 x 60’ – 65,000# payload shuttle still represents a “best buy”, and in ordinary times should be developed. However, in recognition of the extremely severe near-term budgetary problems, we are recommending a somewhat smaller vehicle – one with a 14 x 45’ – 45,000# payload capability, at a somewhat reduced overall cost.

This is the smallest vehicle that we can still consider to be useful for manned flight as well as a variety of unmanned payloads. However, it will not accommodate many DOD payloads and some planetary payloads.

Where they say ‘manned spaceflight’, read ‘space station’. And here are the numbers attached to this letter:

This is what NASA was telling White House last business day of 1971, what the cost of various Shuttle configurations would be. There is very little difference in the development cost of the configurations, a tenth of a billion of dollars between a very small and less capable and the full size and fully capable. The operating costs is relatively low all across the board, look at that number: 7.7 million dollars per flight for a payload cost of 118 dollars a pound.

One of the points of your course is to understand where these numbers came from and were they ever possible of realization. Here are the heads of the leading technical organization in the US government presenting these figures to the White House. Did NASA lose its technical integrity in this process? Was there any foundation for these numbers or were these total salesmanship?

All are valid questions.

I’m going to argue that the decision to go with the shuttle was made before all of these last six months or so of 1971 back and forth when it occurred, and the basis for that is primarily this memorandum, written through the director of the OMB George Shultz by Cap Weinberger to the President in which he’s talking about the staff proposals for reducing the NASA budget, which included eliminating the last two Apollo flights and eliminating manned spaceflight, and Weinberger said in this memo to the President: I believe this would be a mistake. The reason for reducing NASA is because it’s curable, not because it’s not doing things.

Present tentative plans call for major reductions or change in NASA, by eliminating the last two Apollo flights (16 and 17), and eliminating or sharply reducing the balance of the Manned Space Program (Skylab and Space Shuttle) and many remaining NASA programs.

I believe this would be a mistake.

  1. The real reason for sharp reductions in the NASA budget is that NASA is entirely in the 28% of the budget that is controllable. In short we cut it because it is cuttable, not because it is doing a bad job or an unnecessary one.
  2. We are being driven, by the uncontrollable items, to spend more and more on programs that offer no real hope for the future: Model Cities, OEO, Welfare, interest on the National Debt, unemployment compensation, Medicare, etc. Of course, some of these have to be continued, in one form or another, but essentially they are programs, not of our choice, designed to repair mistakes of the past, not of our making.
  3. We do need to reduce the budget, in my opinion, but we should not make all our reduction decisions on the basis of what is reducible, rather than on the merits of individual programs.

OEO here is the Office of Economic Opportunity, the agency responsible for administering most of the War on Poverty programs created as part of United States President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society legislative agenda.

This is, remember, Republican administration, that’s why you see here the phrase: ‘programs that offer no real hope for the future’.

There is real merit to the future of NASA. And if you took NASA apart, it would be very hard to put it back together again. And he says, stopping Apollo and not starting new programs:

It would be confirming, in some respects, a belief that I fear is gaining credence at home and abroad: That our best years are behind us, that we are turning inward, reducing our defense commitments, and voluntarily starting to give up our super-power status, and our desire to maintain our world superiority.

America should be able to afford something besides increased welfare, programs to repair our cities, or Appalachian relief and the like.

Notice the underlining.

And this came back with a hand-written note: I agree with Cap. That’s Nixon. My view is that the decision was made with those four words.

Weinberger at that time was the number two person in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Long time California associate of Nixon, became Secretary of Defense under Reagan. Who he is, in a sense irrelevant, except he was a political appointee and a trusted associated the President, and basically he was telling Nixon that the reason for continuing the space program was image. Again, read those words because they’re interesting words: Not having a strong space program would confirm our lack of desire to maintain our world superiority.

I showed you this December the 29th memorandum were NASA went to the White House and said: ‘We would recommend the full-size orbiter usually, but with tight budget, we’ll go with 14 x 45.’ That was a Friday, the 29th of December, and maybe earlier in the week. Anyway, over that weekend, New Year’s weekend of 71/72, somehow, somewhere Nixon and his inner circle decided to approve the shuttle and approve the full size shuttle, and they decided, if we’re going to approve it, we might as will approve the one that NASA thinks is best.

And there was a meeting scheduled between NASA leadership and the President in the San Clemente on January the 5th. This is written by George Low. For a historian Dr. Low was wonderful. He dictated his notes every week on the events of the week and then backed it up with the documents, so that’s like a treasure load for minds trying to write the history.

They met for 40 minutes. Here’s what the President had to say: We should not hesitate to mention the military applications, routine operations and quick reaction times, solar powered satellites, these kinds of things tend to happen more quickly than we expect, and nuclear waste disposal. He liked the fact that ordinary people would be able to fly in the shuttle, preserve the skills of the people in the airspace industry. In summary, we do not know of the things that shuttle will be able to do, it will open up entirely new fields. Do we think it was a good investment? We are the top two leaders of NASA. It is not a 7 billion dollar toy. But he indicated, even if it were not a good investment, we would have to do it anyway because spaceflight is here to stay, Men are flying in space now and will continue to fly in space and we best be part of it. Which was essentially what Weinberger had said six months earlier.

To me that link, and in doing research in this area I’ve talked to both Weinberger and Ehrlichman and others around that, it’s that link of human spaceflight to national image of the United States plus the employment impacts in the 72 election, that were the fundamental reasons for going ahead with the shuttle.

You may make a judgement that those aren’t great reasons, but there they were.

Finally, the decision was made, it says on January third, we would develop the big shuttle and the only major open issue was whether to use a liquid or solid strap-on, and that was studied for three months:

The decision concerning liquid or solid boosters was a difficult one. It involves a trade-off between future benefits (at the time the shuttle becomes operational) and earlier savings in the immediate years ahead: liquid boosters have lower potential operating costs, while solid boosters have lower development costs. The decision concerns development risk which is lower for the solids because the technical unknowns are less, and also risks in operational costs which favor the solids because the economic exposure of failing to recover a booster is much less.

Conclusions here are heavily dependent on the mission model. The basic concern was keeping within the development cost of the shuttle and somebody else worry later about operating costs. All of that argument led to a decision in favor of the solid booster.

The rest of this is kind of irrelevant to that. Basically, with the OMB acceptance of this letter and the choice of the solids the configuration was frozen.

There were some things in it that I’m sure you’ll talk about later. There was at that point abort capability on the solids. I’m not quite sure how that would have worked. Somewhere along the line, and it’s not clear to me, at one point the shuttle was going to have jet engines so it could fly to a landing rather than glide to a landing, and those were taken out, and I think it was after this, but I’m not sure.

The reasons for approving the shuttle had very little to do with the specific technical characteristics of the system. It is my argument that the main reasons were national prestige, national image, and aerospace employment rather than the actual performance characteristics of a particular configuration, as long as the shuttle could be developed within a 5 billion dollar per year peak funding profile and as long as the shuttle could do things for the Department of Defense that made it useful to both civilian and military users.

Those were the drivers of the shuttle decision and then the technology was derivative of that, rather than the other way around.

That presented challenges, as I’m sure Aaron Cohen and Jeff have talked about developing thermal protection, developing a main engine, developing a vehicle that could cooperate in multiple flight regimes, but those were secondary to the policy decisions that the country should go ahead with this capability.


Questions, comments, reaction?

Q. ‒ It was around 70-71 when they talked about the first flight in 77 and fully operational by 79. It seems to me that you could reduce things like peak cost and you could spread out your development cost if you just said: ‘We’re not in a hurry, let’s do it right, but let’s take our time.’ And because there wasn’t the race anymore, we have done the Apollo, we beat the Russians, what kind of time constraints played into this, why they were trying to finish by the late 70s?

A. ‒ It ties into the current situation rather nicely, in the sense that there was then and I think is now a perception that an extended gap in a US human spaceflight is not politically acceptable. And at that point, at the end of 1971, the only human spaceflight missions on the books were three flights to the Skylab Space Station in 1973. The thing that followed the Apollo – Soyuz test project had not yet been agreed on, it wasn’t agreed until May of 1972. There would have been from 1973 to whatever future date a gap in Americans flying to space and I think the general sense was that it was not acceptable. Also you had a workforce issue, of maintaining the workforce with something to do at Johnson, by then not yet Johnson but Manned Spacecraft Center, Marshall Space Flight Center and Kennedy. And so you needed a relatively rapid development program so that you didn’t just disassemble the teams and have to reassemble them later, and then same for the capability inside the industry. This was a program that was paced within a budget ceiling to make full use of the Space industrial base in a reasonable time frame. The dates were set on the basis ‘This is the earliest we can do it on this budget profile.’


Conclusion by Jeff Hoffman

The last thing, just to remind you that this really is the last of the introductory policy ‘How did the Shuttle program get started.’ We’re going to get from now on for the next six weeks or so will be going deep into the nitty-gritty of some of the systems. So Tom Moser will be here and he’ll be talking about Shuttle structures and the thermal protection system. See them.

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