Monday, January 5, 2009

The birth of the Space Shuttle program

On January 5, 1972, President Nixon said that "The United States should proceed at once with development of an entirely new transportation system designed to help transform the space frontier of the 1970's into familiar territory, easily accessible for human endeavor in the 1980's and 1990's." Thus, NASA announced the Space Shuttle as the future of NASA's manned spaceflight program.

Apollo 16 had yet to be launched at this time. In fact, it was on April 21, 1972, literally at the moment that John Young was on the surface of the Moon doing his famous "jump salute" to the flag, that the CAPCOM relayed the news that the House had passed NASA's budget, which included funds for development of the Space Shuttle. Young replied, "The country needs that Shuttle mighty bad. You'll see. "

The pictured 1972 Space Shuttle brochure included some hopeful selling points for the Space Shuttle, many of which seem almost laughable with the benefit of 36 years' hindsight:
  • "Launch vehicle and satellite failures...will become things of the past."
  • "The shuttle is the only meaningful new manned space program which can be accomplished on a modest budget."
  • "You don't have to be an astronaut to ride the Space Shuttle...Passengers such as scientists, engineers and others will be able to ride in ordinary clothing, as in an airliner."
Delays and cost overruns would move the Shuttle's planned debut from 1977 to 1981. Two major catastrophic failures would cause the deaths of 14 astronauts. Spiraling costs and reduced tolerance for risk have limited the Shuttle's mission for nearly the past decade almost exclusively to construction of the International Space Station.

Those of us who grew up in the Apollo age feel like the Shuttle has kept us stuck in low Earth orbit, its massive budget swallowing up funds for developing other technologies. NASA will have to ground the Shuttle in 2010 to free up funds for construction of the next generation of manned spacecraft, which is an even more frustrating situation.

Things may not have turned out as originally envisioned, but the Shuttle has performed admirably in over 120 missions. The Shuttle launched Ulysses, Galileo, Magellan, and the Hubble Space Telescope. It enabled the first retrieval and repair of malfunctioning satellites. And it kept us in space for another 25 years.

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