Soon after the start of the space race, a major problem with space flight became obvious: it was really expensive.
The high cost of space flight was in large part due to the fact that every rocket and spacecraft was expendable. Every trip meant a new rocket and a new vehicle.
To solve this problem, in the early 1970s, the United States launched a new program to create a reusable spacecraft.
Learn more about the rise and fall of the Space Transportation System, aka the Space Shuttle on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Consider for a moment how cheap air travel has become. You can board a jet aircraft that will fly you and several hundred people over an ocean for a few hundred dollars.
After everyone gets off the plane, they clean up the interior, put more fuel back in, and then it flies off again, sometimes in under an hour.
A commercial aircraft can easily have a lifespan of over 20 years and fly tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of passengers during its time in service.
Now consider what flying would be like if, after every flight, they scrapped the airplane. Every flight would be a single one-way trip. The first flight of a particular aircraft would be it’s last.
At a cost of nearly $100 million dollars per commercial aircraft, even a full plane would warrant tickets that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Moreover, the interior of the aircraft would be bare bones, and pretty much nothing would be built for comfort, as what would be the point as it would only be used once?
This nightmare scenario was the reality in human space flight.
Starting with the first manned launches into space, every single one was done with a disposable capsule on top of a disposable rocket.
Every launch in the American space program in the 1960s required rebuilding the wheel every single time. To be sure, modifications were made, and later spacecraft had improvements over earlier ones, but everything had to be made from scratch.
As the Apollo program was nearing its apex in 1968, and it became obvious that the United States was going to win the race to the moon, discussion started on the development of a new system that would be cheaper and allow for more space flights.
In the late 60s, NASA had an ambitious agenda of things they wanted to achieve, and it wasn’t going to be possible if they had to build everything from scratch for every launch.
What was needed was a reusable spaceship. A spacecraft that could operate something like an airplane.
With a reusable ship, they could more efficiently and more frequently visit an orbiting space station that they would build.
Once you get to Earth orbit, the hard part is done. A space station could then be used as a staging area for further travel for going to the moon and for creating a lunar base. Moreover, such a spacecraft could be used to handle almost every satellite launch into Earth orbit, replacing the entire US rocket fleet.
Before I go any further, I should add that this general idea of a reusable spacecraft was actually a good idea on NASA’s part.
To this end, on January 31, 1969, six months before Apollo 11 landed on the moon, NASA issued design study contracts for what they called an “Integrated Launch and Re-entry Vehicle,” or ILRV.
Four aerospace firms came back with their ideas by November 1, and all four of them proposed a two-stage, fully reusable vehicle. There were different concepts for how to do this, but the basic principle was agreed upon.
Also, around this period, the term “space shuttle” was used for the first time. A name which, while never official, stuck with the program and was what it became known as.
NASA’s goal was for the first shuttle to fly in 1977. It turned out to have been an ambitious timeline.
The first concept had a large-winged vehicle carrying a smaller-winged vehicle on top. The large winged vehicle was the booster that would glide back to Earth and land like an airplane. The smaller vehicle was the orbiter which would fly into orbit and then also return like an airplane.
This proposal could carry 25,000 pounds or 11,300 kilograms into orbit.
However, NASA was working with the military, which also wanted to use the shuttle. They, however, required a system that could carry 65,000 pounds into orbit.
A larger orbiter also changed how NASA would build their space station. The original idea was to launch the entire space station into orbit on Saturn V rockets, similar to Skylab. The shuttle would just be used to transport people and supplies, so it wouldn’t be needed to carry large payloads.
With the military’s requirement, it changed the design of the space station. Now, building a modular space station would make more sense, with each part taken up piecemeal by the shuttle.
The early 70s saw many design changes as well as budget cuts now that the race to the moon had been won.
They eventually abandoned the idea of a fuel tank inside the vehicle and moved to an external fuel tank.
The decision was also made to go with two external booster rockets using solid fuel.
The decision to use solid fuel was a controversial one because solid fuel had never been used in manned spaceflight before. Solid rocket fuels can provide more thrust than liquid fuels.
However, they have one massive drawback. Once they are lit, they can’t be turned off.
By 1972, the basic design of the vehicle that would fly was mostly in place. The main contract for the construction and integration of the orbiter was given to Rockwell International.
In 1974, construction began on what was to be a test version of the shuttle, named orbiting vehicle 101, or OV-101.
It was designed for atmospheric test flights and never had engines or heat shields installed.
After a letter-writing campaign from fans of the Star Trek television series, OV-101 was named Enterprise.
It was carried on the back of a custom-built Boeing 747, and in August of 1977, it was released in flight and glided back to the ground.
The original intent was to have the Enterprise retrofitted after testing took place, so it would be space worthy. However, after testing was completed, there were enough changes to the design that the idea was scrapped, and the Enterprise became a museum piece.
The plan now was to build a fleet of four orbiters. The first one to be completed and launched was dubbed Columbia.
Delays kept pushing back the first space shuttle flight. One of the biggest problems was the heat shields which protected the orbiter during reentry. The heat shield was an incredibly complicated mosaic of insulating ceramic tiles that had to be put together like a puzzle. Each tile had to be custom-built for its spot on the orbiter.
The original plan was for the space shuttle to be done in time for it to dock with Skylab, which was launched in 1973. The plan was that the fifth space shuttle flight would be the Skylab rescue mission which would push it up to a higher orbit and resupply the space station.
However, the delays in the program made the rescue mission an impossibility, and Skylab reentered the atmosphere in 1979 in a glorious fireball.
It wasn’t until 1981 that the first shuttle was finally ready to fly. On April 12, 1981, the space shuttle Columbia was launched with mission commander and Apollo veteran John W. Young and pilot and first-time astronaut Robert Crippen. The mission was coded STS-1, which stood for Space Transportation System, which was the official name of the shuttle program.
It coincidently launched on the 20th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight.
The flight was a success. It stayed in space for a little over two days and proved the concept that a vehicle could return to Earth for reuse.
However, NASA fell far short of its goal of 60 shuttle launches per year.
It turned out that the shuttle was an extremely complex and finicky vehicle. The quick turnaround that NASA had hoped for, like with a commercial airplane, didn’t materialize.
Moreover, the system wasn’t close to being fully reusable. The solid rocket boosters, despite being recovered at sea after each launch, actually had to basically be rebuilt every time. The large external fuel tank was completely expended every launch and allowed to burn up in the atmosphere.
By 1986, there had only been 24 shuttle launches over a period of five years.
STS-51L, the 25th shuttle flight, was the ill-fated Challenger disaster, which took the lives of all seven astronauts on board.
I’m going to devote an entire episode to the Challenger disaster in the future, but suffice it to say the destruction of the Challenger in such a highly public way caused a halt to the shuttle program.
The entire fleet was reevaluated and inspected. Changes were made to ensure that such a thing never happened again.
It wasn’t until two and a half years later that the next shuttle flew.
The extra safety precautions now required a complete inspection of the orbiter after every flight, which made turnaround times even slower.
There were two flights in 1988, five in 1989, six in 1990, and six more in 1991.
One of the big selling points of the shuttle program was a space station. With the destruction of Skylab, the shuttle had nowhere to go. It launched satellites, did scientific missions, and in 1995 docked with Russia’s Mir space station.
In 1998, the first module of the International Space Station was deployed and for the next five years, construction and resupplying of the ISS was the primary purpose of shuttle missions.
In 2003, disaster struck again when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry killing all seven on board. The cause of the disaster was due to one or more of the tiles falling off during the launch.
By this point, it had become clear that the space shuttle had fallen far short of its original goals back in the late 60s.
It was not a cheap, efficient way to get to orbit. In fact, everyone now realized that an old-fashioned rocket and capsule would be cheaper than the very expensive and fragile shuttle.
After the Columbia disaster, every shuttle mission, save for one which was to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, was to the ISS. The reason for this was if another Columbia incident were to occur, the astronauts could just stay on the space station and wait for another shuttle to come and rescue them.
In 2004, a year after the Columbia disaster, the retirement of the shuttle program was announced. It was postponed a few times, but the last space shuttle flew on July 8, 2011.
Including the two disasters, there were 135 shuttle launches over a period of 30 years, averaging only four and a half launches per year. Only 7.5% of the original goal.
Without the space shuttle, the United States had no way to send people into orbit for nine years until the launch of the Dragon Crew capsule in 2020.
The idea of a reusable spacecraft is still a good one. It was just that the space shuttle was too complicated to work effectively.
SpaceX has radically reduced the cost of launching cargo to orbit by reusing the lower, more expensive stage, of their Falcon rockets. What they did to get around the problem was something that just wasn’t possible 50 years ago.
Rather than land like an airplane or a glider, they land vertically. This requires significant computing power which didn’t exist when the shuttle was first conceived.
All of the surviving space shuttles were decommissioned and sent to museums. If you are interested in seeing one yourself, you have several options.
The prototype space shuttle Enterprise can be found at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City.
The Discovery can be seen at the Udvar-Hazy Center which is part of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, which is located at Dulles International Airport, just outside of Washington, DC.
The Atlantis can be found at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
And the Endeavour is located at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
I should also note that the Soviets tried to build their own space shuttle. It was known as the Buran, and it flew a single unmanned flight in 1988 and never flew again. If you look at photos of it, it looks almost identical to an American space shuttle.
Today, the only Buran to fly is rusting away in an abandoned warehouse in Kazakhstan. It was damaged when the roof of the building it was in collapsed onto it.
The space shuttle was an impressive vehicle, but in the end, its cost and complexity prevented it from achieving its objectives.
Hopefully, a new breed of spacecraft will fulfill the promise of the space shuttle by providing cheap and routine transportation to space.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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