Interpreting the Decision to Build the Space Shuttle

shuttle-coming-at-you.jpgWernher von Braun once supposedly told his colleagues: “We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming.” Whether true or not the statement reflects what has been viewed for the last forty years as one of the traditional difficulties of the space program, the problem of navigating the vicissitudes of Washington politics.

I have been wrestling for some time with the question of why human spaceflight? Yes, it’s exciting and it offers a measure of scientific and technological return. It also offers the only methodology for avoiding extinction on this planet; something that will most assuredly eventually happen if humanity remains on planet Earth, it’s just a question of when. But human spaceflight has an exceptionally low priority for most people, to the extent that NASA’s budget has been eroding over the years and it can no longer invest sufficient dollars to assure the development of the new technology necessary to continue the human spaceflight agenda in the post-Space Shuttle era.

This has prompted me to explore the decision to build the Space Shuttle in the early 1970s for analogies that might be useful in helping to understand the current debate over the future of human spaceflight. I’m working on an article that will analyze the interpretations of the decision to build the Space Shuttle.

In essence, the Space Shuttle initiative was caught up in the paperwork of the nation’s policymaking process in a series of extremely rigorous reviews and redefinitions during its adoption period. The result was a launch system strikingly different from what NASA had envisioned during the late 1960s. The forays and rebuttals, bobs and weaves, ins and outs of these studies and reviews informed the ultimate direction of the shuttle program. Despite its tastiness, like Bismarck’s sausage the policymaking process that resulted in the Space Shuttle was not pretty to watch. The interpretations of this process offered over time have also been less than pretty to watch, although they too have served a valuable role in helping to make sense of a complex, murky story.

There are arguably three basic interpretations of the decision to build NASA’s Space Shuttle that have come to dominate the discussion of human spaceflight since the end of the Moon landings in the early 1970s. These interpretations have found use among historians and other social scientists as they seek to understand the process whereby the Space Shuttle gained political acceptance, policy analysts as they have engaged in the public policy debate, and various special interest groups that find use for perspectives from all three interpretations to support myriad objectives. These three basic analyses of the Space Shuttle decision may be characterized in this way:

  1. Orthodox Interpretation: The Space Shuttle represented a “next logical step” in space transportation, science, and technology. It embraced space exploration as a modernist, advantageous activity, and emphasized the positive attributes of cutting-edge technology for the progress of the nation. In this interpretation, the Space Shuttle served essentially as a part, but only one part, of a broader infrastructure for proposed missions to the Moon and Mars. This position in explaining the Space Shuttle decision was dominant from the latter 1960s until after the vehicle entered flight status in the early 1980s.
  2. Revisionist Interpretation: A noticeable minority position from the point that the Space Shuttle was approved by Richard Nixon in 1972 argued that it was a waste of federal government money and other resources that could more effectively be used in other objectives. With the Challenger accident, and the questions it raised about the shuttle program, this interpretation began to take on majority status. For some the decision to build the Space Shuttle embodied a “policy failure” on the part of politicos, the space community, and the general public. For others it was emblematic of a bankrupt national agenda that had emerged from the activist federal government during the social revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s. For still others, it epitomized a “40 year mistake” that led space exploration efforts down an inappropriate path when there were other more viable options not pursued.
  3. Neo-orthodox Interpretation: In something of a return to the orthodox interpretation, but with a twist, this interpretation employs ideas drawn from the “social construction of technology” theory in historical studies to help explain the Space Shuttle decision. While beliefs about technological progress was important in considering the decision, the concept of heterogeneous engineering—recognizing that technological issues are simultaneously organizational, economic, cultural, and political—goes far toward helping to understand the process that led to the approval of the program.
Space shuttle Atlantis is seen through the window of a Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA) as it launches from launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on the STS-135 mission, Friday, July 8, 2011 in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Atlantis launched on the final flight of the shuttle program on a 12-day mission to the International Space Station. The STS-135 crew will deliver the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module containing supplies and spare parts for the space station. Photo Credit: (NASA/Dick Clark)

Space shuttle Atlantis is seen through the window of a Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA) as it launches from launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on the STS-135 mission, Friday, July 8, 2011 in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Atlantis launched on the final flight of the shuttle program on a 12-day mission to the International Space Station. The STS-135 crew will deliver the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module containing supplies and spare parts for the space station. Photo Credit: (NASA/Dick Clark)

What do you think of the framework on this historiographical discussion. does the tripartite typology work for helping to understanding the adoption of the Space Shuttle as NASA’s post-Apollo human spaceflight program? Does it help to illuminate, or perhaps obfuscate, understanding? Finally, how have each of these three interpretations been deployed to explain it before pointing the direction toward future avenues of research on this subject? I would welcome thoughts on this.

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7 Responses to Interpreting the Decision to Build the Space Shuttle

  1. Erik Conway says:

    Dear Roger, I think your typology needs a bit of tightening in its categories. I believe I fall into both 2 and 3, as I consider the STS to have been a tremendous policy failure, but one that’s entirely consistent with the modernist ethos. That generation of engineers and space enthusiasts believed fundamentally in the value of airplane-like re-usability, without really grasping the investments in intermediate steps that would be necessary to really achieve it. In the somewhat different context of SST development, Robert McNamara commented that SST development based on first-generation supersonic bomber technology was like trying to skip from the Wright Flyer straight to the 707. That’s what the Shuttle advocates were attempting. The historically bankrupt US understanding of technology development occurring in “great leaps” that was dominant at the time (and AFAIK, still is), supported Shuttle development, too. And so did the pork barrel–Nixon needed to employ aerospace workers in a bad economy in an election year, and Shuttle was a visible aerospace project.

    So I think your categories 2 and 3 overlap. Shuttle was both a policy failure and a great example of how socio-technical engineering can create a product that “works” in a narrow, technical, fashion (Shuttle did fly) while being a colossal failure in other important ways (disastrous economics).

    What does this have to say for current policy? IF NASA’s commercial vendors continually re-invest in reliability improvements and in ways to reduce the post-flight repair/refurbishment/reflight timeline and cost, they might achieve the airliner-like reliability NASA wanted for Shuttle but couldn’t accomplish given its inability to make those kinds of investment decisions (which is, I believe, primarily a matter of the rigidly enforced distinction between operations budgets and R&D budgets within NASA–there’s no incentive on the R&D side to reduce operations costs as they’re different budgets belonging to different directorates). But there’s no way to know whether they’ll actually do this–many companies under-invest in R&D to increase short-term profits, a practice called “asset stripping.”


    • launiusr says:

      Eric, thanks for your comments. As I mentioned in my reply to Guillaume I may be treating this in a too unsophisticated manner. I’m not sure my categories of analysis will work and I really appreciate having your thoughts on this. My intent in this exercise is to preprare an historiographical essay on the decision to build the Space Shuttle and to lay out the various interpretations that have been offered. It is one of the important arenas in which historians have been engaging each other in space history and sorting through this subject so I thought an attempt to categorize and discuss might be a useful exercise. Besides, I really like historiography. One of my problems, of course, in undertaking this is where to publish it, of course that assumes that I will put something together that is intellectually challenging. All thoughts are welcome. Again, thanks much for you comments here. They are very helpful.


  2. Guillaume says:

    My bias from my own work always welcomes #3, of course, but with four cups of coffee in my stomach, I have to say that this is the problem of cultural history writ-wide (even in SCOT): a nice fruit salad where you need to separate the dominant themes/foods, assuming these haven’t mixed too much.
    I suppose we could split the approaches further, and while this would not help, I actually favor a neo-revisionist approach(i.e. #2 reexamined). Because the shuttle was in fact not the STS projected, but a compromise on so many levels, the critics were right to attack the decision, though not the concept. I’m a reader, not a researcher in this field, but #3 emphasizes a somewhat positive outcome (at least the way you wrote it.) I think we must also try and apply that approach to #2. The Ferrari into a Yugo metaphor does not work here, but the parallels to the Concorde business are striking, whereby many of the currents lead to a kind of #3 outcome, but the subtext is in many ways #2. Back to grading; thanks for the enlightening read!


    • launiusr says:

      Guillaume, thanks so much for these comments. I’m not sure what I will do with this project yet. I have been trying to understand/interpret the historical work that has been offered on this major decision in NASA history. Perhaps my tripartite approach to it is too unsophisticated to handle the important differences between various interpretations and I need to merge, alter, add to, subtract from them to develop a more reasonable analysis.


  3. mike shupo says:

    I’ll sort of go with a mix of (2) and (3). Let’s remember, however, in 1972 we didn’t have 40 years of hindsoght to work with!

    First of all, shuttle was a political compromise over the issue of whether manned space flight should be continued at all. Civil rights was still an issue in the late 1960’s, early 1970’s period. The public viewed inflation as a problem and the economy seemed overextended, and Nixon’s advisors advocated a bit of “cooling off” and budget restraint. Most important, the Viet Nam War was still going. So a lot of people — maybe 1/3 of US voters — were extremely opposed to just about any sort of continuing manned space program, in particular the “pundit class” and most major newspapers. So a much restrained near Earth program promising economical space flight with concentration on science kept manned flight alive as a US capability while toning down objections from those who would have completely eliminated it. The much publicised aerospace layoffs at the time were actually a political plus for the White House — the economic downturn the Nixon people wanted was more or less limited to one sector of the economy, and stories about jobless PhDs in unemployment lines went over well with ordinary voters angry at high paid muckamucks with government jobs doing things that nobody’d ever asked for in the first place.

    For the aerospace industry and those within, the shuttle program looked like a slightly better than Pyrric victory. Manned space flight had dodged a bullet and was still alive, with no more need for stopgaps and sideshows like Apollo-Soyuz and SkyLab. A nice lengthly R&D project lay ahead, which would keep the workforce going. Things going well, by the end of shuttle development, anti-space sentiments would have subsided and the US would resume manned exploration of the solar system! (I started work in early 1973 at Rockwell International’s Space Division in Downey California; I can assure you NO ONE I ever met at Rockwell ever thought the shuttles we were building would be used until 2010.)

    Of course, this turned out not to be. The space shuttle that survived DoD critixcism and OMB trimming took longer to build than anticipated (almost yearly program extensions aimed at reducing the federal deficit didn’t help), and the original concept for a small orbiter on a large manned reusable booster was soon scrapped, for a larger, more expensive-to-operate system with a reduced development cost. Meanwhile, the 550 shuttle payloads envisioned in the 1980’s for the vehicle fell to about a hundred as NASA continued to be cut back, turning the economic promise of the system from gold to iron pyrites.

    Even worse, the difficulties of designing and building the shuttle were greater than anticipated. The aerodynamics of a larged delta-winged craft were not those for a smaller straight-winged platform; the returning craft had to cope with turbulence, and thus much greater aerodynamic heating; this led to a kludgy and far-from-tolerant heating protection system involving ceramic tiles which required a small army of inspectors continuously on the payroll all through the shuttle program, making the economics even more abysmal. The original flyback booster was cut back to a simple “dumb” throwaway tank; this proved too small, so it was augmented by a pair of oversized solid rockets, and then it proved impossible to ship the solids by conventional railroads, so a special facility had to be built near a seaway so …

    None of this made the vehicle cheaper to operate or safer, and none of it brought affection from the people who had originally fought for the concept of cheap, easy, one-stage-to-orbit spacecraft. The people who didn’t like manned space flight to begin with never developed a liking for shuttle. The people who were supposed to be enthused by the program had to the pleasure of seeing a school teacher die, and were rewarded for their further attention by 40 years of tedium.

    Which is, of course, the final problem. The space shuttle has been “good enough” that for thirty years it was cheaper to continue using the vehicle than to replace it. Which meant that the shuttle wasn’t an instrument of American space policy, it WAS that policy. We’d been to the Moon and no one was threatening to repeat the feat, so we had bragging rights to Leadership, and didn’t need to worry about the future. We had a vehicle which allowed NEO-oriented manned flight, so we got NEO manned flight and nothing else, and any attempt to build a successor (X33, etc.) was quickly terminated as an unnecessary expense. And until Columbia fell out of the sky, the White House and Congress and most of the public who followed space flight was apparently satisfied with what they were getting. Which was stagnation. But it’s always easier to do nothing than think about alternatives.


  4. kennethpkatz says:

    Manned spaceflight is a signature American achievement. Irregardless of its cost-effectiveness, it is symbolic of American prowess and elan. After Apollo, the choices were to halt American manned spaceflight or to continue it. And since it was unacceptable to halt it (see above), it had to be continued, and the space shuttle seemed the most plausible way to do so.


  5. Andy Prince says:

    Based on my limited readings about the subject, I think the neo-orthodox will provide the best framework for historical analysis. The shuttle decision was driven by a complex set of factors, such as the need to maintain the US lead in space exploration on a substantially lower budget than the Apollo years, as well as the desire to open space up to more people and the need to maintain the industrial base.


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