Length of Human Spaceflight Programs from Inception to First Piloted Flight


I was struck recently during a short analysis of U.S. human spaceflight programs by the length of time it has taken to go from program approval to piloted flight. The time has been growing, as well as the cost. There are good reasons for some of this, not the least of which is the shoestring budgets allocated for these programs, the ever increasing complexity of the task before the project teams, and the incessant and sometime intrusive oversight brought to bear on these efforts. At the same time, I found the lengthening of the programs troubling. What do you think about this?

  • Mercury: approved October 1958, with first piloted (sub)orbital flight May 5, 1961 … 31 months.
  • Apollo: approved January 1961, with first piloted orbital flight in October 1968 … 91 months (first test orbital flight was in November 1967 … 80 months).
  • Space Shuttle: approved in January 1972, and first piloted orbital flight was in April 1981 … 111 months (first atmospheric flight of Enterprise was in February 1977 … 61 months).
  • The Constellation program was approved in January 2004, and the first piloted orbital flight had been scheduled for March 2015 … 134 months. (first noncrewed real test flight—ignoring Ares I-X—had been scheduled for September 2012 … 104 months).

So the plans at the point of the president’s new direction offered last year would have meant that Constellation was not intended to yield a piloted flight until 50 percent more time had passed than a similar point in the Apollo program and 20 percent longer to get to orbit in the Space Shuttle program. Could this have factored into the decision to take a new approach to human spaceflight by the Obama administration?

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3 Responses to Length of Human Spaceflight Programs from Inception to First Piloted Flight

  1. Hiram Sweet says:

    Well, the new approach hardly decreases the length of a piloted flight below that which Constellation promised. But the fact of the matter was that the Constellation program was making promises it wasn’t going to keep, at least partly because of congressional reluctance to shower the project with funds. The Augustine committee report is pretty much the insight that factored into the decision to take a new approach. In any case, I have a hard time believing that the elapsed time from project inception to first piloted flight was any kind of a metric for success. That elapsed time is largely a function of the funds available.

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  2. @tedsverse says:

    Would be worth considering how uncertainties or changes in mission/budgets effected these dates as much as just noting a shoestring budget. Mercury had a very short timeframe and limited objectives – so not as sensitive to changes. Gave a talk at the recent NASA PM challenge and it is surprising how much the Apollo funding curve looked the the ideal ones you read in a text book (peaking in phase C/D then was decreasing as entered E). So seemed to be not just the amount of funds but the stability of forces on programs as they progressed — even though as your works would show us the myth of overwhelming popular support was not always there and Webb and others were doing heavy lifting to keep the Apollo perceived stability true over many years.
    Great blog and research. Sorry I had to miss the chance to see your talk at IAA Humans in Space Conference.

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