Wernher 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.