Dick Nixon’s Space Program

Presidential decisions and the post-Apollo space program

Presidential decisions and the post-Apollo space program

Richard Nixon is the President all good liberals love to hate – the Darth Vader of American politics: paranoid, suspicious, duplicitous and just plain evil. It should come as no surprise then that his legacy in regard to the American civil space program would come under critical scrutiny by those who idolize his opposite number, a charming, virtuous and courageous John Kennedy. JFK sent America to the Moon on a towering pillar of flame, capped by the sleek, white needle of the thundering Saturn V. Nixon consigned us to permanent space mediocrity, lumbering our way to orbit on the short, squat ugly Space Shuttle, a vehicle that brings to mind nothing more than the adage that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Kennedy is remembered as the cool kid on the block, the budding rock star; Nixon is recalled as the old man on the corner, yelling at you to turn down your stereo and get off his lawn.

The new book by John Logsdon, the “Dean” of American space policy historians, is titled After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program. It is an engrossing read, but perhaps not in the way its author intended. As I made my way through the narrative, I continually recognized a different way to interpret events. That is not necessarily a criticism of the book per se, but as Logsdon is apparently intent on drawing “policy lessons” from the history of the decision to build the Space Shuttle, we should carefully consider exactly what those lessons might be.

The familiar story of the post-Apollo space program is well known to space advocates. As it is told in some circles, the brilliant achievement of the lunar landings was squandered by the skinflint Nixon in deciding against a manned mission to Mars (the next obvious goal). To his credit, Logsdon does not advance this popular mythology; his take is more subtle. He carefully outlines how Nixon took full advantage of the international prestige and goodwill that America received from the success of Apollo 11, but notes that Nixon did not have any particular interest in or love for the space program in general (but then, neither did Kennedy). How to move forward on a constrained and limited budget was the fundamental problem the American space program faced after Apollo. That the budget would be lower than Apollo (and in fact, much lower, although the exact amount was unknown at the time policy decisions were made) was a foregone conclusion. In September of 1969, a report from the Space Task Group (chaired by Vice President Spiro Agnew) advocated that a manned Mars mission should be America’s next major space goal. But that program direction was a non-starter in the White House, a non-starter on the Hill and a non-starter with the public.

Given this level of ambivalence, what was possible for America’s civil space program in the post-Apollo era? As more had to be done with less money, many believed that lowering the cost of space access was critical. This led to the idea that a reusable space plane would assure both lower costs and routine access to orbit. Although routine flight was achieved with the Shuttle, the technology needs for low cost were not fully understood and never really possible. Mythology has it that the completely reusable, winged booster + shuttle design of Max Faget was passed over for a cludgey, partly reusable drop-tank camel design of the eventual Shuttle. In fact, the fully reusable design was a “bridge too far” and would not have worked then (and even today, its feasibility is questionable). But even the partly reusable Shuttle could not live up to the high hopes for a low cost option of the “sophisters, economists and calculators” (in Edmund Burke’s memorable phrase).

In great detail, Logsdon traces the debate within the Executive Branch, an ongoing argument between NASA, the White House Science Advisor (later OSTP, Office of Science and Technology Policy) and the Bureau of the Budget (later OMB, Office of Management and Budget). To sell the Shuttle, NASA had to recruit multiple customers (most famously the Department of Defense). Logsdon notes that bringing DoD onboard levied specific requirements on payload sizing and cross-range capability (i.e., the ability to move the landing trajectory left or right of its descent path). One myth of Shuttle design is that this cross-range requirement led to the adoption of the large “delta-wing” configuration of the orbiter (increasing its mass and cost greatly). But NASA engineers had decided that this configuration helped to alleviate thermal issues during reentry and would have gone to something similar anyway.

The chronology and description of this decision process is valuable and I learned much from this section. The principal weakness of the book is in its conclusions, which are all too clearly colored by Logsdon’s disdain for Nixon. Logsdon levies the blame on Nixon’s shoulders for not setting a visionary, exciting space goal for the nation. But it is “perfectly clear” from his own narrative that there was no mood in the country for anything more than Shuttle. Moreover, you will search the book in vain for any detailed discussion of the opinions and influence of liberal Democrats in Congress regarding the space program (which were highly negative in the extreme). People like Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, Senators Proxmire, Mondale, and most notoriously (the brother of JFK) Ted Kennedy, all made negative and disparaging statements about the space program around the time of the first Moon landing. Nixon’s presidency spanned six Congressional terms, all of which transpired under majority control of both houses of Congress by the Democratic Party.

Logsdon criticizes Nixon for using the space program as a political pork barrel and vote-getter, with California’s aerospace industry being a major beneficiary of the Space Shuttle program (Nixon needed to carry the state in the 1972 election). But space pork didn’t start with Nixon; the location of the NASA Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston derives from the influence of two powerful southern Democrats in Congress, Lyndon Johnson and Albert Thomas of Texas. Nixon proposed much lower space budgets than those of the Apollo days, but most forget (and Logsdon doesn’t mention) that much of the Apollo era spending went to build permanent infrastructure (such as launch, assembly, and testing facilities), assets used by all other subsequent space programs. By design, those sunk costs were never to have been repeated. Logsdon repeats the standard line that “Nixon stopped building the Saturn V” but it was President Johnson who shut down Saturn production in 1968 after a review determined that we already had the number of vehicles necessary to accomplish the goal of a lunar landing.

Logsdon concludes that the decision to build the Shuttle was a “policy mistake,” but one should consider the alternatives. Apparently, Logsdon would have favored the “small shuttle-glider” design proposed by OMB during the policy debate. What if that path had been taken? We would have found that many of the technologies needed for a full-sized shuttle were more difficult to perfect than we thought. Besides, the shuttle-glider prototype was nothing more than the current “Flexible Path” approach (i.e., get technology first, destinations and goals later). Would that have led to the building of more capability or less? Perhaps we might have gone back to the capsule and big rocket days of Apollo (as we have apparently done now), but that would have meant no space station and it most certainly would have meant no manned Mars mission (the elusive Holy Grail space program that has kept us from doing anything of lasting value beyond LEO for more than forty years).

A hidden gem in the book (page 214) deserves special mention. William Niskanen, an analyst with OMB, describes two libertarian ideas – changes he believed would inject more money into the space program and help unburden the taxpayers. One idea was to bring rocks back from the Moon and sell them to the public, using those funds to support further space efforts – a plan, while inventive, that would not have generated anywhere near enough money. Niskanen’s other idea was for NASA to get out of the launch and spaceflight business and let the private sector develop the next generation of launch capability. Then, the federal government could contract for launch services from American business. In response to this suggestion, legendary NASA engineer and manager George Low told Niskanen that “the reason for not doing it is that it simply won’t work; if the idea is to cancel the space program, this might be a way to do it.” I almost bust a gut with laughter at that passage.

Laying the blame for 40 years of perceived mediocrity in space at Nixon’s feet may be satisfying, but it’s not particularly enlightening. The reason that there was no visionary goal for space after Apollo is because Apollo was not about space – it was about beating the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Once accomplished, there was no need for any crash space program, especially one as difficult and expensive as a manned Mars mission. Thus, NASA fell back on the classic von Braun architecture: the systematic extension of human reach into space through the consecutive building blocks of a shuttle-station-moon tug-Mars mission. Shuttle was intended as the first part of an extensible, permanent space faring system; it was never meant to be the “ultimate space vehicle” but rather, the first leg of a long journey. As for money for space, 40 years of funding at less than one percent of the federal budget might suggest to an objective observer that this level of spending is politically sustainable (even if it’s not the level that space buffs would want). The corollary to this recognition is that it is our challenge to construct an approach that makes progress with such funding levels, not to whine about our belief that it isn’t enough.

Still, this new book is worth reading, with the reservations expressed above. I cannot help but think that Logsdon’s conclusions – steeped in Beltway conventional wisdom – are driven more by his opinions of the presidency of Richard Nixon than by an objective evaluation of the historical facts surrounding Shuttle development. That the development of the Space Shuttle was a “policy mistake” is his long-held opinion and certainly one way to read the record. But other readings are possible and for all of its faults, that space program of recent memory was arguably better than the one we have now. I couldn’t help but think of an image: Dick Nixon’s space program as Pat Nixon in her good Republican cloth coat; Jack Kennedy’s space program as Marilyn Monroe, seductive in a mink coat.

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26 Responses to Dick Nixon’s Space Program

  1. Getting involved in the war in Europe during the rise of the Third Reich was very unpopular in America. But Roosevelt understood that the rise of global fascism in Europe and in Asia was a danger to American interest and to America itself. So he did whatever was possible to keep Britain afloat during its conflict with NAZI Germany. Roosevelt didn’t do that because it was politically popular– he did what he thought was best for the American people against a growing evil.

    The Moon program was never really popular in the United States. Just two years before the Moon landing in 1969, 1967 polls showed that 46% of Americans were against spending money to go to the Moon while only 43% were for it. Kennedy originally committed America to land on the Moon not because he loved space travel but because he wanted to do what was in the best interest of the United States in its Cold War battle with the Soviet Union. His announcement to go to the Moon came just after the Soviet Union had launched the first man into orbit. America, at the time was still way behind with only a suborbital flight (Alan Shepard) planned for its first attempt to fly into space.

    The Soviet Union was a highly secretive society. And we didn’t know if the Soviet dominoes that had already expanded into eastern Europe were now about to expand to the Moon and beyond. Kennedy was told that the US would have to spend enormous amounts of money in order to catch up and surpass the Soviet Union in space technology. So he– reluctantly– agreed to spend the money, not because it was popular but because he thought it was in the best interest of America and the American people. And it worked!

    Nixon, however, clearly viewed the Moon landings as a wasteful stunt. But he was hardly alone. I believe that a majority of Democrats felt that any money spent on space could be better spent helping to reduce poverty in America . I believe that most Democrats in Congress at the time, had only reluctantly supported the Kennedy-Johnson Moon program because both men were Democratic presidents. But once it was clear that the Soviets no longer had any interest in traveling to the Moon, Nixon along with the Democratic Party had no inhibitions about ending the lunar program and also any notions about setting up a lunar outpost or going to Mars. Nixon even told an angered Eugene Cernan that Cernan would probably be the last human on the Moon in the 20th century!

    Nixon’s support of the Space Shuttle, IMO, was very similar to Obama’s support of Commercial Crew development. I believe that Nixon viewed the Shuttle as a possible way of eventually getting the Federal government out of the manned space program– with private industry eventually purchasing Space Shuttles of their own for their own private purposes. President Obama pretty much shares the same Nixonian perspective, IMO.


  2. Mark R. Whittington says:

    One big problem was that no one could tell Nixon why he should expend political capital for a new, big program. Would a “detente” space program that invited the Soviets to be partners in a post Apollo program worked? Maybe, but that is a matter for alternate history.

    • billgamesh says:

      There is always the possibility of Hillary campaigning on a U.S.-Russia-China joint program to relocate the global nuclear arsenal into deep space on human crewed spaceships.

      Step one is send Super Heavy Lift Vehicles with wet workshop upper stages and robot landers into lunar polar “frozen” orbits.

      (a) Robot landers go down and land on the ice,
      (b) harvest water and turn some of it into propellent,
      (c) go back up and transfer the water to the workshops for shielding,
      (d) repeat till workshops have full radiation shields.

      Step two is send the military astronaut technicians to occupy the workshops and begin work.

      (a) Assemble the workshops into spaceship configuration,
      (b) receive the “pits” and other pulse and weapon components and process them,
      (c) test the weapons and pulse units and their respective target and propulsion systems,
      (d) send the spaceships into deep space on patrol.

      Step three is to continue lunar orbit operations by utilizing a part of the spaceship construction as GEO space stations. The stations transit back across cislunar space to GEO, replace the present satellite junkyard, and capture the over 100 billion dollar revenues of that industry.

      So instead of the nuclear powers spending that several trillion dollars on new submarines, bombers, and ICBM’s, they spend it on spaceships that will not only be a much safer deterrent, but will also be able to defend the Earth from asteroid and comet impacts, and explore the solar system. A giant leap in global connectivity, the end of the space debris problem, and an infrastructure poised to begin the ultimate international public works project- Space Solar Power. And eventually that power utilized for beam propelled commercial space transportation on the scale of commercial air travel and space colonization.

      Are you ready for Hillary, the queen of outer space?

      • billgamesh says:

        I would add the NewSpace Mob rages at any mention of state sponsored Super Heavy Lift Vehicles employed for Moon return but it is actually far easier to accomplish reusability with a Moon rocket. Consider that governmental resources could first fund development of the really big pressure-fed boosters that could enable a vehicle with 15 to 30 million pounds of lift-off thrust.

        A) Dropping a pair (or more?) of these “methane monsters” in the ocean and recovering them like the space shuttle SRB’s will work. Any doubts?

        B) The core hydrogen stage reaches Earth escape velocity and heads for the Moon. At this point the core engine package separates from the wet workshop, and with it’s own heat shield, self-wrapping seawater-proofing system, etc. continues on a free return around the Moon and a week or so later parachutes into the ocean like the boosters for recovery. It would be a shame to waste that free return.

        C) The empty wet workshop stage with robot lander attached inserts into lunar orbit using the large ascent engine of lander (this engine has sufficient power because it has to lift a load of water up to the workshop).

        D) Robot lander separates and descends using smaller variable thrust engines.

        Launching six of these missions a year for ten years would put the equivalent of 60 giant crew compartments with more interior space than the ISS in lunar orbit for about the cost of the shuttle program.

        Plenty of variations on this theme of course. The point being that small cheap rockets with clusters of low thrust engines are not the miracles they are being advertised as. Using them to take lego blocks and a few gallons of gas at a time into LEO is a dead end. They are actually pretty useless for Human Space Flight Beyond Earth Orbit. There is no cheap.

  3. William Mellberg says:

    Surely John Logsdon must know that Saturn V production was halted by Lyndon Johnson, not Richard Nixon. But so many historians these days are writing history through the filter of political correctness. And, as you suggest in your excellent review, Democrats = Good and Republicans = Bad according to the politically correct template. Which, of course, accounts for the demise of the Constellation Program and the rise of the Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM). But Obama’s ARM boondoggle makes Nixon’s Space Shuttle look like sheer genius, by comparison.

    In fact, the Space Shuttle was a fantastic program and a remarkable flying vehicle. It certainly heralded a new era in space flight, even if the Shuttle itself failed to live up to the twin promises of routine access to space and reduced cost in getting there. It was a pioneering winged space vehicle, and it paved the way toward the future. Its record of achievement is long and outstanding, despite the two tragedies that marred that record.

    Unfortunately, NASA is going back to “capsules” that a cynic might describe as “Soyuz on steroids,” and space exploration is not a priority in the current White House. I suspect Richard Nixon authorized more unmanned space exploration missions than Barack Obama.

    BTW, your depictions of the Left’s view of Kennedy and Nixon in the first paragraph is perfect.

    How I wish America’s space program could be de-politicized. But the fact of the matter is that it was politicized long ago. I still remember the protestors outside the gates when I went to the Kennedy Space Center for the Apollo 17 launch. “Spend money on people, not Moon rocks!” they shouted. And for better or worse, they’ve now been heard.

    • President Johnson had 15 Saturn V rockets built during his administration, plus 14 Saturn IB rockets (29 heavy lift vehicles). Two Saturn V rockets went unused by the Nixon and Ford administrations and four Saturn IB rockets went unused by the Nixon and Ford administrations. The last use of one of these rockets was in 1975– seven years after Johnson was out office (two years after his death).

      With the escalating financial cost of the Vietnam War, there was really no logical reason for Johnson to build more Saturn V and Saturn IB rockets than he did during his administration. The Nixon and Ford administrations built no new Saturn V or Saturn IB rockets during their administrations– even though they basked in the glory of the Apollo/Skylab era.


      • William Mellberg says:

        In hindsight, the Johnson Administration authorized just about the right number of Saturn IB and Saturn V rockets for Apollo, Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). The 15 Saturn Vs could have been used through Apollo 20, had that mission not been cancelled so that Skylab could be launched as a ‘dry’ workshop. That decision provided a couple of spare Saturn IBs, which would have been flown had Skylab been launched as a ‘wet’ workshop. Too bad at least one of them was not used for a fourth Skylab mission after ASTP.

        The late Konrad Dannenberg, who was deputy manager of the Saturn V program, told me many years ago that Launch Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Center was designed to support many more lunar missions and a relatively high launch rate. Von Braun’s team was assuming that the United States would continue lunar exploration beyond the initial Apollo missions with the establishment of a permanent lunar base in the 1970s. That is why the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) had four high bays, and why NASA’s original plan was to have three launch pads. (Only three of the high bays could actually be used at any given time as only three Mobile Launchers were built.)

        Dannenberg noted that five Saturn V rockets were launched in the 12-month period between December 1968 and November 1969. That was nearly one launch every two months, a number that was made possible by the three usable high bays in the VAB and the two launch pads (39-A and 39-B), as well as the two Crawler-Transporters. Seven Saturn Vs were launched in the two-year period between Apollo 6 and Apollo 13. In retrospect, that was a rather remarkable achievement.

        Had the will (read “money”) existed in Congress and elsewhere, a very extensive program of lunar exploration could have been carried out during the 1970s given the capacity of Launch Complex 39.

        That capacity was later put to good use by the Space Shuttle program, although the Space Transportation System never achieved the 14-day turnarounds and high launch rates that were originally envisioned.

        I hope Launch Complex 39 is put to good use again some day.

  4. Joe says:

    Interesting article.

    Now I will probably have to buy the book.

    I will note one thing. The decision to proceed with Shuttle had (I believe) one other set of alternatives, which would have involved making incremental improvements in existing hardware.

    For (probably) less money and certainly less technical risk you could have had:

    (1) A Heavy lift vehicle (for Station Module and BEO launches):


    (2) A medium lift vehicle (for crew launches):


    (3) A crew transport vehicle:


    All based on existing and well understood hardware. There were other possibilities as well using the J-2 engines in a first stage.

    These were passed over for the allure of developing entirely new hardware. It is far too late to recoup this capability, but it is interesting to note that throwing out all the Shuttle developed equipment would be repeating the same mistake.

    • billgamesh says:

      I will probably not read the book, I am more about the decisions that were made and the hardware. I could care less whether the left or right is more to blame and am pretty sick of ideologies screwing up reality.

      From what I can tell, space exploration is a mess. It should have all turned around in 2010 when the evidence for ice at the lunar poles came in. Instead, everything turned to…..

      • billgamesh says:

        But we should be getting some better pictures of Ceres soon. If politics and corrupt politicians had not stranded us in LEO for the last 40 years we could be landing a spaceship there. It is sad.

  5. gbaikie says:

    “Besides, the shuttle-glider prototype was nothing more than the current “Flexible Path” approach (i.e., get technology first, destinations and goals later). Would that have led to the building of more capability or less? ”

    The advantage of building a smaller shuttle, is you could build a larger one later.
    NASA approach should been to find ways to lower the cost to get to orbit. rather than decide
    the Shuttle would ower cost to space.
    Or the Shuttle should be an experimental spacecraft. And experimental spacecraft would tend to start small.
    Or basically they made a bad bet, and assumed the the Shuttle would enable US use of LEO.
    And we still have not done this.
    So NASA built a camel. Camels have uses and one can use camels in various ways.
    Instead the bet should be on find a path, rather asserting the true path [which had to be wrong- there zero chance of being it] So Shuttle was the Spruce Goose with a lot funding. rather trying to develop and focus on making many kinds of Spruce Geese,
    Or one say we underestimate the task. NASA gave Nixon “the answer” and there a answer to give, but rather an answer to find. So not Nixon’s fault, the the agency who task to advise president and Congress of how to do it, which was the failure.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      The advantage of building a smaller shuttle, is you could build a larger one later.

      Yes, I understand that’s possible in principle. My point was that it would not have been done — waning interest in space by politicians would ensure such an outcome.

      Or basically they made a bad bet, and assumed the the Shuttle would enable US use of LEO.

      We did have access to LEO — for thirty years with the Shuttle.

      • gbaikie says:

        **The advantage of building a smaller shuttle, is you could build a larger one later.

        Yes, I understand that’s possible in principle. My point was that it would not have been done — waning interest in space by politicians would ensure such an outcome.**

        I don’t get the impression that the Shuttle bolstered the interest in space of politicians.
        I assume the waning interest in space by politicians occurred shortly after Apollo 11.
        Though it does not seems like that they generally had much interest of which was reduced.
        Or I would say there were many other things which cost less had more of their interests..
        And seems many in public tend to imagine the Shuttle was capable of going to the Moon. Which indicates to me, a lack of specific interest.

        It seems Shuttle unique and remarkable achievement was related to Hubble Telescope.
        But the Next generation telescope didn’t want to follow Hubble.
        Why is that? Are they merely misinformed?
        And Hubble came from existing defense satellites. Which also did not require the Shuttle.
        One could also point to ISS.
        It was bigger and better than Mir. But the Russia has very little funding for it’s space agency. And of course Russians didn’t need a Shuttle for it’s space stations.

        Anyways, it seems NASA could done other things which could held held the interest of politicians- assuming that is important, or as important engaging the public in general..
        It seems to me what make politicians happier less things that bother them- so on time and under budget is probably what they want the most.

        So I don’t get that there was some emergency that the Shuttle
        program solved.
        And seems to me that SpaceX gets as much public involvement as the Shuttle did, and it’s not like SpaceX is trying that hard- or one say it’s a minimalist effort, and not something they are required to do. And they are not even sending any crew yet.

        It seems there was a lot missed opportunity.
        Which is generally speaking is hard to measure.
        Now, of course this does not mean I want ISS to be crashed into the Ocean somewhere around 2024, nor that I don’t like the Hubble pictures.

        And I think the New telescopes should have been made to be serviced in space. And I knew the shuttle could never reach the moon.
        I guess on personal level, I just know there is a lot to do.
        At moment interested in what we going to find out about Ceres.

    • billgamesh says:

      “So Shuttle was the Spruce Goose-”

      The Goose is a fascinating aviation story but I do not see the parallel with the shuttle. For all it’s faults the shuttle did place twenty plus tons at a time into LEO on 134 of 135 missions. If not for breaks after the two losses and certain difficulties in “turning around” the orbiter a much larger number of missions would have been launched. The solid fuel technology used has always been the most interesting part of the system to me. Super powerful monolithic versions had already been tested but were not used, while pressure-fed liquid boosters would have eliminated the toxic exhaust products. They were poor choices but still provided more power than has ever been seen from a pair of boosters. The 5 segment version for the SLS at 3.6 million pounds of thrust is awesome.

      The SRB’s at 650 tons each and producing 1400 tons of thrust each flew 271 times (counting the Ares1X) with one failure. Some of the first steel casings over a quarter century old were used on the Ares1X so the SRB segments were very reusable- they just did not “break even.” Since very precise methods of inspecting the casings and solid fuel were eventually developed and insured a perfect record, I personally consider enabling that reliability by recovering the boosters for post flight inspection more than breaking even. If the Challenger SRB had sprayed hot gases outward at a different angle instead of searing a hole in the support strut…..history would be different.

      As I have commented, it was a case of going cheap. A cargo version of the
      shuttle would not have risked astronauts lives hauling satellites and would have had a much larger payload. So in an alternate history the shuttle in a crew and separate cargo version could have become the successful sole provider of access to space. As I commented below the Air Force certainly could have used the orbiter as a spy plane with a large telescope and other sensors in the cargo bay to point down at the Earth. Dr. Spudis has also commented in the past about what a superb observation platform it was.

      A upper stage may have eventually been designed to be carried by the cargo version up to a waiting Moon return craft of some kind. But going cheap often means you end up with nothing. In reality there was a proposal to put a Centaur in the cargo bay as a “space tug” and the two senior astronauts at the time threatened to resign before riding with a “bomb” in a vehicle that already had no escape system.

      The biggest mistake in my view was Sidemount. It was the opportunity to make it all good with a real space program and escape LEO. I still get depressed whenever I think I about it.

  6. billgamesh says:

    “But NASA engineers had decided that this configuration helped to alleviate thermal issues during reentry and would have gone to something similar anyway.”

    I cannot remember in which of the half a dozen books on the Shuttle I have read where it talked about it, but the “rumor” was that the wing was the only way to get the cross-range military requirement: to allow the Shuttle to steal a Soviet Spy Satellite and then land in one orbit. It is just crazy enough that I believe it. I never understood why the giant cargo bay when there is really nothing to bring back from space; the whole point is putting stuff up there where it won’t fall back to Earth. The best configuration for a glider-return was with a separate cargo container- just returning the crew and SSME’s would have made for a much smaller orbiter and a much larger payload.

    I have commented on several other forums that the Shuttle was a case of “going cheap” and this claim brings howls of outrage from the NewSpace fans. But it should have been made of titanium, not aluminum. It was definitely a cheap design. From SP-4221 The Space Shuttle Decision:

    “Late in 1969, Air Force officials stated that they wanted to build the orbiter using a conventional aluminum airframe, along with whatever form of [332] thermal protection would be appropriate. In contrast to strong reliance on titanium in hot structures, this preference for aluminum stemmed from an Air Force finding that the aerospace industry faced a shortage of the specialized machine tools needed to fabricate large structural parts from titanium alloy.

    Overall, the advantages of titanium promised a complete orbiter, including thermal protection, that would weigh some fifteen percent less than a counterpart built of aluminum. With the titanium orbiter requiring less thermal protection, it also would cost less to refurbish between missions. Though the higher cost and risk of titanium would militate in favor of aluminum once NASA faced the OMB’s cost ceiling, the merits of titanium encouraged its use during NASA’s design work of 1970 and 1971.”

    Another aspect of this “going cheap” was the failure to develop the pressure-fed boosters and instead going with the already existing solid fuel technology. The pressure fed designs would have been big monolithic monsters and never subject to the rail restrictions of the segmented SRB’s that really crippled the STS by limiting it to less lift-off thrust than the Saturn V. In any case I consider the entire LEO scheme a dead end then just as it is a dead end now. We left LEO behind in 1968 and humans never should have went back. The place to assemble structures was in GEO or lunar orbit but the expense of lifting radiation shielding made that impractical. While ice at the lunar poles was guessed at even in the 60’s, there was little evidence until 2010. We should be in the process of beginning a second space age at this point but instead NewSpace seems determined to keep humankind stranded in LEO another 40 years.

  7. William Mellberg says:

    “I never understood why the giant cargo bay when there is really nothing to bring back from space …”

    One goal of the Space Shuttle was to bring back satellites for repair, refurbishment and relaunch. Of course, this was only done once with two Hughes communications satellites early in the program (STS-51-A). Two other satellites were repaired on orbit, as I recall (Solar Max and Leasat 3). The Hubble Space Telescope was serviced and repaired several times using the large payload bay as a work platform. And there had been talk about bringing the Hubble Space Telescope back to the ground, as well. So besides providing the volume to launch large payloads, the big cargo bay also enabled the Space Shuttle to do perform useful maintenance.

    The Soviet approach with their Energia-Buran system might have been better. Buran did not have the Space Shuttle’s three, heavy engines attached to its tail. So it was a lighter vehicle that probably could have carried heavier payloads both up and down. Moreover, Energia could be flown unmanned with a large cargo payload strapped to its side in place of the Buran shuttle, as was the case on its first launch. We could have had something similar with Shuttle-C.

    I always thought it would have been nice had the Europeans proceeded with their Hermes spaceplane. Its smaller size would have been good for the routine exchange of ISS crews, and it might have complemented the Space Shuttle in that regard.

    In any case, as you point out, we are going backward and staying in LEO for the foreseeable future thanks to the NewSpace delusion that “average people” will soon be routinely flying into space on joyrides. But those “average people” will have to be millionaires and billionaires to afford the price of a ticket. NewSpace puts the holiday whims of a few wealthy elites above the greater good of space exploration that benefits all with its gains in scientific knowledge.

    • Joe says:

      “Two other satellites were repaired on orbit, as I recall (Solar Max and Leasat 3). The Hubble Space Telescope was serviced and repaired several times using the large payload bay as a work platform.”

      The use of the Shuttle as a platform for maintenance and assembly (including the early stages of the ISS assembly) was one of it’s big advantages. I do not know if it was intended from the beginning, but it certainly turned out that way and that is a fact often ignored in the recitals of its shortcomings.

      “The Soviet approach with their Energia-Buran system might have been better. Buran did not have the Space Shuttle’s three, heavy engines attached to its tail. So it was a lighter vehicle that probably could have carried heavier payloads both up and down. Moreover, Energia could be flown unmanned with a large cargo payload strapped to its side in place of the Buran shuttle, as was the case on its first launch. We could have had something similar with Shuttle-C.”

      The Soviets heavily copied, but also improved upon the Shuttle design. One of the only regrets to have about the collapse of the Soviet Union was the end of the Energia/Buran Program.

      The primary practical difference between pure science and engineering is that science seeks the one correct answer, while engineering seeks a way to produce a capability from among a number a practical solutions. Each of those solutions have positives and negatives, the trick is picking the best which is always to some extent subjective. Which is why the decisions made can always be argued and re-argued.

      • billgamesh says:

        I thank God you did not say it is all a “trade-off” Joe. I have seen that phrase used by NewSpace sycophants ad nauseam. So sick of it.

        As for justifying the shuttle cargo bay as a “work platform”, I might agree if there was any gravity. A shuttle without a cargo bay could just as effectively latch on to a satellite, or use a separate expendable container as an anchor. I don’t want to demonize the shuttle, may it rest in peace, but I am no fan either. If we learn the lessons it taught I consider it worth the money. And in my view one of those lessons is that bringing an empty cargo bay back to Earth was a huge waste and a fundamental mistake in the design. In any case LEO was not the place to go so besides the obvious flaw of wasting most of the lift of a Saturn V class propulsion system on wings, landing gear, airframe, etc., I believe the entire concept was a mistake. Before anyone is too offended let me repeat: If we learn the lessons it taught I consider it worth the money.

        But….I have commented before on loading that bay with extra life support pallets and a solar panel array and doing 6 month missions with it. So a small lab and that equipment would have filled up the bay and been worth bringing back to Earth. We would not have needed to spend 150 billion dollars (by one of various pricing schemes) on the space station to nowhere. And the entire NewSpace abomination would have been aborted.

        It would have been the ultimate spy plane and that the Air Force ignored this I attribute to the defense industry not liking the lower profit margin of Human Space Flight.

        • Joe says:

          “I thank God you did not say it is all a “trade-off” Joe. I have seen that phrase used by NewSpace sycophants ad nauseam. So sick of it.”

          No need to hate a phrase just because others have misused it. For instance, your post lists several other concepts that (believe it or not) have been the subject of trade studies. They were never selected for implementation and that leads to the main point of that part of my post:

          “Each of those solutions have positives and negatives, the trick is picking the best which is always to some extent subjective. Which is why the decisions made can always be argued and re-argued.”

          If you want to see some very different concepts that were never selected you might want to check out the links at my post dated April 11, 2015 at 3:20 pm. Keep in mind that those are only some of the iterations for use of Apollo/Saturn (and even Gemini) hardware in new configurations and with incremental upgrades.

    • billgamesh says:

      “-the NewSpace delusion that “average people” will soon be routinely flying into space on joyrides.”

      The “deluded average” will continue to be manipulated and exploited just as they have always been. Most people do not believe they have any power to change the world except by playing follow the leader. The leadership we are presented with is mostly about exploitation and taking advantage of this facet of human nature. On the left and right. Each of us turn out following what we consider the lesser evil because it is the only option we think we have. The great human failing is taking the easy way out and rejecting reality in favor of blindly cheering for “our” hero or team. It is an invitation to thieves and liars.

      Space exploration is the perfect study of the big lie because it completely mixes up all the sides being played off against each other. People left of center and right of center get confused and the only explanation is….we are being taken advantage of by thieves and liars. In my view the Military Industrial Complex is the main villain in this story. Defense is easy money, Human Space Flight is hard money; Norm Augustine could explain that. But because the players so effectively wrap themselves in the flag they are largely immune to criticism.

      The Ayn-Rand-in-Space libertarian Musk worshipers think they have it all figured out. They are being used as tools. The NewSpace solution is the worst thing that has ever happened to space exploration. My solution is to follow my trade- I am a troubleshooter. The reasons to go into space were explained best by Gerard K. O’Neill. We have had the technology and wealth to accomplish such a vast public works project for a long time. There is no guarantee that will continue and the best way to safeguard civilization is to go into space…now.

      The ice on the Moon is the enabling resource that should be the central focus of all space advocacy. Instead, the world is watching a hobby rocket trying to land on a barge.

    • billgamesh says:

      In my view as long as the money keeps flowing the space tourism industry for the uber-rich will be attempted and of course fall flat on it’s face the moment government support is removed. Though the two companies involved deny it, those faux escape systems on the two ISS taxis are ultimately meant to boost Bigelow tourist stations.
      There can be no other reason for filling up those capsules with hypergolic chemicals from hell. It makes a mockery of crew survivability.

      In some aspects it reminds me of the British airship industry collapse. This is an amazing story not well known and a “what if” that has always fascinated me. There were two problems with the commercial airship industry that spelled it’s doom but those problems were not insurmountable. The first problem was hydrogen and the expense and lesser lift of the alternate helium. The solution was a double envelope with an outer layer of nitrogen as a barrier to ignition. The second problem was the turbulence found at low altitudes which virtually guaranteed airship disasters when they were ripped apart in storms. The solution to this was pressurized cabins so the airships could fly above the hazardous weather. Unfortunately the technology to easily cook gasoline into hydrogen and separate nitrogen out of the air, as well as superchargers to effect high altitude pressurization, was not available and an alternate history where thousand foot long airships numbering in the thousands filled the skies of Earth never happened.

      The two problems with space travel are the rocket equation and space radiation. With microwave beam propulsion systems as proposed by Kevin Parkin, Single Stage to Orbit commercial space travel could finally become a reality. The problem is to escape Earth gravity it would really require beaming energy down from GEO as a surrogate second stage and this means Space Solar Power. The second problem is space radiation and the only way to shield space travelers is with a massive water shield massing several hundred, and more likely, several thousand tons. The solution is the ice and mineral resources on the Moon. The ice, as I already commented, should be the main focus right now of all space advocates. Hopefully Human Space Flight is not delayed a century or more in the same way the British airship industry failed to launch.

      • William Mellberg says:

        Two points:

        One is that another factor that will kill “commercial” space joyrides is when the first group of uber-rich passengers gets killed. Look at the dent the SpaecShipTwo accident has already put on Virgin Galactic. Imagine losing half a dozen millionaires and billionaires in flight. Corporate boards would put an end to wannabe astronauts risking their necks for a few minutes of weightlessness and a fabulous view.

        The other point goes to your comments about airships. The R101 disaster happened, in part, because it was a government subsidized “socialist airship” (as the detractors dubbed it). The R100, built by Vickers, made a successful journey to Montreal and back. But the demise of the R101 on her maiden voyage ended the entire enterprise, and the R100 never flew again.

        The Germans were far more successful in taming big, hydrogen airships. But the newsreel footage of the Hindenburg disaster spelled the end of their dreams, as well. Although the Zeppelin company was planning to build a fleet of even bigger ships with Goodyear, utilizing helium as the lifting gas, that plan was nixed because of the Nazi regime. Even if it had gone forward, those giant airships still would have been subject to the weather-related problems you cite.

        In short, long-distance airship travel was a dead end. Those glorious dreams of giant luxury airships routinely crossing the world’s oceans carrying 100 passengers each never came to fruition.

        I suspect some of the “commercial” space ventures will be, too — especially, as you say, if taxpayer dollars should dry up.

  8. libs0n says:

    “Niskanen’s other idea was for NASA to get out of the launch and spaceflight business and let the private sector develop the next generation of launch capability. Then, the federal government could contract for launch services from American business. In response to this suggestion, legendary NASA engineer and manager George Low told Niskanen that “the reason for not doing it is that it simply won’t work; if the idea is to cancel the space program, this might be a way to do it.”

    George Low was flat wrong as is evident in the Department of Defense, NASA’s Science program, and now the manned ISS program using contracted launch services for their space program needs. This launch services sector provides reliable and dynamic and constantly improving competitive launch services as evident in the operations of the EELVs, The Falcon 9 vehicles, ULA’s next gen rocket program that will lower the cost of their services, SpaceX’s reusability efforts, and the newly competitive advantage on the global launch market that will increase America’s winning of that business. In the case of NASA, the commercial crew program will deliver two capsules before the end of the this decade that exceed the crew transport capabilities of any other nation’s manned space program and using the commercial launch vehicles. You can have a vibrant continuing space program using Niskanen’s idea.

    If you’re going to point to a gap between one system operating and another new system, that gap existed even with the space shuttle with the gap between Apollo and the Shuttle. It existed with Project Constellation with the gap between the Space Shuttle and Ares 1 operations. It exists even with SLS and Orion being created. A gap is not the same thing as “the space program is cancelled” even if it is falsely maligned as such, and the non-commercial launch services approach can and does have gaps.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      Your reading comprehension skills continue to atrophy (if they ever existed). Low was correct and was speaking in regard to the private sector developing “the next generation of launch vehicles.” The current crop of contractors (NOT “private sector” by any means) are using 1960’s technology and their development costs were financed by the federal government.

      Niskanen was wrong then and is still wrong.

    • Joe says:

      “Your reading comprehension skills continue to atrophy (if they ever existed).”

      True, but your capability to string together random buzz phrases continues to improve.
      – dynamic
      – constantly improving
      – newly competitive advantage
      – vibrant

      Next time work in
      – innovative
      – game changing
      – paradigm shifting
      and of course the ever popular
      – 21st Century (presumably to be someday updated to 22nd Century)

      Then your list of clichés will be complete.

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