Home' Technology Review : May June 2011 Contents 40 Years Ago
technology review May/June 2011
As the space shuttle program winds
down (the last flight is scheduled for
June 28), it’s fair to ask: what did
we gain after several decades and roughly
Certainly, the program has had its suc-
cesses: shuttles have flown more than 130
missions, making possible decades of science
experiments in space. Shuttle crews car-
ried components of the International Space
Station into orbit, built it, and maintained
it. Crucial fixes to the Hubble Space Tele-
scope would have been unthinkable without
a vehicle like the shuttle.
On the other hand, the shuttle has kept
astronauts tethered to Earth orbit. The pro-
gram didn’t make spaceflight less expensive,
as was promised. The Challenger and Colum-
bia disasters caused 14 deaths between them.
In 2005, NASA administrator Michael Griffin
said the consensus was that the shuttle, from
the beginning, was “not the right path.”
A lot of the potential drawbacks were
apparent years before the shuttle first took
flight in 1981, as evidenced by a 1971 arti-
cle for Technology Review titled “Shall We
Build the Space Shuttle?” In that piece, John
M. Logsdon, a professor in the Program of
Policy Studies in Science and Technology
at George Washington University, laid out
the conflicting and sometimes dodgy ratio-
nales for the shuttle’s existence.
NASA leaders justify the shuttle in terms
of a variety of national needs, but it is also
true that the Agency must have an exten-
sive and technologically challenging new
program to maintain large development
centers at Houston and Huntsville ... Fur-
ther, the agency needs some semblance of a
future manned space flight program in order
to maintain its highly visible public image.
From the moment it was conceived, the
shuttle was at a disadvantage relative to the
Apollo program (which had two missions to
go at the time of Logsdon’s writing). Where
Apollo had a clear goal—to the moon and
back by the end of the 1960s—the shuttle
had no definite time frame or objective, and
it had to please many constituencies, each
with its own goals and motivations. It had
to be a worthwhile vessel for science experi-
ments. For the Pentagon’s sake, it had to be
plausible as a military asset. It had to cap-
ture the imagination of the American people.
The motivations underlying the decision
to begin Project Apollo were preeminently
political. Top priority was given to the
symbolic U.S. – Soviet competition in space
spectaculars ... Now, there is far less fear
of a Soviet threat to spur competition and
innovation. There is a general questioning of
the value of massive federal investments in
large scale technological enterprises. NASA
is being asked to demonstrate, in advance,
that its plans for the next decades have some
relevance to a revised set of national goals
and priorities ...
A mere two years after the Apollo 11 moon
landing, the public was already starting to
lose interest in space travel. Walter Mondale,
then a Minnesota senator, would soon call
the space shuttle a “senseless extravaganza.”
(However, his opposition would have little
effect: four of the five spaceworthy shuttles
would be constructed, at least in part, dur-
ing Mondale’s vice presidency under Jimmy
Carter.) Three prominent scientists—James
Van Allen, Thomas Gold, and Brian O’Leary
(who’d been part of NASA’s astronaut pro-
gram in the mid-1960s)—urged unmanned
missions instead. But as Logsdon pointed out,
politicians were reluctant to cede leadership
in spaceflight to the Soviets.
Although public enthusiasm for new
manned flight programs is now at an ebb,
it is difficult to conceive of a President of the
United States deciding in effect to abandon
manned space activities for the next decade
or more at a time when the Soviet Union
is developing increasingly more complex
and longer-duration earth orbital stations.
So was the shuttle the right path or not?
That’s debatable, but Logsdon’s article sug-
gests that by the early 1970s, the shuttle was
in favor less because of its superior technol-
ogy than because a lot of people had spent
a lot of time thinking about it and planning
for it. The idea had taken root.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that,
whatever the merits of the shuttle, this is
the wrong year for NASA to be asking for a
decision to proceed with its development ...
But now NASA has cranked up ... teams to
study the shuttle, and it would be difficult
and expensive, both for the agency and for
the firms competing for the contracts, to keep
those teams together for another year if the
decision on the shuttle were to be deferred.
Thus, although there is no strong techno-
logical or economic reason why the shuttle
decision should be made at this time, orga-
nizational momentum is pressing for a deci-
sion this winter.
TiMoThY MAh er is TR ’s As sisTAnT MAnAg ing ediTor.
Technology Review (issn 1099-274X), reg. U .s . Patent office, is published bimonthly by the Massachusetts institute of Technology. entire contents ©2011. The editors seek diverse views, and authors’ opinions do not represent the official
policies of their institutions or those of MiT. Printed by Brown Printing Company, Waseca, Mn. Periodicals postage paid at Boston, MA, and additional mailing offices. Postmaster: send address changes to Technology review, subscriber
services dept., Po Box 16327, north hollywood, CA 91615, or via the internet at www.technologyreview.com/customerservice. Basic subscription rates: $39 per year within the United states; in all other countries, Us$52. Publication Mail
Agreement number 40621028. send undeliverable Canadian copies to Po Box 1051 Fort erie, on L2A 6C7. Printed in U.s .A .
40 Years Ago in TR
One Small Misstep?
Questions about the merits of the space
shuttle are older than the program itself.
By TimoThy mAher
BACk To The drAWi ng BoArd This nAsA illustration from the shuttle’s
conceptual phase depicts the vehicle coming in for a landing.
May11 Years Ago.indd 96
3/29/11 5:33 PM
Links Archive March April 2011 July August 2011 Navigation Previous Page Next Page