What is the Space Shuttle’s True Legacy?

By frank_sietzen
August 5, 2010
Filed under
What is the Space Shuttle’s True Legacy?

As the final flights of the Space Shuttle draw near, already some of us are awash in nostalgia for the winged beast, not withstanding its ruinous cost. For nearly a majority of Americans now living, there has never been an American spacecraft other than the Shuttle. Generation after generation have been born and grown to adulthood with the Shuttle missions flying, in many respects, transparently in the background, part of routine life. For millions all over the world, for some who love and for many who hate America, the Space Shuttle and its astronaut crews flying daring missions have become symbols of the American nation-an iconic self-image of who Americans like to think they still are: adventurers, risk takers, explorers. In times of triumph as well as moments of darkness.

But it is more than memories and nostalgia: can we now see the Shuttle in its historical context? Can we properly evaluate the unique role it has placed in the U.S. space program? Can we begin to assess its true legacy? And, most importantly, how to apply “lessons learned” to the next generation of government-owned or privately operated orbital spacecraft.

Looking back across the nearly four decades since President Richard M. Nixon made establishment of the “Space Transportation System” a national goal in January, 1972, the Shuttle design, shaped by political and budget limitations, looks truly incredible. From a 12-foot cone weighing 10,000 pounds, America moved in a single leap to a reentry vehicle 122 feet in length and 78 feet tall weighing 200,000 pounds, capable of carrying 50,000 pounds of cargo to orbit and back.

The early Shuttle missions – satellite deployments, retrievals and repair – are missions that could never be approved in today’s risk averse culture (and some of which were banned following the Challenger accident). The operations cost of the Shuttle system, devoid of space tugs and orbital maneuvering vehicles, soared along with the machine’s flights. But on missions flying Spacelab modules and Spacehab units, the orbiter came close to achieving its storied promise as a space-going truck.

Until the Columbia accident, the administration of Sean O’Keefe was trying to assess how much longer to fly the Shuttles, and what level of upgrades to approve and fund (think SLEP I and II). It was conceivable that NASA might keep the Shuttles flying well past 2020. After Columbia, O’Keefe got Presidential approval to end the Shuttle era with “completion’ of the ISS- a flexible designation. Bounded by the sacrosanct CAIB requirement of recertification much past 2010, the outlines of retirement were emerging as Discovery returned to flight five years ago this summer.

It is also clear that the series of commercial and government replacements for the entire Shuttle system is to be some form of capsule-and-booster system, the Sierra Nevada HL-20 notwithstanding. And with the political battle needed to add just one more flight to the existing manifest, the Space Shuttle era is ending in political disarray and uncertainty.

NASAWATCH posters, here’s my essay questions this week:

  • Was retirement of the Shuttle following ISS completion appropriate? If not why not?
  • What technological lessons have we learned from 132 (135) Shuttle missions, the good and the bad?
  • How will space operations of the next manned spacecraft incorporate the Shuttle experience?
  • How do you personally assess the era of the Shuttle? And
  • Give us some of your personal memories and experiences of the Shuttle in your life and career.

Comment here.

For me, I must admit I came of age during the Shuttle’s time, so I have feelings of nostalgia as its era comes to a close. I was a public official sitting in the Louisiana Governor’s office when Challenger went down. Just weeks before, I had participated in the latest Dial-A-Shuttle broadcast, then a program by the National Space Institute. I would eventually participate in about a dozen of those programs, adventures for an all-too willing Shuttlehugger (then) that led to many friendships that I still nurture today. The existence of the Shuttle program led me on a path, as a writer, that would take me from the bayou to the beltway and more opportunities than I had ever deserved to come my way. Had there been no Shuttle program, I might well be still there today, still pining to escape. But that’s another story. So, for me, it’s personal.

In the spring of 1984 NASA sent the prototype Space Shuttle, named OV-101 Enterprise to be the anchor space agency exhibit at the Louisiana World’s Fair in New Orleans. The Shuttle was to make the final lap of the trip by barge to the fair site, on the Mississippi River in downtown New Orleans. But before the Shuttle was loaded onto the barge, it made a flyover of the city aboard the 747 carrier aircraft used to transport the flying Shuttles Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis from the west coast landing site at Edwards dry lake to the Florida launch site (the Shuttle Endeavour would be added to the fleet to replace the lost Challenger). It was a cloudless blue sky that greeted me and a handful of my fellow Amoco Production Company employees who had gathered on the roof of our office building to see the spectacle unfold.

Gliding silently across the cityscape came the ungainly pair. The 747’s pilot made repeated sweeps over downtown New Orleans, so that the lunchtime crowd could see the craft, beautifully lit by the golden afternoon sun. Later, it rode that slower means of transport, the barge, for the last leg of the trip to the fair site. Just off the Mississippi River, NASA had built its exhibit, with the Enterprise as the main attraction.

Later, as a freelancer, I had an office of sorts on the grounds of the fair. As soon as I entered the fair site, I was transformed into a space writer. I followed the Astronaut Class of 1984 around when they came calling. I interviewed the STS-41C and D crews, including a dark eyed crewmember named Judy Resnik. I described the 41D pad abort for local TV sitting inside a NASA mockup of the Shuttle flight deck. I listened to Brian Duff’s tales of Reagan watching Shuttle videos at Camp David. I interviewed, thanks to a friend’s intervention, the entire Apollo 11 crew – in the time when they did few such interviews. In short, I had a blast. On weekends, I’d take the bus from my house in the Gentilly section of the city to the fair. Early in the mornings, just after the fair’s doors opened, there were few tourists about. I had to pass the Enterprise to get lunch or an ice creme cone, and I got comfortable seeing the silent ship in every time of day, often cloaked by crowds but sometimes just standing alone. The year was filled with Shuttle missions – including the Challenger’s race to save the Solar Max satellite and a flight that tested orbital refueling (only using water, not rocket fuel).

I went to KSC to see Discovery launch on 51G and in Houston flew the Shuttle simulator for an ascent run during 41G. Although used as a prototype for atmospheric testing, the Enterprise was the same size as, and looked much like its sister ships that would fly the flights to space and back. On one afternoon, I stopped to see a young boy and his father that stood ahead of me at the front of the Enterprise display. Looking up from the floor, the Shuttle looked enormous as it sat on its landing gear atop a small stand. The blond-headed boy exclaimed “Wow dad! Look how big it is!”. “It really is big”, his father replied, “much bigger than I thought”. All of those who fought so hard in Congress, and the thousands of spacers nationwide that fought to make the Shuttle a reality would have understood the affect it had back then on the public. It was big, much bigger than anyone thought. The largest manned spacecraft ever brought to operational status, the Shuttle dwarfed the space capsules of the past and future. In its huge size lay both its achievements and its limitations.

The voyages of the Space Shuttle brought America of age in living and working in space. But it would take at least a generation before we knew if the lives of the American people were made better for having lived during the era of its flights.