Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[387] As the 1970s began, the Space Shuttle, scheduled for the 1980s, looked very much like the keystone of the future for the space program. Nevertheless, even experts were hard put to follow all the ins and outs of the seemingly infinite variety of tradeoffs between technical and economic factors that had to be considered in arriving at the final design of the new space vehicle. Bypassing all of that, plans boiled down to the following. The Shuttle would be able to:
The development cost, spread over the decade of the 1970s, was estimated at some $5 billion (1971 dollars). The operating cost per flight, including refurbishment, was expected to be on the order of $10 million (again in 1971 dollars).21
The idea of a shuttle to space was not new. Various schemes for using lifting bodies to return passengers to earth after flight in space were floating around in the 1950s, but the United States was not then prepared to make much of them. With imagination one could visualize the X-15 as an early step toward a manned space launcher.22 The Air Force's Dyna-Soar, which was never completed, would have been still another step.23 But none of these posed the challenges that an operational space plane would. The problems of aerodynamics, structure, thermal protection, and guidance and control in creating a vehicle that would go into orbit like a space launcher and thereafter return to earth and land like an airplane were intimidating. A great deal of work had to be done before one could seriously contemplate proceeding with the project. But after additional years of experience in high-speed flight with the X-15 and Apollo programs, in 1968 and 1969 a number of NASA members including George Mueller, head of the Office of Manned Space Flight, were ready to promote a space shuttle. Even so, many industrial representatives were frank to say that they were not sure the project could yet be pulled off, considering that not only did the technical problems have to be solved, but it all had to be done cheaply by aerospace standards.
And that factor of economy lay at the heart of the shuttle's salability. After the very expensive Apollo, in the midst of a period of economic recession, inflation, and dwindling balance of trade, the country was not about to support another costly space project unless it had some clearly foreseeable practical benefits. National concern with issues other than space had permitted the NASA budget to fall from its peak of a little more than $5 billion in the mid-1960s to about three-fifths the peak value at the end [389] of the decade. The agency would be fortunate if it could keep the budget from going even lower. As has been seen, sentiment in part of the space community to continue with an extensive use of Apollo hardware led to the abortive planning of an Apollo Applications program. Administrator Thomas Paine and Vice President Spiro Agnew would have liked the country to send astronauts to the planets, but that simply wasn't in the cards. Paine and others would also have favored establishing a very large, permanent space station in orbit. As both Paine and Abe Silverstein described the proposition, that would be "the next logical step" in the development of space for man's use. Much of the necessary experience and know-how had already been acquired in the Gemini and Apollo programs, and it was simply a matter of deciding to make a space station and then doing it.
But there was a flaw in this reasoning. A space station would require frequent logistic flights. With Saturn and Apollo hardware, these would entail enormous expense, hardly the kind of economy that was being demanded.
It took a while, but gradually the message came through. Reluctantly space program managers let go of their more exotic dreams and turned attention to discerning what the country might be willing to support. It became clear that the space program for the foreseeable future would have to emphasize specific returns for the large investments that had been made. As they had repeatedly emphasized throughout the 1960s, members of Congress would favor a strong effort on applications. Also, there appeared to be a continuing support for a substantial space science program. Technology that would clearly be helpful in tackling problems on earth was also a salable item. But whatever was undertaken would have to be done at a much lower cost than hitherto. It appeared that only by becoming much more efficient in the use of dollars could the space program continue in any shape comparable to that of the 1960s.
That was perhaps the major issue in the years of discussion that preceded the decision finally to build the Space Shuttle. The operational capabilities proposed for the new craft were very attractive, to Europeans as well as to Americans, and captured the interest of many scientists. Unlike Apollo, which most of the scientific community appeared to oppose at the beginning, the Space Shuttle had the interest and at least the tentative support of some leading scientists. Even as James A. Van Allen and Thomas Gold spoke out against a shuttle program, many of their colleagues gave it their conditional endorsement.24
During the summer of 1970 the National Academy of Sciences made a study of priorities in the nation's space science program.25 Inevitably the Space Shuttle came in for much discussion. In a lecture to the study participants, Hermann Bondi, head of the European Space Research Organization, [390] expressed his support for the Shuttle, a view that may have reflected the growing interest of the Europeans in cooperating with the United States on some aspect of a shuttle program.26 One could detect among many of the American scientists a decided interest. But their support was contingent upon a number of conditions.
The study participants made much of the fact that they did not want to get again into a large-scale, manned spaceflight program. They made it plain that they had found much of their experience with the Apollo program distasteful. Hence, if the Shuttle program were to be merely a means to continue a manned spaceflight activity, it would forfeit their interest. In the scientists' view the Shuttle should be developed and operated as a tool to support the country's principal objectives in space, one of which was space science. Astronauts would, of course, fly the Shuttle, and on some missions other passengers might go along; but the controlling elements on each flight should be the technology, applications, or science objectives of the mission.
If a proper perspective were maintained on the agency's objectives, that would mitigate the effect on other programs of the large budgets that would be needed to develop the Shuttle. With the proper perspective, the agency would devote the necessary funds to continuing a strong space science program and to preparing in advance for the use of the Shuttle when it became operational. But the scientists were worried that NASA might not cherish the proper perspective. They had seen the large budgets for Apollo force the curtailment of the Ranger and Surveyor projects and the cancellation of the Advanced Orbiting Solar Observatory. As if to emphasize the point, at the time of the summer study the scientists were wrestling with the impact the expensive Viking-itself a space science project strongly endorsed some years before by a different Academy of Sciences study-was having on other projects favored by space scientists, such as Pioneer missions to Venus.27
These two themes-that the Shuttle should be considered a tool and used as a tool to support space science and that its development and deployment should not be allowed to cripple NASA's other programs-scientists kept reiterating in the Space Science Board, in NASA's Space Program Advisory Council and its committees, and in numerous NASA working groups. There were many aspects to the related issues. If the Shuttle were to be a useful tool, it had to be easy to use. In the view of the scientists, that would call for sharply less documentation and testing of equipment than had been required in the Apollo program; schedules also had to be streamlined. As Deputy Administrator Low told the author, it had cost 10 times as much to prepare a magnetometer for the Apollo project as it had to prepare a similar one for an unmanned project. In fact, the main point that the tool should be made to fit the hand, not the hand distorted to fit the tool.
[391] Because of these concerns, in October 1972 NASA put together a Shuttle users group to discuss periodically with the administrator and various program managers how to use the shuttle when it came into being.28 Many groups were already wrestling with how to build the Shuttle and what to use it for, but no group was adequately addressing itself to the question of how it could be run to make the most of its potential. The single most important recommendation to come out of the meetings of this panel was to operate the Shuttle in such a way that the tool did not overshadow the application.
Pursuing both questions, what to do with the Shuttle and how to operate it so as best to serve its users, NASA sponsored still another in the long chain of summer studies on major issues facing the agency. This study was conducted at Wood's Hole, Massachusetts, in July 1973.29 Again the National Academy of Sciences conducted the study, most of which was devoted to what the Shuttle, particularly the Spacelab it would carry on board, could do for the space program. By that time the scientists had developed a restrained, somewhat worried interest in the vehicle. There was more willingness than hitherto to assume that perhaps the craft could be developed and flown in such a way as to bring down the costs of space missions. There remained still the question of whether it really would be operated as a tool rather than as an end in itself.
The scientists' fears in this matter were revived by NASA's insistence that a great deal of attention be paid to how the Spacelab, which the Europeans were developing for the program at a projected cost of several hundred million dollars, would be used. At the time most of the scientists could see little use for Spacelab and wondered-if they were going to be pressured into using it simply to keep man-in-space in the picture. Although the life scientists and atmospheric physicists expressed interest in Spacelab, most of the study participants insisted that they would like to use the Shuttle as a truck to carry payloads into space, including the very heavy ones like space telescopes and high-energy astronomy payloads.
The discussions brought into stark relief another very serious problem. The Shuttle itself would be capable of placing payloads in near-earth orbits; but that would take care of only part of the missions the scientists wanted flown. At one end there were the very small payloads of the kinds that had gone into sounding rockets. Study participants just did not believe that the sounding-rocket class of payload could be accommodated economically within the Shuttle cost structure. Nor, for that matter, did the Shuttle appear to be appropriate for small satellites of the kind that Scouts had been launching, especially payloads that had to go into unusual orbits or trajectories. Would provision be made to keep sounding rockets and a small expendable vehicle like Scout for these requirements?
Also, what about payloads that were headed for synchronous or other high-altitude orbits, or for escape trajectories to the moon and planets? [392] How would these be launched? If the Shuttle were to be used for the initial boost from the earth's surface, suitable upper stages would still be required to carry the payloads beyond the low-altitude orbit. Was NASA going to ensure that suitable upper staging would be ready for use with the Shuttle, or would there be an undesirable hiatus in such missions when the Shuttle came into operation?
These questions NASA would have to address itself to as the space program moved through the transition period of the 1970s to the 1980s when the Space Shuttle would become the country's principal space booster. If the various collateral requirements were met, the Shuttle had a rosy future in prospect. If they were not met, NASA could expect trouble with its clients.
The early years of American space science may be taken to be the 1950s and 1960s in which first sounding rockets and then satellites and space probes were used to extend scientific research into outer space. Space vehicles were expendable, new ones being required for each new mission. The decision in 1970 to proceed with the development of a reusable Space Shuttle signaled the end of the era in which only expendable boosters were used. It did not, however, signal the end of expendable rockets, since the Shuttle would probably not meet all near-earth launcher requirements and would certainly have to use additional stages to send spacecraft beyond low-altitude earth orbits.
Nevertheless, the decision inaugurated a period of transition for the space program from conventional methods to the use of the Shuttle. During the period of transition space science and applications programs would continue much as in the past, but in parallel much work would be underway to prepare for the use of the Shuttle. If the Shuttle did perform as promised and did prove to be economical, it could be highly useful for space science. Its usefulness would depend on whether the program were operated so as to support the scientific objectives properly.
Once the Shuttle program was under way, it remained to see how well the engineers could do in creating the vehicle and how wise NASA managers would be in using it.