Authors: David Hitt,Heather R. Smith
I kind of knew the work was going on, but I didn’t know what it was, because my ambition had always been—I didn’t think I would go to [walk on] the moon, but I was really hoping that I’d get to be on the Mars mission, which I was sure was going to happen the following year. To a young kid, it just seemed obvious that the next step is you go to the moon, then you sharpen your tools and you go to Mars, and I thought, “Boy, that’s where I’d like to go.”
Even by then it was becoming obvious that that wasn’t really a likely proposition. I wasn’t enthused about the shuttle because I still thought going to Mars was the next step. I believe that we needed to build a space station first so we could have hardware, which would gather years of lifetime experience while we could get to it and fix it, and we could build the transportation system while we’re gaining the experience with a space station. All of that architecture was obviously politically driven, and they were having to fit into a tighter budget.
There really was not a great swell of emotion or enthusiasm for things following Apollo in the political arena, nor in the public arena, for that matter. So I think they had to walk some very, very tight lines in order to keep the program going, and so they chose the Space Transportation [System] as the way to go.
George Mueller, the head of manned spaceflight at
during the Apollo program and the man many recognize as the father of both the Skylab space station and the Space Shuttle program, said that, even with the development of the shuttle, human exploration of other worlds remained the ultimate goal. “It became clear that the cost of getting into orbit was the driver for all future programs. I began to think about, how do you get the cost down. In air travel, you can’t fly from here to London and then throw the plane away when you get to London. What we came up with was a completely reusable vehicle. We had every intention of going back to the moon. What we were doing was going into low Earth orbit and establishing a base there; it was a requirement for reaching our long-term goal.”
Former Johnson Space Center director Chris Kraft recalled the approval of the shuttle as “a real come-down for
We, the powers that be at
, had grand visions of going back to the moon, having bases on the moon, and on to Mars. They made very significant reports on what the future of
could and should be. But when the Nixon administration decided that the limitations of the budget in his [the president’s] mind would not allow us to do those kinds of grand things in space, that’s when the powers that be in
decided, well, what is the one thing that we need to start the next generation of spaceflight? And that is we need a cost-effective launch system. That’s the first thing we need. If we’re going to go into orbit and do grand things, or if we’re going to put things in orbit and rendezvous and go other places, what we need is a good truck. We called it a truck, at times. And so that’s how we arrived at that being the next step in the space program being a reusable, therefore fly-back vehicle. We signed a fixed-price, seven-and-a-half-billion-dollar contract to build the Space Shuttle, and that was to be provided with annual increases in the budget for inflation. We never got the first piece of inflation at any time in the history of the budget of the shuttle. They welshed on that guarantee immediately, and furthermore, they delayed the program a year and did not give us any relief on the total cost, on the total fixed cost. They
didn’t want the money in the budget that year, just that simple. So in the history of the shuttle program, up until we made the first flight, we were always pushing a bow wave of being behind budget.
Many in the astronaut corps had doubts as to what the shuttle decision would mean for the future of exploration. Mattingly considered leaving
completely, believing he would probably never leave Earth orbit again.
I went up to pay courtesy calls to the navy after we got back, and John Warner was then secretary of the navy, and we made a courtesy call to him. He was all enthusiastic. He says, “You navy [astronaut] guys need to come back, and we’ll give you any job you want. You pick it. Whatever you’d like. You want a squadron? You want to do this? Just tell me. It’s yours.” Boy, my eyes lit up, and I thought, “Wow.” One of my escort officers was a captain in the Pentagon. He went back and told his boss, who was the chief of naval aviation, what Warner had said, and very quickly I had an introduction to the chief of naval aviation, who made sure that I understood that despite what the secretary had said, in the environment we were in, I was not going to come in and take over his squadron. He’d find a place for me, he’d give me a useful job, but don’t think that with the Vietnam War going on and people earning their positions the hard way, that I was going to walk in there and do that. He says, “The secretary means well, but we run the show.”
So armed with that piece of information that if I went back on real navy duty at that point I was probably not going to find a particularly rewarding job, I thought the opportunity to get in on the shuttle at the beginning and go use some of the experience we gained would be useful, so I told my sponsor I’d do whatever the navy preferred I do. After all, they gave me my education and everything else that mattered. “So you tell me, but if I had a vote, I would say why don’t I stay because the shuttle program’s only going to take four years.” That’s what we were advertising. You know, four years, that’s not all that long. So after a significant amount of discussion within the navy side of the Pentagon, they said, “Okay. Well, we agree. You probably can contribute more if you stay there.” So that lead me to stay with the shuttle program, and so the beginning of that was a period of a great deal of the turmoil of getting started.
Step one of designing a Space Shuttle was deciding exactly what a Space Shuttle should be designed to do. Its official name, the Space Transporta
tion System, summarized a basic part of the requirement. The shuttle would transport astronauts and cargo from the surface of Earth into space and back. It also was to be, as much as possible, reusable. The idea was that creating a spacecraft that was as reusable as possible would cut down on what had to be built for each launch, and thus on the cost of each launch. Lower the cost of putting a pound of material in orbit, and you can put more pounds of material in orbit. The space frontier opens up.
“We had a general idea of what specifications the shuttle was supposed to be, but in those days it was substantially larger and more aggressive than what we know today,” Mattingly said. “So we went through this requirements refinement where everybody broke up into groups to go lay out what they had to do, and it evolved into something we called design reference missions. Rigidly, the idea was, we knew the shuttle was going to last for decades, and we knew nobody was smart enough to define what those missions that would come after we started were going to evolve into. So we took great pride in trying to define the most stressful missions that we could.”
Mattingly said the program initially outlined three types of possible missions. One was for the shuttle to be used as a laboratory. “We laid out all the requirements we could think of for a laboratory—the support and what the people need to work in it, and all that kind of stuff,” Mattingly recalled. A second type of mission was defined as deploying a payload on orbit. “That was to be one that launched and had the manipulator arm and cradles and all of the things necessary to do that.”
Then there was the idea of a polar mission. Such a mission would involve putting the shuttle in a polar orbit—leaving the launch site and heading into a north–south inclination that would cause it to orbit from one pole to the other. A satellite in polar orbit would be able to fly over any point on the surface of Earth—a valuable capability for intelligence gathering. “The polar mission was really shaped after a DoD [U.S. Department of Defense] requirement,” Mattingly said.
The original mission, as I recall, was a one-rev mission. [A “rev” is essentially one orbit around Earth.] You launched, got in orbit, opened the payload bay doors, deployed a satellite, rendezvoused with an existing satellite, retrieved it, closed the doors, and landed. And this was all going to be done in one rev or maybe it was two revs, but it was going to be done so that by the time anyone knew we were there, it was all over. Well, we worked on that mission and worked on it and worked on it, and finally it became [two different design reference missions]. We just couldn’t figure out how to do it all on one short timeline.
Space Shuttle design evolution, 1972–74. Courtesy
The military design reference missions were a response to a political exigency
had learned to deal with during the 1970s. Most notably, in developing the Skylab space station,
found itself competing for funding against the air force, which was seeking money at the same time for its Manned Orbiting Laboratory program. Although the two programs were very different in their goals, they shared enough superficial similarities that Congress questioned why both were necessary. With the shuttle,
hoped to avoid a repeat of this sort of competition, and have an easier sell to Congress, by gaining buy-in for the idea from the military. According to astronaut Joe Allen,
Leadership in the early 1970s decided the only way the Apollo-victorious
would be given permission to build a reusable space transportation system is that there be identified other users for the system other than just the scientists. This nation’s leadership identified the other users as the military. The Space Shuttle would be used to carry military payloads. The military has its responsibilities, and they said, “All right. If our payloads are going to go aboard, we do have one require
ment; that is that your Space Shuttle be able to take the payloads to orbit, put them there, and land back at the launch site after making only one orbit of the Earth.”
The need for quick, polar missions greatly affected the design of the shuttle, yet interestingly the Space Shuttle never flew a polar-orbit mission. “At face value, that doesn’t seem all that difficult to do,” Mattingly said of the polar-orbit missions,
but what it meant was, the shape of the orbiter went from being a very simple lifting body-type shape, with very, very small wings, to a much larger vehicle with delta-shaped wings. I don’t know the exact numbers, but the wings that go to orbit and come home again [make up a large portion of] the weight of the vehicle, and they’re never fully used; only the outermost wingtips are used. All that vast expanse—with all that tile, and all the carbon-carbon [carbon-fiber-reinforced carbon] along the leading edge—is never used. It would be used if it were to go to space in a polar orbit and then come home. It would be used to gain the fifteen hundred miles of cross-range that one needs because the Earth moves fifteen hundred miles in its rotation during the time you’ve gone once around. So you have to have some soaring ability. That’s what these large wings are for. The Space Shuttle would have cost much less money. It would cost much less to refurbish each time. Still, it would not be an economic wonder, but it would be economically okay, were it not for these huge wings. Of course, that requirement, in hindsight, was never used, was never needed, but the current Space Shuttle will forever be burdened with these wings.
Mattingly also said that the design missions established the capabilities that the Space Shuttle system would need to have. Each specification let to a variety of trickle-down requirements, and gradually the vehicle began taking shape.
These requirements we set really had some interesting things. Some of them were politically defined, like you’ll land at any ten-thousand-foot runway in the world. That’s all it takes. In selling the program, they had to appeal to just every constituency you could find to cobble together a consortium of backers that would keep the program sold in Congress. People don’t recognize how that ripples back through a design into what you really get, and, of course, by the time you know what you’ve got, the people who put those requirements in, they’re history. So it’s interesting. But that ten-thousand-foot runway requirement set a lot of limits on aerodynamics and putting wings on the airplane. The cross-
range—that was the air force requirement for this once-around polar mission abort—that sized the wings and thermal conditions. That precluded us from using a design called a lifting body that the folks out at Edwards [Air Force Base, California] had been playing with and had demonstrated in flights. It was structurally a much nicer design, but you just couldn’t handle the aerodynamic characteristics that were required to meet these things. So we had a vertical fin on this thing and big wings, and it’s a significant portion of shuttle’s weight, and the maintenance that goes with it is attributed to the same thing.