Lost in Space - What Went Wrong with NASA?


The first space-station designs had appeared in print during the 1920s. A 1929 concept by an Austrian engineer, Hermann Noordung, introduced the wheel-shaped configuration that would much later turn up in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Wernher von Braun, around 1950, proposed his own orbiting wheel. It was featured in Collier’s magazine and in a Walt Disney television episode, “Man in Space.” Von Braun also suggested a shuttle, a delta-winged space-plane that would ride to orbit atop an enormous rocket and then fly back through the atmosphere to land at an airport. During the 1960s, studies had proceeded apace for both these concepts.

By the end of the sixties space-station plans were particularly well advanced. The Nixon administration wanted NASA to follow up the Apollo lunar flights by launching a three-man station, Skylab. Skylab would not be wheel-shaped; it would be the heavily modified upper stage of a Saturn V moon rocket. A somewhat similar manned rocket, known as the Saturn I-B, would carry astronaut crews to and from this station. NASA hoped eventually to build its twelve-man station as an enlarged counterpart of Skylab, also launched with a Saturn V.

But each flight of a Saturn I-B would cost $120 million, partly because its stages would fly only once and then fall uselessly into the Atlantic. Such a cost would be bearable for the limited demands of Skylab, but the twelveman station would call for a continuing stream of flights. In the words of Julian Franklin, a vice president at the aerospace firm of North American Rockwell, “Unless you had some kind of low-cost logistical supply system, you’d eat up all your budget just supplying the station.” The supply system that would emerge was the shuttle, which could save money by flying over and over again like an airliner.

By 1970 NASA officials were proposing to develop the shuttle and the station simultaneously, at a cost of some $5 billion for each. These officials did suggest other uses for the shuttle, including launching and servicing of unmanned satellites, military reconnaissance, earth-observation studies, and rescue in space. But these were clearly secondary to its role in support of the twelve-man station and as a springboard to new manned adventures in space.

The “shuttle/station” concept was forthright enough, but it nearly killed both projects. Congressman Joseph Karth, a member of the House space committee and usually an ardent NASA supporter, claimed that the agency was seeking to win a piecemeal commitment to what he called “its ultimate objective” of sending men to Mars. During 1970 he introduced an amendment to block appropriations for the shuttle/station. It failed by the narrowest possible margin, a 53–53 tie. In the Senate Walter Mondale introduced a similar amendment. It failed by 28 to 32.

Shuttle Diplomacy

As a result NASA quickly did an aboutface on its justification for the shuttle. Instead of promoting its use for new manned flights, its officials asserted that the shuttle would save money for unmanned programs. They also “decoupled” the shuttle from the space station, giving it a separate budget designation and project staff. It now would stand or fall on its own merits. And NASA went shopping for customers to use it.


The Air Force was an obvious choice, but NASA needed that service’s business even more than the Air Force needed a new launch vehicle. As Air Force Secretary Robert Seamans told a 1971 congressional hearing, “I cannot sit here today and say that the space transportation system is an essential military requirement.” He nevertheless agreed to give the shuttle both payloads and political support, but at a price, for NASA would have to design the vehicle to meet Air Force needs. That meant a delta wing to provide increased maneuverability and a payload bay with dimensions of sixty by fifteen feet, able to carry sixty-five thousand pounds. These represented costly features that had not been in NASA’s original plans, but NASA was willing to accede.

Such artful dodges were not lost on the shuttle’s critics. “NASA has repeatedly changed its design, purpose and justification,” Mondale declared, “not to meet technological or scientific demands, but to make it politically salable. NASA desperately wants this multibillion-dollar project and will seek any rationale to justify its development. What we see, then, is a classic case of a program and agency in search of a mission.” He nevertheless was unable to rally any serious opposition in Congress, and his antishuttle amendments failed in the Senate by increasingly wide margins. Still, NASA faced an additional set of hurdles, from the Office of Management and Budget.