Lost in Space - What Went Wrong with NASA?


NASA argued that it faced a continuing and burdensome cost in the need to purchase expendable boosters, those Atlas, Titan, and Delta launch vehicles that were carrying unmanned spacecraft to orbit. But as the physicist Ralph Lapp pointed out, NASA had been spending only around 3 percent of its annual budget on them. The OMB therefore imposed two conditions. The first was that the shuttle must be inexpensive to develop, costing no more than one billion dollars per year. The second was that it must carry enough traffic cheaply enough to be cost-effective. NASA and its contractors set to work.

These contractors had been studying designs that would build the shuttle as a two-stage craft, with an airplane-like orbiter riding piggyback atop a winged booster larger than a Boeing 747. Such a shuttle would be fully reusable, carrying all its propellant tanks within the two fuselages. But it would cost too much. The concept that replaced it, early in 1972, was essentially the one that is flying today, with big solid-fueled booster for the first stage and the orbiter’s propellants in a large disposable tank. This approach represented a retreat from full reusability, but it offered a smaller orbiter and lower cost. The big propellant tank would be the only major throwaway item. It might well be relatively inexpensive, because it could amount to nothing fancier than an insulated shell of fabricated metal. And even the shells of the solid booster were to be recovered and reused.

To address the problem of cost-effectiveness, NASA engaged the consulting firm of Mathematica, Inc., which concluded that NASA’s new shuttle design would meet the OMB’s criteria if it made at least thirty flights per year. That seemed to offer plenty of margin, for in those halcyon days NASA’s leaders were freely predicting up to sixty a year. These same leaders declared that each such flight would cost no more than $10 million. With those figures President Nixon gave his assent to the program. The shuttle, he declared, would “take the astronomical cost out of astronautics.” The program was made.

The European Alternative

Meanwhile, Europe’s space leaders watched all this with keen interest. The shuttle, they saw, was to be all things to all people. To fill its payload bays, both NASA and the Air Force would phase out the use of their existing expendable launchers, putting all their eggs in the shuttle’s basket. Led by the French, the Europeans responded in 1973 by beginning the development of a competing launch vehicle, Ariane. It would be both large and unmanned, and though expendable would offer low launch costs with the help of government subsidies. Ariane would be there to pick up the pieces if the shuttle should falter.

In the meantime there was the matter of carrying through the shuttle program itself. The OMB’s cost criteria stood like an ax over the program; any major overruns, any large falloff in its projected cost-effectiveness, could offer reason to kill it. But in 1979 the Air Force again came to the rescue. President Jimmy Carter had negotiated the SALT II arms-control treaty, which would demand the extensive use of reconnaissance satellites to monitor Soviet compliance. The shuttle would be essential for launching these spacecraft, and Gen. Lew Allen, the Air Force chief of staff, came out strongly in its support. This was a watershed. At last the shuttle could go forward not just on the basis of cost but because it would serve the national interest.

By 1970 NASA was lobbying for the shuttle and the space station—and Senator Mondale detected “a classic case of a program and agency in search of a mission.”

There remained the matter of dealing with those bothersome expendables. NASA’s strategy was to declare the shuttle operational after only four flights, late in 1982, and thereafter to shift future payloads away from the expendables as rapidly as possible. By 1985 agency salesmen were briskly rounding up customers both in the United States and overseas, stating that the shuttle was “the most reliable, flexible and cost-effective launch system in the world,” with government-subsidized launch costs even lower than those for Ariane. The aerospace companies that were building the expendables, particularly General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas, found themselves caught between the rock of Ariane and the hard place of the shuttle. By 1986 they had suspended production of their launchers and were preparing to break up their engineering teams. Once that happened, the expendables would be lost virtually beyond recall.