- Historic Sites
Lost in Space - What Went Wrong with NASA?
November 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 7
When a rocket lifts off, it lights up the launch area with a brilliant burst of flame and then trails a fiery streak across the sky as it soars toward orbit. But without careful guidance all the pyrotechnics will have been for naught. That is, in short, what happened to the National Aeronautics and Space Agency.
Like a rocket, NASA initially lit up the sky, with spectacular feats. But for lack of proper direction from policymakers, the agency failed to continue on a course that would clearly and consistently serve the national interest. Instead NASA steered by a false star.
At the beginning, of course, few would have imagined that the agency could go so far astray. Indeed, nearly two decades elapsed before this became at all clear. Through the 1960s NASA was running a grand project that had the near unanimous support of Americans for a clear and simply defined goal: Put a man on the moon. It was when that ended that things started to get at once more complicated and less purposeful.
The countdown that led to the launch of NASA began on a Friday evening, early in October 1957. Some fifty scientists had gathered for a cocktail party at the Soviet embassy in Washington. Amid the chatter and clink of glasses, Walter Sullivan of The New York Times was called away for an urgent phone call. A colleague in Manhattan had just seen a dispatch from Tass, the Moscow news agency. It stated that a sphere the size of a beach ball was now circling the earth every 96 minutes, traveling at 18,000 miles per hour and emitting beeps.
Sullivan hurried back to the party and told the news to one of the scientists, the physicist Lloyd Berkner, who rapped on the hors d’oeuvre table until the hubbub quieted. “I wish to make an announcement,” he said. “I am informed by The New York Times that a satellite is in orbit at an elevation of 900 kilometers. I wish to congratulate our Soviet colleagues on their achievement.” The room burst into applause.
That same evening, at his Texas ranch, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson heard the news on the radio. After dinner he and a few guests strolled in the dark along a road, their eyes turned upward. “In the Open West you learn to live closely with the sky,” Johnson wrote later. “It is a part of your life. But now, somehow, in some new way, the sky seemed almost alien. I also remember the profound shock of realizing that it might be possible for another country to achieve technological superiority over this great country of ours.”
The same shock would affect many others in the weeks ahead, for this first step into space stood as a clear challenge. There was every reason to see it as vindicating the long-standing communist boast that theirs was the superior system for galvanizing human productivity. An official announcement from Moscow made the point explicit: “Artificial earth satellites will pave the way for space travel, and it seems that the present generation will witness how the freed and conscious labor of the people of the new socialist society turns even the most daring of mankind’s dreams into reality.”
Many Americans saw Sputnik as no less than a new Pearl Harbor. “The time has come,” said Sen. Styles Bridges, a leading conservative, “to be less concerned with the depth of pile on the new broadloom rug or the height of the tail fin on the new car, and to be more prepared to shed blood, sweat and tears.” On the other side of the aisle, Sen. William Fulbright was equally apocalyptic: “The real challenge we face involves the very roots of our society. It involves our educational system, the source of our knowledge and cultural values.”
Sputnik also seemed to call into question the adequacy of Eisenhower administration policies. Eisenhower was responsible for fighting the Cold War, yet he had insisted on balancing the budget and on avoiding major governmental expansions. Plenty of people, not all of them Democrats, were ready to say that he had not done enough and indeed had exposed the nation to peril. More specifically, his missile-program policies had ruffled military feathers amid problems of interservice rivalry and wasteful duplication. Trevor Gardner, a former Air Force assistant secretary, stated the issue bluntly: “We have presently at least nine ballistic missile programs, all competing for roughly the same kind of facilities, the same kind of brains, and the same public attention.”
Public urgency increased early in November, when the Soviets launched their second satellite. It weighed 1,120 pounds, and it carried a dog as a passenger, clearly foreshadowing future flights that would carry a man. Eisenhower, who had come up as a military leader, was not rattled. He knew that our own missile programs were proceeding apace, with long-range rockets already in flight test. America was strong; our armed forces could defend the nation. Four days after that second Soviet launch, he went on television and stated that their achievement “does not rouse my apprehensions, not one iota.”
It nevertheless was a foregone conclusion that America would begin major step-ups both in its missile programs and in its nascent space activities. The Air Force and Navy already had programs aimed at launching their own satellites, and these would proceed with renewed urgency. Yet in both Congress and the White House, there was a widespread view that space was too important to leave to the generals. There should be a civilian effort as well, under a new agency. That agency came into existence by congressional act in 1958 and was named the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Its genesis lay in a small but longstanding organization, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Working with a shoestring budget, NACA operated two aeronautical laboratories and a propulsion-research center. It had few high-placed Washington friends and little visibility; as recently as 1954 it had received only half the funds it had requested. It had found its niche as an isolated pocket of expertise, like the Geological Survey. But it had a strong reputation among those who knew of it; in 1957 its chairman was no less than Gen. Jimmy Doolittle. It already counted a number of pathbreaking researchers. John Sloop was building the first hydrogenfueled rocket engines; John Becker had made a wind tunnel that could reach seven times the speed of sound. The aerodynamicists Julian Alien and Alfred Eggers had determined the proper shape for a spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere from orbit.
Already, in late 1957, some one-fifth of NACA’s work was related to space. Even so, NACA by itself was too small to take on the responsibility of running a space program. But it could serve as a nucleus, overseeing existing space and rocket programs. A Navy effort that was seeking to launch small satellites, known as Vanguard, would be one of the first; so would the Army’s rocket-development group in Alabama, led by the redoubtable Wernher von Braun. Army officials had never quite known what to do with these people; within the new NASA they would be hailed as kings.
The Soviets continued to pull off spectaculars: a 3,000-pound satellite in 1958, a shot into interplanetary space early in 1959, then dramatic unmanned missions to the moon that returned the first photos of its unseen far side, and additional flights carrying dogs. But America was active too. Indeed, while Eisenhower was in the White House, the space program was already undertaking nearly all the principal activities that would occupy it over subsequent decades.
The Air Force introduced its Thor and Atlas missiles as satellite launchers, and the even larger Titan was under development. Descendants of those rockets would still be boosting satellites to orbit thirty years later. In 1960 the United States pioneered the important field of satellite communications with the Army’s Courier satellite and the experimental Echo I of Bell Labs. The Navy launched its first navigational satellite, Transit. The first weather satellite, Tiros I, went up, beginning the immensely fruitful application of spacecraft to meteorology and earth observations. Also in 1960 the spacecraft Pioneer V laid groundwork for the planetary program. It sent back radio communications across twenty-two million miles, demonstrating the feasibility of sending probes to Venus and Mars.
Two other initiatives pointed clearly toward astronauts in space. NASA’s Project Mercury had won Ike’s approval late in 1958 and sent its first seven astronauts to face the television cameras the following April. Their safe return from orbit would be essential, and the Air Force was showing the way with its Discoverer program. This was opening the field of satellite reconnaissance, carrying cameras to orbit and returning the film to earth in protected capsules. The first successful capsule recovery came in 1960 as well, and while it was not televised, it demonstrated what soon would become a familiar sight to TV viewers: a returning spacecraft swaying gently beneath large red-and-white striped parachutes, slowly descending to the ocean.
Among NASA’s leaders, support for a moon program coalesced in 1960. Eisenhower strongly opposed the idea; Kennedy, within months, made it a mission.
In short, American response to the Soviets was both vigorous and protean. Yet to the Democrats, led in 1960 by John Kennedy, it was not enough. Four months after his inauguration, in May 1961, Kennedy called his countrymen to arms: “Now is the time to take longer strides. I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” The response to this challenge would now shape America’s space policy.
The concept of a manned lunar mission had been germinating within NASA since 1959. At NASA’s Washington headquarters, a Steering Committee for Manned Spaceflight had met to consider what should be the next step after the simple one-man orbital flights of the pending Mercury program. Its members had looked at space stations and orbiting space laboratories but decided that they had to set their sights higher. Nothing less would do than to send men to the moon. As the committee chairman later put it, “A primary reason for this choice was the fact that it represented a true end objective which was self-justifying and did not have to be supported on the basis that it led to a subsequently more useful end.” The pursuit of the moon would call forth a host of new spacecraft and large rockets, capable of finding uses in earth orbit as well. And no such clear and well-focused goal existed short of the moon.
Among NASA’s leaders support for a moon program coalesced during 1960. Von Braun in the meantime took the first serious steps toward building big enough rockets, and aerospace firms weighed in with design concepts for lunar spacecraft. By the end of the year, NASA needed only one thing to proceed with a Moon-landing program: presidential approval.
The question came up in December 1960 at a White House meeting, and Eisenhower voiced strong opposition. NASA’s plan would cost up to $38 billion, the equivalent of more than $400 billion in today’s economy, based on GNP growth. One of the meeting participants compared such a venture to Columbus’s voyage; Eisenhower replied that he was “not about to hock his jewels” to send men to the moon. As the historian John Logsdon reports, “The general reaction of the meeting was one of almost sheer bewilderment—or certainly amusement—that anybody would consider such an undertaking. Somebody said, This won’t satisfy everybody. When they finish this, they’ll want to go to the planets.’ There was a lot of laughter at that thought.”
What changed between December and May, when Kennedy announced this astonishing turnabout of national policy? Headlines made the matter topical, for on April 12 the Soviets had launched their long-awaited first manned flight, sending Yuri Gagarin into orbit and recovering him safely. While the Red star was rising, America’s was in eclipse: the following week saw the debacle of the CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. But on May 5 the United States showed that it, too, had the right stuff, as the astronaut Alan Shepard flew a Mercury capsule on a brief flight that reached an altitude of 115 miles. “Everything’s A-OK,” Shepard repeatedly stated, popularizing a phrase.
Yet even a presidential speech does not a policy make, and in 1961 JFK was far from becoming the stuff of legend. He was, however, the leader of a Democratic party gravid with unborn programs, with policy proposals that had been gestating since the days of Harry Truman. Not since 1932 had a Democrat succeeded a Republican in the White House, and there was high hope for a new Hundred Days of legislative activity such as Franklin Roosevelt’s. The poet Robert Frost, in a poem written for the inauguration, had looked ahead to “the glory of a next Augustan age.” And Kennedy’s very name for his administration, the New Frontier, smacked strongly of space flight. A major effort in this area was virtually a foregone conclusion.
So the real question was not whether NASA would undertake a major expansion but how it would get big enough to reach the moon. Two powerful influences helped to assure its great growth. The first was the sweeping nature of the Cold War, which fostered a widespread and genuine conviction that we could not let the Soviets get ahead of us in any area at all. It made no difference that if the Russians wanted to emphasize space flight, they could do so only by weakening other parts of their economy. No, if the Soviets appeared to be on their way to building a moon rocket, we had to have one too, or we would fall behind.
The second influence lay in a widely shared view of new technology. We tend to see high technology today through the prism of Silicon Valley, a creation of the 1970s and 1980s, but in 1961 the general view was that new technology would arise not through the work of entrepreneurs but through major government programs. This was in line with recent experience. The wartime Manhattan Project had unlocked the power of the atom. Other federal efforts had brought forth jet propulsion and radar. Advocates of a manned moon landing could argue persuasively that such an effort now would bring forth breakthroughs of similar value.
Yet Kennedy was not free to propose in too sweeping a spirit. Democrats held both houses of Congress, but the real power lay in a coalition of Republicans and conservative Southerners, many of whom held key committee chairmanships. As a consequence JFK would fail to win passage of so basic a reform as the law establishing Medicare; it went down to Senate defeat in mid-1962 by a vote of 48 to 52. But those same Southern barons who opposed much social change were great supporters of major aerospace projects, particularly if they involved contracts for their states or districts. Aerospace fitted with their general high regard for things military. And while the Apollo program, the moon-landing project, was civilian from start to finish, it involved people, equipment, and industries that all had close links to the world of longrange missiles.
As the decade progressed, a continuing series of manned orbital flights, increasing in intricacy, kept public attention focused on the moon. The death of JFK brought a widespread view that Apollo should go forward as a monument to him. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, was quite likely even more of a space buff than Kennedy, having apparently decided as early as 1957 that it represented an issue that could help reclaim the White House for his party. Kennedy in turn had rewarded Johnson’s fealty by placing NASA’s crown jewel, the Manned Spacecraft Center, close to Houston. Johnson, on reaching the White House, proceeded to legislate on a scale that few if any Presidents had ever attained. There would be civil rights bills, Medicare, a tax cut, a war in Vietnam, and much more. As one pundit remarked at the time, LBJ was promising health, wealth, and the moon.
In 1969, as Neil Armstrong was leading his crew to the first lunar landing, Vice President Spiro Agnew went to Cape Canaveral and announced that NASA’s next goal would be to land men on Mars. Back in Washington, Agnew’s Space Task Group set forth a space program to exceed Apollo both in scope and expense. Its report, published that September, listed three main program options for the 1970s and 1980s. All three called for the development of a small twelve-man space station, a fifty-or hundred-man space base, a reusable space shuttle, lunar orbiting stations, and a station on the moon itself. Two of the three also called for the first manned expedition to Mars, during the 1980s, with the astronauts to fly aboard a nuclear-powered rocket.
The report amounted to NASA’s wish list, but Mars was not in the ascendancy, and in Washington even the moon was waning. During the Apollo years NASA had grown to expect virtual carte blanche with its budget requests; in the wake of the Space Task Group report, the agency’s officials were shocked to see their fiscal 1971 budget rejected out of hand. The Office of Management and Budget slashed more than one billion dollars from it.
The reason lay in Nixon’s priorities, which contrasted sharply with those of Kennedy and LBJ. Nixon faced inflation, a serious deficit, and continuing costs for the Vietnam War. He had to pull in his horns, spending more carefully and launching new initiatives only in the areas of greatest demand. The environment would qualify, and in 1970 he set up the Environmental Protection Agency. Mars would not.
As winter deepened and the 1960s came to an end, NASA had to face seriously the question of what it would do next. It possessed the world’s most extensive array of launch vehicles, and it could have fallen back on a policy of promoting their maximum use. That would have brought forth a host of unmanned craft, serving needs in communications, weather, earth observations, and planetary exploration. But the agency had grown fat on the manned Apollo project, and a new manned venture appeared essential to its leaders.
In 1969, as Neil Armstrong headed toward the moon, Vice President Agnew announced that NASA’s next goal was Mars. But in Washington even the moon was waning.
NASA’s immediate task was to respond to Nixon’s cutback by lowering its sights yet still save as much as possible of the manned Mars effort. In the administration’s judgment such projects as the big space base, the lunar stations, and the Mars spaceship would be too costly for the foreseeable future. But there still was hope for the space station and the shuttle, both classic concepts in the lore of space flight.
The space station was to be a permanently crewed center for research, somewhat like those in Antarctica. It might feature laboratories where scientists would work in weightlessness, using the absence of gravity to create new medicines. (Advocates sometimes got carried away with this prospect. Krafft Ehricke, a leading rocket scientist with no medical background, declared that “we could find a beautiful cure for cancer in space.”) More to the point, an orbiting station could repair aging satellites. It also could serve as an assembly point for large spacecraft, a task best suited for the now-abandoned Mars effort.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then came 1986 and the Challenger disaster. It put the shuttle out of service for nearly three years. President Reagan responded with a new space policy, declaring that the shuttle no longer would serve all potential users. Instead it would be treated as a rare and valuable commodity, flying only on major missions of national concern. Commercial users in particular, with their communications satellites, would be welcome to fly their craft aboard expendables. Those old launchers—Delta, Atlas, and Titan—thus gained a new lease on life and a base of customers for which they could compete. But NASA’s long infatuation with the shuttle had so weakened them as to leave Europe with a sizable advantage. During 1989 and 1990 some thirty-five commercial payloads were scheduled for launch. Ten would ride aboard U.S. expendables; virtually all the rest would fly on Ariane.
Where, then, does the shuttle stand today? Far from flying sixty or even thirty times a year, the best it has done has been to make nine flights, in 1985. Its promise of low cost has also gone aglimmering. In 1989 the Office of Technology Assessment estimated that shuttle launch costs “are likely to range between $250 and $500 million, depending on the actual number of flights per year.” Commercial launches on expendables, by contrast, were costing $40 to $60 million.
Has the shuttle advanced the national interest by supporting Air Force activities? Even before the loss of Challenger, the Air Force—over strenuous NASA objections—announced plans to renew its purchases of Titan-class expendables. Since then it has made a maior commitment to the Titan IV, which offers a payload of thirty-nine thousand pounds. The shuttle lifts forty-seven thousand, down from its originally advertised sixty-five thousand.
Has NASA succeeded in pursuing a vigorous unmanned program, in addition to its manned activities? To the contrary, its leaders have repeatedly slighted the unmanned efforts, starving them for support to free up funds for the shuttle. During the mid-1970s, for instance, the agency successfully landed two unmanned craft on the surface of Mars, which searched for life within that planet’s soil and sent back oanoramic views of their surroundings. NASA might have sent more, but the money wasn’t there. And despite repeated requests from senior scientists, NASA declined to pursue any type of major initiative in building spacecraft for studies of the earth’s surface.
The notorious Hubble space telescope represented another instance of nearsightedness, and not only in its improperly shaped mirror. The idea for a large telescope in orbit dated from the mid-1960s and had broad support among astronomers. They knew that turbulence within the earth’s atmosphere, which causes stars to twinkle, blurs and smears their images in conventional telescopes. An orbiting instrument, high above the air, could return images of unprecedented sharpness. But amid the financial demands of the shuttle, the space-telescope effort experienced repeated delays and reductions in program goals. These stringencies discouraged testing of components, which is why the mirror’s misshape went undetected until the telescope was already in orbit.
Has manned flight nevertheless attracted its own base of people, who rely on it to do useful work? The answer is the contrary: Virtually every manned flight undertaken or planned has served the internal interests of NASA proper. It is true that the shuttle launched several commercial spacecraft, prior to 1986. But those launches stemmed from NASA’s use of subsidy and monopoly to boost artificially the demand for shuttle flights. The subsidies undercut the expendables by making the shuttle less costly—NASA was in effect telling clients that they could have any launcher they liked, as long as it was the shuttle. It is little wonder that a growing stream of these clients sought an alternative in Ariane.
Few shuttle flights have specifically relied on the skills of astronauts. The 1990 recovery of the Long Duration Exposure Facility, an orbiting lab, is about the only one. A 1992 recovery and relaunch of a communications satellite was largely a costly exercise in public relations. Expendable rockets are so much cheaper than the shuttle that the user could have saved money by simply launching a replacement—if NASA hadn’t charged only $93 million for its service, even though the true cost was over half a billion dollars.
NASA also has pursued Spacelab, a research center carried in the shuttle’s payload bay that features a pressurized module, but Spacelab flew only four manned missions prior to 1992, for durations of about a week, and only once between 1985 and 1992. The reason is simple: Spacelab looked like a low-cost alternative to the space station, and here too NASA sought no competition.
How, overall, do U.S. space activities compare with those of Europe? Ariane itself has had problems: it was out of service for several months in 1990 as a result of one of its own launch failures. But in 1989 the total European effort cost some $3 billion and put up ten satellites. The combined U.S. space program, Air Force and NASA together, spent $30 billion and launched 24. By this measure the American program is a fraction as costeffective as Europe’s.
Has the shuttle supported manned ventures like a space station? Quite to the contrary; it has taken away funds that might have underwritten such a project. As early as 1973 the three-man Skylab was in orbit and operational, representing a station larger than the Soviets have ever launched. A second Skylab station was also built, along with the Saturn V that could have launched it. But (or lack of funds, Skylab II went off to the Air and Space Museum, and the Saturn V wound up on display at the Johnson Space Center. Owls have been known to roost in it.
Since 1984 a major new NASA initiative has indeed pursued a space station. It currently stands as a four-person design, with an advertised cost of $30 billion, though William Broad of The New York Times notes that with its shuttle-supported operations the total cost will top $100 billion. From the perspective of Skylab this new project amounts to an attempt to do in the year 2000, at enormous cost, what we disdained to do in 1975 with equipment that was already in hand.
The shuttle nevertheless is not without advantages. It carries more astronauts than the Apollo spacecraft. It can indeed carry Spacelab within its cargo bay. It also can retrieve a spacecraft from orbit, and in 1993 it is to undertake a mission that could install new equipment in the Hubble Space Telescope, to make amends for the misshapen main mirror. But achieving these new capabilities has cost much time and treasure. It is hard today to avoid concluding that we have gone forty ways around Katy’s barn and wound up with not nearly as much space capability as we had in 1970.
In that year, in the wake of Apollo, NASA lacked a mandate to proceed with the manned adventures that had become its stock in trade. But with Skylab it had abundant opportunity to pursue a manned program that would rely on existing equipment, carrying out missions of long duration. Its fleet of expendables could launch anything from small science experiments to full-blown space stations, and many potential users were eager to build spacecraft that would fly aboard these rockets. NASA could have consolidated its activities with a policy of giving vigorous support to such users, offering the nation a space enterprise that would be both brilliant and daring. Instead it gave us the shuttle.
Eisenhower, with his support of both expendables and unmanned spacecraft, planted a sturdy tree that could grow to serve the nation. Kennedy’s Project Apollo, by contrast, was a hothouse plant that would wither as soon as the nourishing flows of money dried up. Yet even Apollo brought the prospect of long-term advantage, in the rockets and spacecraft that developed under its aegis. The shuttle, by contrast, has proven to be a trap, a trap born of NASA’s following the false star of manned flight.
Manned space flight was a technology much in vogue in Washington but in no demand elsewhere. NASA didn’t impose on itself the discipline of supporting the people who wanted unmanned flights; the agency took the easy way out: subsidies, monopoly. It received little criticism from a public that admired its astronauts, and not much more from Presidents and Congresses that valued it as a high-tech jobs program. With this the space agency fell prey to the classic ills that can afflict any unfettered government organ: sclerosis, loss of integrity, empire building. The conquest of space was a beautiful dream, but so was socialism.