Nixon and the Space Shuttle

“I have decided today that the United States should proceed at once with the development of an entirely new type of space transportation system designed to help transform the space frontier of the 1970s into familiar territory, easily accessible for human endeavor in the 1980s and 90s.”
President Richard Nixon at San Clemente, California, January 5, 1972

Some people love to pin all sorts of things on Nixon, as if the later performance limitations and safety compromises of the shuttles were due to his personal parsimony. The sad fact is the public, those “customers who are always right”, were wrong in this case; early Seventies America, though proud of Apollo, was suddenly uninterested in maintaining an expensive space program. Politically, NASA was hanging on by its teeth, and the re-useable space shuttle deal Nixon cut for them was the best one they were going to get. The shuttle was supposed to have been “the DC-3 of space”, after the Santa Monica-built twin-engine airliner that was the versatile workhorse of civil aviation from the Thirties through the Fifties.

It gave Republicans what they wanted—getting private industry more directly involved, juicing payrolls in GOP-friendly Sunbelt aerospace plants, then undergoing a recession as Apollo and Vietnam wound down, and laying off some of the costs of space on international partners like Canada and the EU. It gave space-allergic Democrats some of what they wanted—plenty of subcontractors were in their states. It promised to lower the cost of going to space, allowing them to prop up JFK's legacy by maintaining a manned space program but on the cheap. Launches and landings would occur on both coasts.

What finally emerged on the launch pad after nine years of development was, as Arthur C. Clarke said, more like the DC-1 ½. The aerospace industry pulled off miracles of new materials and ingenious design. It wasn't enough. The new spacecraft did amazing things that with all our superior tech we cannot do now and almost certainly won't be able to again for a generation, but it was roughly thirty times more expensive to fly than promised, and by grim coincidence it was also about thirty times more dangerous than even the worst case guesses of the early Seventies. These two albatrosses—high launch expense and a fragile system where everything had to go just-so—were never overcome, though in the early Eighties there were high hopes at NASA that they'd hit a stride.

Claus Jensen's No Downlink is my favorite among the books about the 1986 Challenger launch disaster. It's a riveting, dramatic story, with clear cut heroes, villains, and the many troubled NASA people and contractors in between. President Reagan wanted clarity and accountability; he got it. Careers ended abruptly and men resigned in disfavor or disgrace for pushing, or even merely allowing, a shuttle launch in violation of many safety rules. If I say, “most of the fired staff took it like men”, I'm not being sexist; I'm being literal. The work climate at NASA and its major centers wasn't exactly Mad Men by 1986, but it was nearly all male, especially at its high levels. Conflicts on every level of the Challenger story reflect the culture of the risk-taking men who sent John Glenn into orbit, and Apollo to the Moon; by the mid-Eighties they'd become the bosses. The press responded with withering coverage.

Some very good things came out of the Rogers Commission Report to the President. The shuttle was no longer to be the sole launcher for the military (they'd already loosened that up a bit) and commercial launches would now have to seek out private companies. The shuttle was recognized as a fragile experimental way to access space rather than as any sort of passenger or freight airline.

Two years later, with many minor and not so minor fixes the shuttle returned to service. It finally got to actually shuttle somewhere with a series of dockings with the Russian MIR space station, which only ended once we started hauling up modules for a completely new and international space station.

And then after fifteen more years of flight, in January 2003, America lost another shuttle crew, this time at the other end of the journey, coming in for a landing. So far the best book on the Columbia disaster is Comm Check, by Michael Cabbage and William Harwood. It's not as well written as No Downlink, but their sources are excellent.

After Columbia, the hard decision was made to quit endlessly patching up our now-aging fleet of spaceplanes, fly out the remaining space station construction missions through 2011, and then come up with new generation spacecraft, both NASA's own (the Space Launch System) and private (Space X, Boeing, Blue Origin, Orbital Sciences).

In some other post, some other time I'll get into the tragicomic management culture that was in charge as Columbia met its doom. It really was an unfortunate mirror for the times we live in. But for now, I glance at a 1979 photograph of a shuttle on a giant flatbed trailer being driven across the California desert. It seems to juxtapose the timeless Western image of a horse in the desert with the futuristic vision of a massive spaceship. But look again; if we returned to that exact road today, there'd probably still be a horseman, but no space shuttle will ever pass that way again.