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Notes and Reflections on Books and Media

by Hannah Leitheiser

Space Shuttle Expectations

Aircraft Systems Engineering MIT Course 16.885J / ESD.35J

Prof. Jeffrey Hoffman




So, the Apollo program was winding down -- you can only go to the moon so many times before the coolness wears off and it's no longer a budget priority. They told President Nixon, if America wants to hold the lead, the Next Thing is a space shuttle. We'll send this unit up 50 times a year, do lots of science, get companies interested with a Rent-A-Shuttle program, and use a quick-launch option that puts secret spy satellites in orbit before the Russians can figure out what's going on. Cut shipping to Low Earth Orbit to prices competitive with FedEx ($118/lb was the lowest estimate). And Nixon said, "OK, fine. Do your thing."

From a perspective, then, the shuttle failed. Ended up being too heavy to launch satellites before other countries could track it. Engines had to be removed to do all the maintenance between flights, making 50 flights per year unrealistic. Freight cost was $8k/pound compared to the $2k for conventional rockets, and so not a lot of commercial interest. Two exploded.

But the program did fly some 115 missions, launching satellites and space vehicles, assisting the ISS, fixing the Hubble. And it kept NASA from getting canceled, which, depending on your point of view, could be looked at as its main goal.