An entirely new type of space transportation system

After more than a decade of development and debate, authorisation to proceed with the new programme to replace the Apollo-Saturn series of vehicles was given by President Richard M. Nixon on 5 January 1972. In his press conference statement, Nixon said: "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 endeavour in the 1980s and 1990s. This system will centre on a space vehicle that can shuttle repeatedly from Earth into orbit and back. It will revolutionise transportation into near space, by routinising it. It will take the astronomical costs out of astronautics. In short, it will go a long way towards delivering the rich benefits from practical space utilisation and the valuable spin-offs from space efforts into the daily lives of Americans and all people."1

This statement helped to create the impression that the Shuttle would be the answer to all of America's launch problems, with routine, cheap and reliable access to space. In a joint statement, NASA administrator, Dr. James Fletcher, called the decision "a most historic step in the nation's space program. It will change the nature of what man can do in space. By the end of this decade the nation will have the means of getting men and equipment to and from space routinely, on a moment's notice if necessary, and at a small fraction of today's cost.'' Fletcher described the new vehicle as an aircraft-like orbiter, about the size of a commercial DC-9 airliner, with the capacity to take payloads up to 4.6 metres in diameter and 18 metres long (with a mass of up to 29,500 kg) into orbit and back again. It would be launched by unmanned boosters on missions of one week, during which the crew would launch, service or recover unmanned spacecraft, perform experiments and, in time, re-supply and restaff space modules brought into orbit by other Shuttles to create a space station. All this would be "in a modest budget to make space operations less complex and, more importantly, less costly.''

This view from 1972 was, at best, optimistic and at worst, seriously flawed. With the benefit of hindsight in 2006, after twenty-five years of Shuttle operations, over 114 launches and two major fatal accidents, the reality of what the Shuttle has achieved is a very different picture to the plans proposed thirty-four years ago. With the loss of a space platform in the early 1970s, the Shuttle also lost its assembly and logistics support role; one for which it was well designed, as evidenced by Shuttle operations during Shuttle-Mir and ISS construction.

Instead, the Shuttle's role became more commercial, providing launch and pay-load services to recoup some of the investment in the programme. After a series of orbital test flights, the system would be designated "operational", with a programme of commercial satellite deployments and payload capacity sold to those who wished to gain access to space but did not have the means to do so on their own. This "selling of the Shuttle'' was a misinterpretation in the press, and consequently in the public eye. In reality, the Shuttle could never achieve a "commercially" operational status. In retrospect, it has achieved a role in space operations by deploying, servicing and retrieving satellites, space probes and great observatories. It has also proven its worth in supporting various payloads of scientific, engineering and military usefulness, and as a short-term space platform for scientific research.

On 28 March 1972, the New York Times published a response by University of Michigan astronomer, James A. Louden, to a 16 January letter from former scientist-astronaut Brian O'Leary, who had questioned the compatibility of the Shuttle with national space goals. Louden re-emphasised that the most important aspect of the programme was the ability of the Shuttle to carry passengers: "For the first time, scientists will be able to perform experiments in space without spending years in irrelevant pilot training first.'' Of course, this is exactly what the two scientist-astronaut groups had had to undertake before any assignment as a NASA astronaut, but now the Shuttle offered them the chance to make at least one space flight. Four months later, on 29 July, Administrator Fletcher indicated that NASA had plans to expand astronaut opportunities by selecting minority and women candidates. The following year, discussions with European space organisations would investigate the possibility of European assistance in post-Apollo activities in the Shuttle programme, which could include flying foreign astronauts on the Shuttle.

The first documented use of the "Sortie Can", the prelude to Spacelab, came in September 1971, as part of an in-house NASA design study for a research laboratory that could be carried in the payload bay of the Shuttle for short duration missions. After more than two years of negotiations between the European space organisations and the United States, an agreement was reached in August 1973 to jointly develop a "space laboratory module'' for the Shuttle. In October 1973, the NASA HQ Sortie Lab Task Force was renamed the Spacelab Program Office.

With the introduction of the Shuttle, offering as many as seven flight seats, the NASA scientist-astronauts could be forgiven for thinking that their chances of a flight would greatly increase. But if new astronauts with scientific backgrounds were being brought into the programme, and with the added prospect of foreign crew members, the incumbent scientist-astronauts felt that they might still have no flight prospects at all. Some of their peers had already left NASA due to the lack of space flight opportunities and the lack of scientific research on the flights that had already taken place. With the Shuttle, seat numbers increased and science would - hopefully -follow, but it was still not certain that astronaut seniority would play any part in crew selection. The method of crew selection was devised by Director of Crew Operations, Deke Slayton, in which assignment to a back-up crew on one flight meant (normally)

missing the next two missions and flying as the prime crew on the fourth. How one was assigned to the back-up crew in the first place, however, remained a mystery.

As many of the scientist-astronauts had not expected a lunar flight, their work on Apollo Applications and Skylab helped focus their experience into working with space science investigations, objectives and hardware. This would also be useful for early support assignments on the Shuttle programme, and these technical assignments were directed to the astronauts who were not already deep in training for Skylab.

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