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early shuttle illustration
The promises of shuttle flight rates and costs made in the 1970s failed to match the reality of the 1980s and beyond. (credit: NASA)

Prophets of science fiction

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Now that the Space Shuttle is nearing retirement we can expect a lot of historical analysis about the program. But it is also worth going back to the early public literature about the shuttle and seeing what people wrote about it in its pre-flight days. It turns out that a number of people predicted, years before the shuttle began flying, that it would fail to achieve its promised goals. Although it has become common these days to call the shuttle a policy and programmatic failure, the historical evidence indicates that the nation walked into it with eyes wide open, whistling a jaunty tune.

“The shuttle should have a demonstrably strong justification, not just a marginal one, among competing space transportation systems before any commitments are made,” O’Leary wrote.

One of the earliest public critiques of the shuttle program occurred in February 1973 when Brian O’Leary published “The Space Shuttle: NASA’s White Elephant in the Sky,” in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. O’Leary had been selected as a scientist-astronaut during the Apollo program, but later dropped out. Years later he developed a reputation for rather esoteric interests that might best be described as “new age,” such as a belief in unusual energy sources.

In his article, O’Leary discussed many of the economic and other arguments made for the shuttle, and systematically picked them apart. He declared that the claim that the shuttle could drastically reduce the cost of reaching orbit “could turn out to be one of the most controversial ones in American technological history.”

One of the aspects of the program that bothered O’Leary was “the extremely rapid fluctuations in NASA’s rationale for promoting the shuttle.” The fact that this happened so soon before a decision to build the shuttle was a bad sign. “The shuttle should have a demonstrably strong justification, not just a marginal one, among competing space transportation systems before any commitments are made,” he wrote. “It would be a serious mistake to spend billions of dollars for a boondoggle, creating another credibility gap between government interests and the public interest.”

Although O’Leary’s article, written 38 years ago, appears extremely prophetic, he did not have a crystal ball. One of his predictions was that the shuttle was likely to become a primarily military vehicle. Of course, that did not happen. But his logic leading him to this conclusion was sound: “during the past several years only 12,000 pounds of civilian (NASA) unmanned payload have been placed into Earth orbit each year. This is barely sufficient to fill 20 percent of one shuttle flight. How can it be argued that the shuttle is essential to NASA’s needs unless one were to expand its space traffic and costs manifold?” He also noted that the lifetimes of satellites were increasing to five, ten, or even more years, whereas NASA’s payload models assumed satellites with much shorter lifetimes thus requiring frequent replacement, artificially driving up the number of launches. “It is conceivable that NASA will have no money left to make use of the Space Shuttle. One can imagine nearly empty flights, or flying elephants as experimental animals,” he quipped.

Another of his false predictions is equally understandable. O’Leary suggested that the shuttle was likely to overrun its development costs by 30 to 50 percent. But in actuality, the shuttle only overran its development costs by 17 percent, a pretty remarkable feat at a time of rampant inflation. But even on this count O’Leary’s logic was sound. He noted a June 1972 General Accounting Office report that stated, “Despite determined efforts during the 1960s to improve the outcome of major systems acquisition programs… typical programs continued to exhibit an average cost growth of 40 percent.” (If this sounds eerily familiar, that is because a 2009 GAO report concluded pretty much the same problem still existed for major acquisition programs in the first part of the twenty-first century. Nearly four decades later and nothing has changed when it comes to accurately predicting what major programs will cost.)

It is unclear what influence O’Leary’s article had, for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was a relatively obscure publication. Perhaps the earliest prescient criticism of the shuttle—which proved to be highly accurate—is an article written by David Baker in August 1974 for Flight International magazine. That article, titled “Economics of the Space Shuttle,” is available online.

Baker, who is currently writing a history of the Space Shuttle and recently edited a glossy thick magazine celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight, earned a certain amount of fame and credibility within the space field later in the 1970s when he authored two major books. One was called The Rocket and the other The History of Manned Spaceflight. Baker had worked on Apollo as well as in other non-space fields before going on to write about the space program.

Baker was apparently one of the first persons to recognize that NASA's stated cost-per-pound for shuttle could not be correct because it did not take into account the fact that shuttle needed to carry an upper stage as well as “aerospace support equipment” (i.e. the stuff that holds the payload securely in the payload bay) and this consumed much of the shuttle’s payload capability.

NASA could lower the cost of individual shuttle flights… if only the agency bought up most of the flights itself.

In his article Baker noted that a 1971 plan for the shuttle foresaw 327 possible payloads over a 12-year period. By 1974 that number had risen to 507, largely because cancellation of the proposed space station meant that many payloads intended for the station would have to be carried in the shuttle’s cargo bay. In addition, the payload model also included 304 Department of Defense and 175 European payloads. The shuttle could carry multiple payloads on each flight, reducing the number of shuttle flights to only 725 between 1980 and 1991. About a third of those flights would have been Spacelab missions. Baker wrote: “the shuttle is not an end in itself and even with Spacelab in the cargo bay it will realize only a small part of the ambitious program now envisioned for it.”

Thus, the logic behind reducing shuttle costs was more convoluted than the old joke about the manufacturer who lost money on every sale but expected to make it up in volume—NASA could lower the cost of individual shuttle flights… if only the agency bought up most of the flights itself.

“The economics of shuttle launch operations can no longer be regarded as a challenge to the existing family of expendable rockets,” Baker wrote. “This is due both to relatively high launch costs compared with small rockets such as Scout and Delta, and in the higher percentage of flights needing orbital altitudes in excess of those attainable by the shuttle. The extra propulsive stages needed for these flights cannot be regarded as payload, but must be chargeable to the shuttle. To do so would be tantamount to classifying the Saturn V third stage as part of the Saturn’s payload. Because of this the launch cost per pound of payload weight increases well beyond the $160 obtained by dividing launch cost by maximum payload,” Baker wrote.

Baker provided an example of a proposed Uranus mission which ultimately never flew. The spacecraft required a high power upper stage that added a substantial amount to the payload mass. The spacecraft alone was a relatively light 2,137 pounds. The cost per pound for payload weight was $218 if it included the entire upper stage, but $4,560 per pound if it only counted the spacecraft.

That was an extreme example, but the average costs were no better. According to Baker, at the time NASA had a mission model that covered the 1980–1991 period, but also included seven orbiters built relatively rapidly in order to reduce production costs. That model would be cheaper than the equivalent traffic rate using conventional rockets. But he also noted that the model used criteria developed specifically for the shuttle, with payloads optimized for shuttle launch. If the payloads were instead optimized for their launch vehicle, “the shuttle would be hard put to justify its existence.” He concluded: “Clearly the new mission model is built around the shuttle itself and this further enhances the argument that not only is NASA developing a new launch vehicle, but also promoting a redirection of effort in the entire space program.”

As the annual launch rate was reduced, the economics worked against the shuttle. Baker noted that the shuttle mission model assumed that the total mass of the payloads launched annually would keep increasing, essentially doubling from 1980 to 1991. “It remains to be seen if NASA, in concert with other users such as the European Space Agency and Intelsat, can really generate such a busy payload traffic from a relatively static budget,” he wrote.

“NASA has to develop and effectively use the shuttle to survive another decade of space operations, but an over-optimistic attitude has, in the past, left the agency with a string of canceled projects. Only a realistic attitude to future requirements can hope to reverse this trend.”

NASA officials continued to tout the shuttle’s economics, and its projected high flight rate, for the next decade, with very few people noticing, or caring, that the numbers were bogus.

Baker’s 1974 article was written while the shuttle was still in its early development, and before significant metal was being bent to build the spacecraft. It was certainly written before any of the development problems started to appear and became publicly known. But his article appears to have sunk without a trace at the time. The myth of low-cost shuttle launches persisted for many more years. NASA officials continued to claim in official documents delivered to Congress that the agency would launch up to 50 missions a year. By 1980, only a year before launch, NASA was still predicting 40–50 launches per year.

Over the next several years the trade press, such as publications like Aviation Week & Space Technology, began to seriously question the promises being made for the shuttle before it flew. They also diligently reported on problems encountered in development.

But they may have been late to the game. Nixon administration officials knew that the shuttle would not be economical even before they approved it in early 1972. T.A. Heppenheimer, in his 1999 book The Shuttle Launch Decision, quoted one unnamed official saying “No one believed all the fancy economics and no one believed the mission model. I think they were on hemp when they were talking about sixty flights per year.” (Heppenheimer p. 370–372) But the administration’s reasoning was that NASA needed a program after Apollo, and California needed the jobs. However, even if true, NASA officials continued to tout the shuttle’s economics, and its projected high flight rate, for the next decade, with very few people noticing, or caring, that the numbers were bogus.

This whole issue of perceptions of shuttle’s capabilities is something worth investigating. When did people finally start to realize that shuttle was not going to live up to its promises, and who were they? When did skepticism begin to spread from the trade press to the halls of Congress, the Office of Management and Budget, and NASA itself?

The O’Leary article can be downloaded here.

The Baker article can be downloaded here.