The Space Shuttle and the dreams of a ten-year-old
by Andrew J. LePage
|I figured that I could use the Space Shuttle to orbit my own 100-pound satellite that could remain in orbit for years for $10,000 or less. These would turn out to be some of the key skills I ended up using in my career today.|
The article was published about three weeks after President Nixon had announced his decision to proceed with the development of the Space Shuttle as America’s next major space initiative. The article described how the Space Shuttle, which was the size of a common DC-9 jetliner, would make access to space routine allowing non-astronauts like reporters, artists, and women to journey into space by the 1980s (you have to remember that this was 1972 and women in space was a novelty then). It would even be possible for tourists to travel into space. It was estimated that a 175-pound male, or a 135-pound female with 40 pounds of luggage, would be able to make a trip into space for only $17,500. Experts claimed that by the turn of the century that the cost could be slashed in half. In 35 or 40 years—that would have been 2007 or 2012—there could be a hotel in orbit around the Earth. The entire tourist package, including transportation by the Space Shuttle and a week-long stay in an orbiting hotel, could cost only $8,000 to $9,000 dollars. Assuming they were referring to 1972 dollars, that would be around $43,000 to $49,000 today.
The piece continued about how routine access to space would spark new human exploration of the Moon and beyond. Rocket expert Wernher von Braun, who led the effort to develop and build the Saturn Moon rocket, was even quoted as predicting that the first child would be born on the Moon before the year 2000. The article went on to describe in detail a flight on the Space Shuttle from preparations for liftoff to entering orbit to returning to Earth by landing on a conventional runway. The Space Shuttle would then be refurbished and ready to fly again in two weeks to start the process all over again.
Even by the age of ten I knew I could never be an astronaut. I could not pass the requisite medical exam because of my color blindness. But I figured I had a shot at being a tourist. However, it was not the vision of being able to fly in space myself that fired my imagination at that time. It was the claim that the Space Shuttle could reduce the cost of sending a payload into orbit down to $100 per pound and eventually even less. I figured that I could use the Space Shuttle to orbit my own 100-pound satellite that could remain in orbit for years for $10,000 or less. This started me down the road of trying to design my own satellite and its mission: what instruments it might carry, what orbit it would have, how would it transmit its data, and how it could be maneuvered. These would turn out to be some of the key skills I ended up using in my career today.
|So in the end, while the Space Shuttle never did deliver as advertised, it did indirectly get me to where I am now. But I can’t help but wonder what is out there to inspire the ten-year-olds of today as I was once inspired.|
Well, as we all now know with the last mission of the Space Shuttle upon us, few of the promises made about this innovative space plane at its inception or the benefits resulting from its introduction ever came to pass. While the headline prediction that women would be able to fly into space came true (as full-fledged astronauts, not paying tourists), it was more because of the evolution of our society’s view of women than due to the evolution of our technology. The Space Shuttle never was able to deliver on its $100-per-pound-to-orbit claim, and flying it was never “routine” enough to allow anyone other than intensively trained astronauts to fly. Far too many design compromises resulting from the lack of sufficient funds during development, coupled with wildly overoptimistic expectations, were ultimately to blame. While the Space Shuttle certainly was the most complex flying machine ever built, it was never more than an extraordinary experimental aircraft. In the end, the Space Shuttle should have been just the first step towards the ultimate goal of routine access to space and replaced after a decade or so of service with a less experimental and more robust craft. Instead, it seems to have turned into a dead-end program that has stranded us in low Earth orbit for a third of a century.
As for myself, I never became a tourist in space, just like virtually everybody else of my generation. The Russians have sold seats on the Soyuz for a week-long stay on the International Space Station for tens of millions of dollars per passenger, which is a factor of 500 more than was promised when I was ten years old and well out of my price range. Of course there are private spacecraft in development that could send tourists into space for significantly less, but those will be just short suborbital flights for now and not week-long vacations in orbit, which now seem farther away than they did 40 years ago.
Of course I never got to use the Space Shuttle to launch my own satellite into orbit but I did play a minor, peripheral role with the payloads flown on a couple of Shuttle missions. Around 1986 I participated in some early design studies for the optics of NASA’s Broad Band X-Ray Telescope (BBXRT) that eventually flew as part of the Astro 1 mission on STS-35 in December 1990. And in 1993 I was a member of a team that analyzed data returned by the Infrared Background Signature Survey (IBSS) satellite deployed and later recovered during the STS-39 mission launched in April of 1991. In addition to those missions, I also got to participate in various capacities in a handful of other satellite projects over the past two decades not connected to the Space Shuttle. So in the end, while the Space Shuttle never did deliver as advertised, it did indirectly get me to where I am now. But I can’t help but wonder what is out there to inspire the ten-year-olds of today as I was once inspired.