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shuttle launch
The promise of the shuttle caused the US to turn away from expendable launch vehicle development for years, with repercussions that continue to this day. (NASA)

When “about time” equals “too late”

The recent statements by the Administrator of NASA, Michael Griffin, that the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station represented a mistake on the part of the organization was startling only in the fact of the admission, not the reality. The fact itself had been obvious for years, and produced a chorus of “About time!” across the country. It was a fact obvious to most in the space industry after the loss of the Challenger in January 1986; it became obvious to virtually everyone when the shuttle Columbia was lost in February of 2003.

Dr. Griffin was speaking in terms of the shuttle’s impact on NASA programs. Less obvious is the fact that the shuttle program was a mistake that affected the whole country, not just NASA’s efforts, and that its far-reaching impact is still felt today.

I began my professional involvement with the US space program in 1978. My first job in the space business was both large and small; I was the last USAF program manager for the Thor space booster. The job was large in that it was running a whole program, featuring a remarkable array of technical challenges along with some managerial problems that were all but insurmountable. It was small in that there were not many Thor launches left, the vehicle had not been produced in years, and the program office staff was not large: me.

The Thor was one of the expendable boosters that the shuttle was supposed to put out of business permanently. We in the expendable business knew that our efforts’ days were numbered. In fact, soon there were special calendars proudly displayed in shuttle-related program offices that that showed our approaching programmatic doom.

Atlas E/F boosters could have flown for years longer and carried many more payloads to orbit, but we ran out of them. It seems that in the mid-70’s, given the promise of the shuttle, the Air Force decided that it could not afford the horrendous storage costs of about $3,000 per booster per year.

When we launched the last Thor in 1980 and shut down the program over the following year, we had nine Thor boosters still in storage, plus a few bits and pieces. The rockets could still be made to fly just fine but it was politically incorrect to even mention the fact. When one Air Force program looking for a ride was given a summary of the available Thors, the Air Force expendable program office soon received an angry phone call from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The call from NASA consisted of a stern lecture reminding the Air Force that the space shuttle was the officially anointed launch vehicle and NASA would brook no competition. Never mind that the boosters were sitting in a warehouse; they could not be used. The Air Force colonel running the expendable system program office issued direction that he would personally approve any requests for information on our existing rockets. In other words, any such information requests would be denied.

The Thor program over, I moved over to the Atlas program office. We were launching converted Atlas E and F ICBMs built in the late 50’s. Those old birds were much more capable than the Thor when it came to putting payloads into orbit and there were more of them available. They launched the first GPS satellites and a host of others, including some for NASA, but their future was limited. Atlas E/F missiles could be converted and launched for about $15 million each, far cheaper than anything else, except possibly the far less capable little Scout booster, whose production was ending soon as well.

Atlas E/F boosters could have flown for years longer and carried many more payloads to orbit, but we ran out of them. It seems that in the mid-70’s, given the promise of the shuttle, the Air Force decided that it could not afford the horrendous storage costs of about $3,000 per booster per year. Now go back and check that number; that is Three Thousand Dollars, about what a used car of questionable heritage would cost today. Thirty-five Atlas ICBMs were removed from storage and run over with a bulldozer. What would eventually amount to at least a billion dollars worth of space launch hardware was destroyed in order to avoid paying no more than a million dollars in storage costs. This seemed like a good idea at the time; shuttle was coming and expendables were old hat.

Expendables got rejuvenated a bit in the mid-80’s. The Air Force managed to convince the Reagan Administration that they needed back-ups for the Shuttle; the Titan 4 was born. NASA shuttle advocates tried to kill the new program, and when they were unsuccessful at that, they offered an alternative in the form of a vehicle built out of shuttle solid rocket booster components. This NASA idea never got too much traction. It would have placed NASA in direct competition with private industry and, besides, the whole idea was to get away from relying exclusively on shuttle hardware.

Next came the Titan 2 space booster, more converted missiles that escaped scrapping. NASA lobbied hard to end this threat to shuttle’s dominance, and might have been successful. Then came the loss of the Challenger.

We lost a good thirty years of space launch systems development; the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 could have been flying by 1975.

The US expendable boosters had to go back into production at that point, and the old Thors in storage came in handy. The last Delta boosters built had relied on surplus Saturn IB H-1 engines to supply the parts needed to build RS-27 engines. No new engine parts had been built in over a decade. Two of the Thor engines were installed in new Delta boosters and the rest of the Thors had their engines robbed of turbine wheels to support new RS-27 production. The US manufacturer of the turbine wheels had long since gone out of business. Eventually the US started buying the turbine wheels from Japan; that country had literally picked up where the US had stopped.

The impact of the shuttle program’s forced shutdown of the US launch industry was utterly devastating. The existing vehicles were phased out of production, their launch pads allowed to decay. When production had to be restarted, there were no replacements available for the old ICBM-derived boosters. We had to frantically start making that 50’s-vintage hardware again. Development of new boosters did not start until the early 1990’s, when the Air Force began the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. We lost a good thirty years of space launch systems development; the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 could have been flying by 1975.

In late 1985, at the height of the shuttle mania, I said to the people I worked with, “When the last surviving Space Shuttle is accepted by the Smithsonian, you will be able to watch the ceremony via a satellite launched by an Atlas.”

I was wrong. You very likely will view that ceremony through a satellite launched by a Russian Proton, Ukrainian Zenit, or French Ariane, not an American-built booster. The Space Shuttle did that.


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