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Single Stage to Orbit

Politics, Space Technology, and the Quest for Reusable Rocketry

Andrew J. Butrica

Publication Year: 2003

While the glories and tragedies of the space shuttle make headlines and move the nation, the story of the shuttle forms an inseparabe part of a lesser-known but no less important drama—the search for a reusable single-stage-to-orbit rocket. Here an award-winning student of space science, Andrew J. Butrica, examines the long and tangled history of this ambitious concept, from it first glimmerings in the 1920s, when technicians dismissed it as unfeasible, to its highly expensive heyday in the midst of the Cold War, when conservative-backed government programs struggled to produce an operational flight vehicle. Butrica finds a blending of far-sighted engineering and heavy-handed politics. To the first and oldest idea—that of the reusable rocket-powered single-stage-to-orbit vehicle—planners who belonged to what President Eisenhower referred to as the military-industrial complex.added experimental ("X"), "aircraft-like" capabilties and, eventually, a "faster, cheaper, smaller" managerial approach. Single Stage to Orbit traces the interplay of technology, corporate interest, and politics, a combination that well served the conservative space agenda and ultimately triumphed—not in the realization of inexpensive, reliable space transport—but in a vision of space militarization and commercialization that would appear settled United States policy in the early twenty-first century.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: New Series in NASA History

Cover, Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

This book would not have come into existence if the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had not embarked on the ill-fated X-33 project and had not contracted to have the project’s development documented from beginning to end. The X-33 program’s stated goal was to reduce the business and technical risks by the year 2000 ...


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pp. xiii-xvi

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pp. 1-10

“In a village of La Mancha, whose name I have no desire to remember, there lived not long ago one of those gentlemen who keep a lance in the lance-rack, an old buckler, a lean hack, and a greyhound for coursing.” So begins Miguel de Cervantes’s (1547–1616) tale of the epic adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha. ...

Part I: The Conservative Agenda for Space

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1. The Reagan Revolution

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pp. 13-28

Our story begins in the 1980s, during the last years of the decades-long cold war, a war that profoundly transfigured the cultures of North America and Western European countries and the lives of their inhabitants. The presidency of Ronald Reagan marked a sea change in the country’s conduct of the cold war and its space activities, ...

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2. Commerce on the High Frontier

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pp. 29-46

The space shuttle was one of the foundation stones of Reagan-era space policy. It empowered and made possible that policy by carrying military, civilian, and commercial payloads into orbit. It also inspired entrepreneurs to imagine new space commercial ventures. The Reagan administration offered more than the shuttle to advance space commercialization. ...

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3. Space Warriors

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pp. 47-62

The commercialization of space was only half of the Reagan Revolution in space, half of the conservative space agenda. The other half was the militarization of space. The Reagan administration did more than advance the militarization of space, however. It took the cold war in a new direction that, in many ways, ...

Part II: The Quest

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4. X-30: The Cold War SSTO

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pp. 65-82

One of the consequences of the ill-fated flight of the Challenger was the removal of military and commercial payloads from the shuttle. The approval of Phase I of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in September 1987, followed by the first licensed commercial launches in 1989, signified a new and growing demand for launch services. ...

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5. Space Visionaries

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pp. 83-98

The idea of a reusable, rocket-powered, single-stage-to-orbit vehicle is far from new. The imagination of science fiction authors Jules Verne, Hugo Gernsback, and their intellectual heirs have provided a vision of single-stage-to-orbit transport for over a hundred years. ...

Part III: The Space Ship eXperimental

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6. Launching the SSX

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pp. 101-121

Not one, but a series of critical events allowed Hunter’s vision of the X-Rocket to become a real experimental spaceship. The first took place at a meeting of the Citizens’ Advisory Council on National Space Policy. It was one of many diverse citizen space interest groups that formed what might be called the space movement. ...

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7. The SDIO SSTO Program

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pp. 122-152

The Aerospace Corporation’s positive evaluation and the enthusiasm of SDIO officials Mike Griffin and Gary Payton paved the way for the SSX to become an SDIO project called the Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) program. The SSTO program would fulfill the vision of a single-stage-to-orbit experimental program as outlined by Max Hunter, ...

Part IV: Spaceship Wars

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8. W(h)ither SSTO?

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pp. 155-171

The installation of Dan Goldin as NASA administrator in 1992 eventually would have an impact on the SDIO’s SSTO program, as would the elections that November. In the meantime, the end of the cold war and the redefinition of the Strategic Defense Initiative promised to make 1992 the first of several difficult, if not agonizing, years for the SSTO program, ...

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9. The Disorder of Things

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pp. 172-190

On January 20, 1993, Chief Justice William Rehnquist swore in William Jefferson Clinton and Albert Gore, Jr., as president and vice president. For the first time since Jimmy Carter, Democrats were in the White House. The new administration would shape military and space policy to suit its own agendas, ...

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10. The Clipper Graham

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pp. 191-208

The transfer of the SSRT program and the DC-X to a civilian agency following the end of the cold war raised a critical question: what would happen to Max Hunter’s vision of a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle with aircraft-like operations built and tested in a “faster, cheaper, smaller” program? ...

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pp. 209-220

The Clipper Graham that fell over and burned on a New Mexico launch pad represented the final stage in the evolution of a vision. The vision, conceived as early as the nineteenth century, remained idealistic and naïve until the cold war brought funding, military need, and the necessary technological development. ...


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pp. 221-222


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pp. 223-256

Bibliographic Essay

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pp. 257-260


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pp. 261-266

E-ISBN-13: 9780801881343
E-ISBN-10: 080188134X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801873386
Print-ISBN-10: 080187338X

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 6 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2003

Series Title: New Series in NASA History
Series Editor Byline: Steven J. Dick, Series Editor See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 70749798
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Single Stage to Orbit

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Aerospace planes -- Research -- United States.
  • Reusable space vehicles -- Research -- United States.
  • Aerodynamics, Hypersonic -- Research -- Political aspects -- United States.
  • Research aircraft -- United States.
  • United States. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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