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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 386-388

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Book Review

The Space Shuttle Decision: NASA's Search for a Reusable Space Vehicle

The Space Shuttle Decision: NASA's Search for a Reusable Space Vehicle. By T. A. Heppenheimer. Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1999. Pp. xiii+470. $23.

Not one but two decisions launched the United States space program into the shuttle era. In late 1971, the administration of President Richard Nixon decided to authorize a space shuttle. In January 1972, it finally decided [End Page 386] what kind of shuttle to build. The first decision replaced the Apollo program's Saturn rocket with a reusable launch vehicle intended to lower costs, routinize spaceflight, keep a human presence in space, and make possible a space station and ultimately human flights to Mars and beyond. The second decision tied the nation's hopes to a partially reusable shuttle fueled by an external tank and a pair of recoverable, solid-fuel boosters, launching a delta-wing, glide recovery vehicle capable of carrying 50,000 pounds of cargo in a bay sixty feet long and fifteen feet in diameter.

The two decisions depended on one another, while at the same time enjoying a curious independence. The decision to proceed with a shuttle program depended on conceptualizing one or more shuttle configurations that held out some promise of delivering the desired capabilities at an affordable cost. The decision to choose a particular configuration depended on an agreement in principle to proceed. The circularity of this relationship also tended to make the wish the father of the idea. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration believed in the shuttle because it needed a more economical launch vehicle; it believed in its configuration because it seemed the optimal choice among constrained shuttle options. Neither decision, in the end, produced the result that the decision makers wanted and expected. The reasons for that failure are embedded in the story T. A. Heppenheimer has told in The Space Shuttle Decision.

This study resembles John Logsdon's classic Decision to Go to the Moon (1970), with three major differences. First, the moon decision led to an unqualified success; the shuttle decision led to the Challenger tragedy of 1986 and erosion of America's dominance of the space launch market in the free world. Second, the moon decision was a single choice; the follow-on selection of the lunar orbit-rendezvous mission profile came long after the nation was committed to the challenge. Third, while John F. Kennedy chose the moon mission, the shuttle choice was made incrementally by the staff of Richard Nixon and finalized by him in two stages. Nixon pitted the Office of Management and Budget (OMB--prior to 1970 the Bureau of the Budget) against operational agencies such as NASA that conducted the government's business. The shuttle die was cast when first Caspar Weinberger, deputy director of OMB, and then George Schultz, his boss, decided to overrule their own budget analysts and give NASA what it wanted. Nixon accepted the recommendations of Weinberger and Schultz.

Heppenheimer's history, sponsored and published by NASA, argues that the trajectory from the shuttle proposal to the shuttle decision(s) was laid out in 1969 by NASA Associate Administrator George Mueller. In October of that year, just three months after the first Apollo moon landing, Mueller asserted that a reusable shuttle could work because of three predictable technological developments: a new engine, a thermal shield to protect against the heat of reentry, and automated checkout and control of the refurbished spacecraft. This prediction was based on the twenty years of [End Page 387] technical development that Heppenheimer traces in the first half of the book. In the end, he concludes that the analysts at OMB never succeeded in refuting Mueller's model, which provided a "well-founded prospect of low cost and routine operation" (p. 435).

This argument suffers from three fatal weaknesses. First, none of Mueller's projected technologies lived up to his predictions. Second, Mueller's assertion did not really structure...


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