Could the Space Shuttle have succeeded?

Discussion in 'Alternate History Discussion: After 1900' started by kernals12, Sep 3, 2019.

  1. kernals12 Proudly on the Autism Spectrum

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    Would a different design for the space shuttle, using technology available in the 1970s, have allowed the dream of low cost access to space come true?
     
  2. Athelstane Anglo-Saxon Troublemaker

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    "Low cost" was going to be a push no matter what - it's a government agency. And it has always had to answer to Congress.

    But "safer" and "more reliable" were certainly achievable. See this timeline here from a few years ago.
     
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  3. Maniakes Well-Known Member

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    Depends what you mean by "low cost". Lower than OTL is doable, if the shuttle program is targeted to a narrower set of intended missions. Dropping the sillier Air Force requirements (e.g. the ability to snatch a Soviet satellite out of orbit and land back at Vandenberg in a single orbit) is probably the low-hanging fruit here. Splitting the program between a manned orbiter and a cargo-only heavy lift upper stage (as suggested by some commenters in the timeline Athelstane linked) would probably help quite a bit as well.

    If you want order-of-magnitude improvements in cost, comparable to current sticker prices for SpaceX launches, then I don't think that's feasible with 1970s tech, no matter how much hindsight we apply. It's only barely possible now, with four decades of additional tech base, and with SpaceX being a privately-held company with opaque finances that make it hard to figure out how much their prices actually reflect their costs (*).

    (*) It sounds like they're turning a small profit on the marginal costs of paid launches, while R&D and test launches are still being eaten by investors in hopes of turning an overall profit in the future. But the publicly-available details appear to be really hazy.
     
  4. kernals12 Proudly on the Autism Spectrum

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    What about the flyback booster idea? Or using titanium instead of those brittle ceramic tiles?
     
  5. sdgottsch Well-Known Member

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    One saving is to not have reusable SRB's?
     
  6. Athelstane Anglo-Saxon Troublemaker

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    Well, actually, that's the architecture Polish Eagle and e of pi settled on.

    [​IMG]
     
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  7. e of pi Layers on Top of Layers

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    Fly back boosters with 70s technology is achievable, and looks to have potential to achieve the equivalent of $2,000-2,500/kg. The designs they were looking at had very realistic chances of achieving relatively rapid reuse of at least the lower stages, the challenge is that it'd mean something like a 20% higher program cost in an environment where the budget for NASA was incredibly constrained. (NASA was basically given a hard budget by OMB--no more than $1 billion then-year to be spent per year at peak, while winged flyback S-IC was estimated to be no less than $1.1 billion peak and potentially as much as $1.4 billion peak). Once you have that built and operating, Right Side Up represents a very conservative look at what is achievable with even a $2,500/kg vehicle in service. In such an environment, with orbital reusable tugs, you can get astronauts to the moon and support them on the surface for a similar $/day as ISS crew support. In other words, we could support a six to ten person base on the moon for the money we're currently spending on ISS, or a smaller base plus an ISS-or-larger station.

    Achieving upper stage reuse is the bigger challenge for 70s materials, and has a lot to do with why the cost for it was estiamted to be roughly 2x total and 2.8x peak funding compared to even first-stage reuse only. However, even if turnaround labor and spares replacement exceeds 10% of original build cost, it's possible to end up with a vehicle with modern-day cost-per-kg of <$1,000/kg and a turnaround of a month or so. Under the <$1,000/kg operations regime, a ticket to space might be estimated at something under half a million dollars, putting space operations in the realm where a company interested in, say, zero-g pharmaceuticals research could launch their own man-tended lab and send up occasional crews to check on it, or house their lab on a larger station where they either send their own tech to keep an eye on it or pay for one of the station's crew to monitor it part time as needed. A week vacation in LEO would cost "only' 2x what Virgin Galactic has been seeing interested customers put up for 8 minute joyrides to just below the Von Karman line.

    The challenge is just finding the extra few then-year billions in 1971...
     
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  8. kernals12 Proudly on the Autism Spectrum

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    We could make it an international project.
     
  9. e of pi Layers on Top of Layers

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    Not likely to help. In 1971, ESA doesn't even exist and ESRO are struggling to recover from the problems of the Europa rocket. Once formed in 1974, ESA's entire budget was <$500 million/year. Any other agency is smaller than that except for that of the USSR, and I really doubt the idea of cooperative development of a high-technology project would fly even in the early 70s, much less as the decade wears on. You'd really need a much larger public support for space after the coverage of the initial lunar landings fades (and even then it barely hit more than 50% support). You really just need Congress to signal to OMB they're more willing to see a peak limit of, say, $1.5 billion. I've got a few timeline ideas, but they're simmering on backburner right now.
     
  10. SsgtC Ready to Call it a Day

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    With who? In the seventies, the only two countries with anything approaching a human spaceflight capability were the US and USSR. The ESA wasn't formed until May, 1975 and didn't officially come into being until 1980. And on top of that, it was focused on satellite launching, not human spaceflight. Any practical program will, by default, have to be a US only program. Because the only other people with the expertise to meaningfully contribute are the Soviets. And at the height of the Cold War, they weren't cooperating on that
     
    Last edited: Sep 3, 2019
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  11. e of pi Layers on Top of Layers

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    Cooperation, yes, in the sense of having our vehicles meet in orbit and the crew hake hands, maybe build a station by assembling modules each side brought. But having Soviet engineers working deeply involved in our next-generation rocket, working hand in hand with top American defense contractors? Unlikely, and that's what you need to make this work. The reusable booster, orbiter, and crew vehicle can't be designed completely independent of one another--at least the booster and orbiter are part of a combined system, and if the interfaces there break down, the entire vehicle will not achieve its goals in terms of performance, turnaround, and cost.
     
  12. kernals12 Proudly on the Autism Spectrum

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    Could NASA cancel some of its other projects? If they cut back their ambitions in the 70s to spend more on a better shuttle. They'd find their budget going much further in the 80s.
     
  13. SsgtC Ready to Call it a Day

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    Like what? Apollo was the goose that laid the golden eggs. That's the only program of note that could be cut and save significant money. For
    Do you want to be the guy to go in front of Congress and suggest killing flights to the Moon in favor of a "glorified taxi cab?"
     
  14. Workable Goblin Chronicler of the Pony Wars

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    They did cancel some of their other projects. Almost all of their other projects, actually. Most of what they did was hangovers that had been substantially funded before the space shuttle decision was made (Skylab, to a lesser extent Viking), forced by orbital mechanics to happen in the '70s or not at all (Voyager), international (Apollo-Soyuz, Helios), or not actually that expensive in the first place (ATS, Landsat, Pioneer, Mariner 10). I mean, I guess you could drop Viking and Voyager and scrounge up a few hundred million dollars in this year and that, but why?

    Uh, in the climate of the late 1960s? Absolutely I would, there's a reason Shuttle got fairly enthusiastic support...anyway, they did cancel several Apollo flights to save money for Skylab and Shuttle development. There really wasn't that much more to cut in terms of Apollo, which anyway wouldn't help because OMB's budget targets were for the post-Apollo era.
     
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  15. kernals12 Proudly on the Autism Spectrum

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    Skylab.
    Also, Nixon wanted to cut the Apollo 16 and 17 missions, as did most of the public.
     
  16. Johnrankins Well-Known Member

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    What the shuttle really needs is a lot more use. The big problem is that this very expensive piece of equipment was barely used. It was used only about once every three months and that was spread between five shuttles, it needs to be closer to being used at least once a week. Like any extremely high capital cost transport, it needs to be used nearly constantly to keep prices down. This needs a much higher budget, of course. However, for it to pay off it must blast off, perform a mission, land and then blast off again within days. A bonus with this is not only is the capital cost spread out between more launches, but the cost should also drop through increased efficiency via learning.
     
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  17. Ravinoff Member

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    I really do wonder what things might have looked like had Kennedy not been assassinated, assuming the rumours that he wanted to turn the Space Race into a collaborative effort were true. Or hell, even if Korolev had lived long enough to work out the flaws on the N1. A combined US-Soviet space program though...depressing to think what we could have accomplished.
     
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  18. kernals12 Proudly on the Autism Spectrum

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    The reason it wasn't used enough was because of the unexpected amount of maintenance it required.
     
  19. Johnrankins Well-Known Member

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    That certainly was part of it. Sadly, teething pains are inevitable. In any case, I doubt you could find the money to do it right but that is what was needed. Hugely expensive transportation systems don't make sense unless they are used, and that includes space shuttles.
     
  20. Workable Goblin Chronicler of the Pony Wars

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    Like I said, substantially funded before the Space Shuttle decision. Also, really useful as a tool for exploring long-duration missions and getting some experience with space stations, which the Space Shuttle was always supposed to have as a primary mission.

    Not really. There's a famous memo where Caspar Weinberger, then the deputy director of the OMB, said

    And Nixon scribbled in the margins "I agree with Cap". Not even the OMB wanted to terminate the Apollo program that early.
     
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