Chapter 13: Reentry
“Anything beats an expensive stack of paper.”
Chapter 13: Re-Entry
In the face of that coming hypersonic storm, the feeble impulse of the peroxide thrusters would be of no use, and the muscle power of the human pilots would not suffice to move the mammoth control surfaces on the Lifter’s trailing edge. Here, too, the computer would exert its will upon the ship, coordinating a much faster, wilder dance of hydraulic pumps and motors, deflecting air around the ship to guide it down to the regime where the human mind could again respond quickly enough to make a difference.
In truth, the phrase “edge of space” is not just a misnomer but a nonsense. The atmosphere does not end, but gradually gets thinner and thinner, until the very faintest wisps of Earth’s atmosphere merge with the thin stream of gas constantly shed by the Sun. The drag force it exerts on a spacecraft, then, is never truly absent, but only stronger and weaker depending on one’s location and velocity.
Slowly, imperceptibly at first but with ever greater intensity, that force grew as Constitution plunged back toward Earth, her broad, flat belly forward, shielding the crew cabin and the engines from the heat of reentry. As she fell, the air beneath her couldn’t get out of her way fast enough, and like the piston in a diesel cylinder hundreds of kilometers long, she rammed the air into a smaller, hotter volume. Hypersonic shock waves formed around her wings and nose, stagnating the local air flow and generating even hotter temperatures.
Unlike the Apollo and Gemini crews, or their compatriots aboard Endeavour, Young and Crippen were only aware of their ship’s assault upon the atmosphere peripherally, through skin temperature gages on their control panels. Constitution was not moving nearly fast enough to heat the air to incandescence, much less to ionize it into a plasma--where earlier astronauts had blazed a glowing trail through the sky, their fall back to earth was understated, calm. Ground tracking cameras had no trouble watching Constitution as she descended back through the atmosphere.
In the thickening atmosphere, Constitution transitioned from a spacecraft to an aircraft. Her ailerons and rudders once again dug into the ever more substantial airflow, exerting immense forces and bending moments on the great ship. But Constitution came from good stock--her ancestor, the Saturn V S-IC, had been built with large structural margins by men more suited to building locomotives than tight-margin missiles. She took the loads and ploughed ever deeper into the atmosphere, through aerodynamic forces that would have already shredded a lesser rocket…
In the final years of the seventies, the debut test flights of the Space Transportation System had occurred amid major questions about the program: Could a reusable booster really be built and flown with the aggressive semi-retropropulsive, semi-aerodynamic entry and return profile? Could such a booster be effectively reused between flights? How many flights would really be feasible between major overhauls? Would they have sufficiently long lifespans to enable their higher initial costs to be spread enough to beat out the costs of contemporary launchers? Could they turn around fast enough to meet the aggressive flight schedules sold by NASA to Congress, the American public, and institutional and commercial customers? In a little more than a decade, more than a hundred Lifter and Shuttle flights had conclusively demonstrated that the answer to every one of these questions was yes. The Lifter was the vehicle of choice for NASA’s orbital manned spaceflight, for US military reconnaissance, and for commercial payloads. While other launchers like Ariane scrambled for mere tens of payloads, bolstered mainly by European institutional support, Lifter was launching nearly that many commercial communications satellites every year, massing more and carrying more capability than customers could have found on any other system. The USAF had even used Lifter’s massive payload and the Shuttle’s orbital capabilities to demonstrate value for highly classified manned missions to rendezvous with their latest spy satellites in polar orbit. The dreams of Blue Gemini, the Dorian/MOL, and the Dynasoar had come true in the form of the STS-101’s first flight of an all-military crew to space to offer manned assistance--if only in systems maintenance--to orbital reconnaissance.
However, by May 1989, world events offered new questions as NASA and STC moved laboriously to Lifter’s Return to Flight. In the near yearlong absence of Lifter and Shuttle, new questions had been raised. The Space Transportation System had changed spaceflight and in some ways the world, but what role would it find in its second decade in the world it had created? What would be the effects of Magellan’s loss on STS-116 on the shape of policy for manned and unmanned spaceflight? What did Lifter’s first major failure in more than a hundred launches mean for the next generation of space launch systems, both in the US and abroad? Whatever the answers to these questions, though, one thing was sure: the Space Transportation System was and would remain the keystone for Western access to space. While its supremacy might be challenged by new competition from other Western vehicles or by potential access to the Soviet Groza system, that would only come into play in the long term. Thus, while the winds of change saw thousands of engineers, program managers, lobbyists, and politicians debate the future of spaceflight around the world, thousands more had to fight through the winds to focus on returning the Lifter to flight with its new dual-engine upper stage.
The groundwork for the return-to-flight with STS-117 had been laid over the development of the Magellan Review Board’s findings, but the final steps came in the form of the qualification firings of the S-IVD Dual Engine Upper Stage vehicle. After the single failure to light the engine on STS-116 had sent the Magellan probe tumbling to its doom, NASA and STC had gone to the unrequested step of transitioning all future Lifter missions to the more redundant, higher-capacity DEUS. Even for payloads where the S-IVD’s enhanced performance and theoretical improved safety were not specifically required, STC made the decision to switch. Doing so was a critical step to rebuilding their reputation with commercial launch customers, but also simplified production, meaning STC would avoid having duplicated lines for two stages. As Lifter’s flight rate had risen, the question of having two such lines had become more critical: throughput was high enough to depend on repeated production operations and leverage economies of scale, tooling, and expertise, but still low if this production was to be split across two stages with nearly entirely distinct thrust structures, pressurization schemes, and other interfaces. However, it meant that the test program for the DEUS directly paced the return-to-flight for the entire program.
In spite of this, the S-IVD qualification program was extensive, but it was compressed by test engineers working in shifts nearly around the clock to get the initial S-IVD-T qualification stage in and out of various test cells at NASA’s Stennis test site. As results came in while the stage was poked and prodded, rattled and shaken, and finally fired over and over, McDonnell engineers back at Huntington Beach, California worked evenings, nights, and weekends to process it. During the qualification of the integrated stage’s ignition transients and cross-comparison of data with the extensive firing of each of S-IVD-T’s engines before installation, the manager of the engineering team responsible for the Augmented Spark Igniter redesign, which was an area of particular focus, purchased for his team T-shirts bearing the team member’s names and the phrase, “No Sleep ‘Til Orbit”. However, even as S-IVD-T was put through its paces, the first three production S-IVD stages (D-001 through D-003) were on the production stands, as Huntington Beach continued its proven pattern of building stages in three-unit lots. At least for the moment, the practice of hot-firing completed stages on the way to launch was resumed, after having been deleted for schedule and cost control purposes. Before 1988 ended, the S-IVD-001 stage, earmarked for the STS-117 return-to-flight mission, joined S-IVD-T at Stennis for its qualification firings with 002 and 003 not far behind.
The qualification program went smoothly, but there was only so far that engineers could push themselves while remaining confident in their tests, their data, and their analysis. As production and testing procedures were overhauled and the conformance of S-IVD-T and S-IVD-001 were verified, February 1989 melted away. The booster for STS-117, the freshly-overhauled Constitution was already stacked and waiting in the VAB when the first live DEUS was delivered to the Cape on February 23rd. By the time the stage was re-inspected after transit, and final integration preparation was carried out, the launch date had slipped into March. Finally, however, STS-117 roared into the Florida sky on the long-anticipated return to flight on March 14th, 1989. Flight controllers were laser-focused on their data during the count as elevated upper-level winds which had plagued the previous day’s launch attempt threatened to once again violate launch constraints. The winds settled within tolerable limits shortly before launch, and the actual staging and the first ignition of a Dual-Engine Upper Stage in space were picture perfect. The successful deployment of a pair of commercial communications satellites, whose owners had received a major discount from STC to accept the STS-117 launch slot, brought the return-to-flight to a new phase.
With STS-117 down, the problem was to ramp launch frequency back to the levels which had become typical prior to STS-116, with launches routinely occurring twice in the same month. More rapid turnaround from KSC’s twin LC-39 pads was possible, but unnecessary as the flight rate was able to meet the available payloads, particularly with the double-manifesting of communications satellites. However, with Lifter out of service just weeks shy of a year, there were literally dozens of payloads which were either due for launch in 1989, or which had been scheduled in 1988 and had slipped with the STS-116 failure. The build up of the launch cadence started slow: the stacking of STS-118, with the Space Shuttle Discovery and Lifter Liberty, didn’t begin until STS-117 was safely flown. The mission followed in its turn from LC-39B on April 27th, with Discovery’s crew headed to Spacelab to ferry critical supplies and carry out overdue maintenance on the orbital outpost after over a year untended. However, by the time Libertyflew, STS-119 and Independence were already being prepared with another pair of communications satellites. It was less than three weeks later that Independence followed her younger sisters, and STS-120 on May 20th confirmed that STC was back on pace to meet all its obligations. In fact, to catch up on backlogged flights, Kennedy Space Center was to see no fewer than seventeen Lifter launches in 1989, with another three from Vandenberg including Resolution on a LUCID servicing mission using the new DEUS performance. Fresh off the failure of STS-116 and the critique of people like William Proxmire, Lifter had showed its competitors what they would have to match by breaking its own prior flight-per-year record.
With the Space Lifter back in action and STC and their teams working above and beyond to clear the flight backlog and return to a regular launch cadence, NASA had finally worked through enough turbulence to look beyond the day-to-day operations and into future planning. However, the election of George H. W. Bush as the 41st President of the United States had brought massive changes to the way that the American civil space program was run. In order to better coordinate civil, military, and commercial space efforts in the US, Congress had authorized the creation of a National Space Council, answerable directly to the Vice President, and through him the President, designed to “set ambitious goals and maintain American preeminence in space, while further integrating the High Frontier into the American economy,” in response to the embarrassing loss of Magellan and the rising Soviet success of Mir. The activities of American private and semi-private space firms, including Space Transportation Corporation, Geostar, PanAmSat, and other new satellite communications companies, were now also distinct enough from NASA and other US government functions to merit oversight and coordination beyond a mere office at NASA headquarters. It was hoped the NSC could recommend to the President the most effective ways to promote continued American success in space on all fronts, transcending the bureaucratic limits of the civil, military, and commercial sectors.
Bush’s surprising choice for head of the NSC was Mark Albrecht, who had been a Senior Research Analyst working for the CIA on the Strategic Defense Initiative, and who had written the Republican Party’s 1988 platform on defense. Though he had ample experience with the policies and management of the USAF’s space policies, he had not previously worked with NASA, raising some concern as to whether he could actually tackle the challenge of giving the agency a new direction.
President Bush’s nominee for the new administrator of NASA also raised eyebrows. On Albrecht’s recommendation (for he had worked with him on the SDI), Bush nominated a little-known middle-manager at TRW named Dan Goldin, who had distinguished himself by applying advanced microelectronics technology to satellite design, and for pitching a cheaper design for NASA’s Earth Observation System satellites, emphasizing modularity and shared components with commercial satellite busses and the less-classified Department of Defense intelligence satellites. Though competent, he was essentially a “nobody” in Washington--it was, in fact, not until his confirmation hearings that his registration with the Democratic Party became public knowledge (somewhat to Bush’s annoyance, though, as Dan Quayle noted at the time, “he certainly didn’t have any trouble getting confirmed” in the Democrat-held House or Senate).
The third individual who formed the “Space Troika” of the Bush Administration was Vice President Dan Quayle. Like Bush, Agnew, and Johnson before him, Vice President Quayle was expected to handle the NSC’s day-to-day operation and make recommendations to President Bush. It was Quayle who first proposed that Bush should make a major space policy announcement on July 20, 1989, the twentieth anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon. Bush, eager to counter criticisms of his “lack of vision” and possibly in an effort to step out of Ronald Reagan’s immense shadow, readily agreed. From April to July, the National Space Council would work with NASA and representatives from STC and, to a lesser extent, other American aerospace firms to determine the best way forward for America’s civil space program.
The one feature that most united Goldin, Albrecht, and Quayle was a consensus that they had to operate within realistic budgetary restrictions. Conscious of Agnew’s failure to pitch Tom Paine’s vision of a mission to Mars by 1986, Quayle wrote in a memo in late April of 1989 that “the Democrats who control congress are not LBJ. The man in Moscow is not Khrushchev. President Bush doesn’t have a dead predecessor to avenge. Those are our constraints.” In this light, the nominations of Goldin and Albrecht, both innovative, fat-trimming managers with a history of effective cost and scope control, becomes less surprising. With their constraints in mind, and after a series of meetings with upper management at NASA and at STC, and with Norm Augustine at Martin Marietta, the National Space Council (NSC) turned to the recommendations of the National Commission on Space (NCS) and worked to determine which technologies were on the critical path to Mars, what infrastructure would be needed to prove them, and which of those technologies really needed up-front government support.
To this end, the NSC took the NCS’s list of enabling technologies and infrastructures for crewed missions to Mars and began whittling down those deemed less central to NASA’s mission. Based on discussions with executives at TPLI and Martin-Marietta, they concluded that the private sector was already developing lower-cost launch vehicles, making a government-funded one redundant, at best. The assumed near-term availability of such vehicles also reduced the urgency of developing advanced in-space propulsion technologies--if the cost per-kilogram to LEO fell far enough, the importance of reducing initial mass in LEO fell with it. This left as the main technological goals for a human mission to Mars the development of in-space nuclear power sources, a reusable interorbital tug, and a closed-loop, long-term life-support system. While each of these three technologies would require a large research and development effort, none of them in themselves could satisfy the primary goal of President Bush’s planned new direction in space--to demonstrate American preeminence. The American public, and the public overseas, would not see a qualitative difference in the scope of American activities in space if only these technologies were developed or even flight-tested. Satisfying the President’s desire to demonstrate American preeminence would require a near-term goal that could easily be conveyed to the public. Following this train of thought, Goldin and Albrecht summoned a commission of engineers and scientists from the major NASA centers and asked them to design reference missions for a human lunar return by the year 2000, with the caveat that as much of the new technology and infrastructure developed for such a mission be applicable to a Mars mission some time in the twenty-first century. Even as they worked, President Bush made his great speech at the National Air and Space Museum, flanked by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, the heroes of Apollo 11:
“In 1961 it took a crisis—the space race—to speed things up. Today we don’t have a crisis; we have an opportunity. To seize this opportunity, I’m not proposing a 10-year plan like Apollo; I’m proposing a long-range, continuing commitment. First, for the coming decade, for the 1990s: A new cislunar infrastructure and a return to the Moon, with a sustainable, reusable architecture, building upon our successes with the Space Lifter for the past decade. Next, for the new century, to open the Moon to American industry as Earth Orbit has been opened, to tap the physical resources of the High Frontier. And then, journeys--not just one, but many--beyond the Moon, to the other planets, leveraging again the skills we built on and around the Moon, beginning with a Manned Mission to Mars.”
The hidden genius of Bush’s speech was that it recognized Mars and the other planets as the goal for which his new program aimed, but it left the actual planning for Mars missions until some undetermined point after the technology was refined in cislunar space. Though this approach received some criticism among some sectors of the space advocate community (and from Martin Marietta, whose Vice President for Space Operations would go on to propose in 1998 that all that was really needed for Mars missions was a slight modification of existing launch vehicles and LEO systems), in practice it took a great deal of pressure off NASA’s engineers and managers, as they did not need to design Mars missions to fit an, at best, modestly-increased budget. Indeed, a preserved memorandum from Administrator Goldin to Vice President Quayle indicates that concerns about controlling overall program costs were already surfacing at NASA and the National Space Council in May of 1989, as Goldin warned Quayle that, since the idea of the program was to design hardware that could be modified for Mars missions later on, it didn’t make all that much difference to the final schedule whether the Mars program begins in 1990 or in 2000. Therefore, the memo continues, NASA should focus on pitching the lunar return program first, as it was easier to secure funding for one part of the program than for both, and because such an approach gave the agency and its partners greater flexibility down the line. Goldin made reference to the “phased development” approach NASA had taken to the Space Transportation System, which had yielded the reusable booster, a reusable orbiter (though without its own significant propulsion), and a space station, which had yielded immense benefits for the agency even without the remaining elements of the STS. The fact that the second phase of that development (the large, integral-propulsion reusable orbiter and reusable space tug) had not yet manifested was noticeably absent from the memo.
The architecture that emerged in response to President Bush’s call for a Space Exploration Initiative (as the effort came to be known), developed by engineers from Johnson, Marshall, Kennedy, and STC, with consultation from every prime contractor in the American space industry (and quite a few of the secondary contractors), thus centered on operations on the Lunar surface and in Lunar Orbit. The new architecture called for a reusable in-space transport vehicle (the long-delayed Space Tug) providing logistical support to a reusable lunar lander, which could carry either cargo or crew down to the lunar surface from a small orbiting maintenance platform. The reusable Space Tug would, in addition to servicing the lunar lander and lunar orbital platform, deliver satellites to geostationary orbit and inject probes to interplanetary trajectories, providing a cheaper alternative to the Centaur upper stage and amortizing its development cost over more missions. The technologies developed for the Tug and Lander would also have applications for the long-term storage of propellant for Mars or other destinations.
The proposed program, Option B, was one of three paths forward presented to President Bush in the early autumn of 1989. The other two, Options A and C, called for, respectively, a 20-year ramp-up of space activity in cislunar space and on the Moon culminating in a landing on Mars by 2012, and a lower-intensity program of technology development in cislunar space (essentially, the recommendation of the NCS in 1986). NASA presented President Bush with cost and time estimates for the various milestones of each project, with Option A featuring a lunar landing by 1998 and a permanent base in 2001, for a total price-tag of some $200 billion. Option C was somewhat more nebulous--each component of the program, from a full-time space station in Low Earth Orbit to test out closed-loop life-support technologies to a completed Nuclear Thermal Rocket development program to a new hypersonic flight development program, had its own schedule and cost. What they lacked, in Bush’s eyes, was a concrete end-point at which the United States could declare “Mission Accomplished!”
Option B, while nominally aiming to develop a system that could be used for Mars missions, did not give cost or schedule estimates past the year 2000. It called for the completion of the interorbital Space Tug by 1996, and for lunar landings by 1998. Though the Lander would be of great utility in building a base, that was left to the next administration. Similarly, though Option B also called for a small, full-time space station to serve as a test-bed for “long-term space habitation technologies,” it did not propose schedules or costs for an interplanetary version of this space station. This greatly reduced the cost estimates that NASA could suggest to the President--compared to Option A’s $200 billion price tag, Option B was estimated at just under $40 billion, spread over 8 years. For that price tag, NASA would have three new vehicles (the Tug, the Lander, and the Space Station), an American flag on the Moon again, and a small suite of new technologies that could indeed be directed toward human Mars missions in following administrations. Furthermore, once the Tug and (possibly) the Lander were spun off into a new contracting organization (as STC had been spun off to operate Lifter), the operational costs would (theoretically) fall off and operations between LEO and the Moon would fall to the private sector, just as operations between Earth and LEO had.
By early October, Bush had been sold on Option B, and the Space Troika’s challenge had shifted from the comparatively simple task of briefing a sympathetic President to the much more complex challenge of selling a flashy new technology program to Congressmen already salivating over the fruits of 44 years of Containment…