The question, therefore, is, "is there a phasing of the shuttle or, alternatively, a cheaper shuttle that will not reach the very high expenditures in the middle of the decade?"
The rollout between the Booster Processing Facility and the Vehicle Assembly Building was not a high-profile event for any Lifter mission. For this phase of her preparation, Constitution was escorted by only a handful of photography enthusiasts with large tripod-mounted cameras, junior journalists from the Orlando Sentinel, the Huntsville Times, and the Houston Chronicle, and some of the engineers at Kennedy Space Center stepping out of work briefly to watch one of the world’s biggest flying machine drive by. Security guards kept them all at a safe distance as the airport tug pulled her south along the curving road to the VAB. Too wide for the doors at the end of the transfer aisle, Constitution was rolled in through the massive doors on the west side of the building. As the tug pushed the vehicle through a three-point turn to align the tail of the booster with the doors (only the widest, horizontally-opening portions currently open) the onlookers were presented a closeup view of the sides of the vehicle--generally clean, but yellowed and stained in some places from the heat of suborbital reentry. Her handful of admirers saw a vehicle that had already proven herself in tests and in operational missions.
Chapter 2: Rollout
On the other side of the VAB, a narrower shape was being prepared for her own stacking. This one was much more familiar to the Apollo veterans who still made up a large share of the Kennedy Space Center workforce--an S-IVC stage, the stretched descendant of the S-IVBs which had sent men to the Moon. She’d been at the Cape for months, barged in with three identical sisters from California. Rolled in through the south entrance to the VAB, she was thoroughly checked out in preparation for her mission. Her J-2S-2 engine received particular attention, as it had not been test-fired after attachment to the stage--only before, as part of the lot of engines sold by Pratt & Whitney to McDonnell-Douglas. Unlike the RS-ICs, S-IVCs did not receive names, and any battle scars they earned were short-lived, as the stage ended its mission by burning up in the atmosphere over the Pacific or Indian oceans. This vehicle had never flown before.
The third vehicle in the VAB was the most exotic of the three. Sleeker and smoother than the RS-IC, this last one had a black underside, a new tile-based thermal protection system to protect her from the greater thermal stresses of orbital reentry, and a set of Apollo- and Titan-heritage rocket engines on her rear for orbital maneuvers and, if the worst happened, to boost the crew to safety. As her larger cousin had years earlier when she’d first been unveiled, this one had a crowd of admirers eager to snap a picture with America’s newest spaceship. Engineers from both NASA and Rockwell who worked on her at the Cape were joined by busloads of tourists from the Visitor’s Center, bedecked in track jackets despite the Florida heat, though the latter generally remained behind a rope barrier to stay out of the former’s way. Polaroid camera flashes illuminated her from every angle as engineers and technicians checked her even more thoroughly than Constitution. Umbilical cables and air hoses (maintaining a constant positive pressure within the vehicle, to ensure that no contaminants entered) trailed from access panels all around the vehicle.
Unlike the RS-ICs, whose tube-and-wing shape reflected their origins as disposable rocket stages, this vehicle, an Orbiter Vehicle, had a smoothly curving body, with no clear boundary between wing and fuselage--the entire body generated lift. Augmented by sharply-angled control surfaces, this lifting body design gave the spacecraft the atmospheric maneuverability to return to the US from any orbit at almost any time--which was why one of the other Orbiters, still in production at Downey, bore an Air Force star-and-bar instead of a NASA worm.
The Flax Committee’s attempts to hammer out an affordable way forward for NASA must be considered against the backdrop of the budget situation for 1972. The OMB had proposed to reduce NASA’s budget to $2.8 billion for that year, which would have meant the reduction of piloted spaceflight to Apollo capsules on disposable boosters for the rest of the 1970s. Only the timely intervention of Caspar Weinberger and then President Nixon himself kept the budget at a relatively safe $3.3 billion. Before this happened, however, NASA Deputy Administrator George Low sketched out a proposal to replace the Apollo CSM with a manned, engine-less glider, which would have a small payload bay and significant cross-range, allowing it to service NASA space stations and pull off the single-orbit missions so interesting to elements of the USAF. Unfortunately, while far cheaper to develop, such a glider would have been reliant on disposable two-stage boosters, keeping its per-flight costs unacceptably high. The idea did not gain traction within NASA’s leadership, though elements of the Flax Committee were more receptive. NASA’s leadership switched focus back to the winged boosters and large orbiters favored at both Marshall and the Manned Spaceflight Center by this point.
Both of these preferred options, however, came under fire as the Flax Committee systematically dismantled NASA’s entire economic rationale for the Space Shuttle. Even using NASA’s optimistic estimates of $5.5 million to $9 million per Shuttle flight and sixty flights per year (an estimate that one committee member said must have been made “on hemp”), the Committee concluded that the program would still cost the nation more than it saved. Many of the supposed savings came not from the direct savings in launch cost--which by themselves were barely equal to the task of paying off the tremendous development costs even at high flight rates--but instead from the benefits of less-specialized, less-compact, and heavier satellites and space probes which could be checked out in orbit instead of on the ground and use a standard set of structures and systems. However, while the studies depended on such “payload effects” to justify the massive sticker price of the fully reusable shuttle, companies buying or building payloads were less-enthused with the concepts.
The Flax Committee took NASA to task on all these assumptions, criticizing the minimal projected startup costs and the speculative nature of the payload effects. By the time they were finished, the economic rationale for the Shuttle was dead in the water, but all was not lost. The Committee criticized both Mathematica and NASA for neglecting to study (or neglecting to publish) different phased development and interim operation schemes. The prime contractors had all suggested interim options in their reports to NASA and the committee, naturally giving their own preferred options primacy. Each of them offered the chance to reduce the non-recurring development costs of the program, even as the per-flight cost went up, but despite specific requests few had seen intense focus in the economic studies.
Under pressure from the Flax Committee and Administrator Fletcher, NASA set out to rectify the issue. Mathematica Inc. studied different phased development programs in an effort to find one that gave NASA the capability it wanted while fitting under the OMB’s price cap. By October, the company released a new comparison with a much greater variety of options for NASA, ranging from the desired fully-reusable two-stage vehicles to Big Gemini on an uprated Titan III. The most promising candidates on the list, in the opinion of Deputy Administrator Low, were options called TAOS and ISRS.
TAOS (Thrust-Augmented Orbiter System) called for a large Shuttle orbiter with a disposable propellant tank, its own engines, and either pressure-fed or solid rocket boosters, all of which ignited on the pad and fell off in flight. The vehicle was supposed to have a payload bay big enough for all NASA payloads, and for all commercial and military payloads on the drawing boards. It offered the benefit of a reusable spacecraft (in essence, a reusable upper stage) while putting the winged first stage off until the 1980s or even 1990s.
ISRS (Interim Semi-Reusable System) was the exact opposite approach. Combining Boeing’s INT-22 study with Martin Marietta’s and Boeing’s glider studies, ISRS proposed a system with a flyback first stage built using Apollo heritage technology and a new, much smaller Orbiter designed for Space Station servicing. Its main disadvantage was the inability to recover large payloads--while TAOS could land with large and bulky recovered satellites, and recover payloads in the event of an abort, ISRS could not recover any but the smallest satellites, and any loss-of-mission meant a loss-of-payload. However, by keeping an existing liquid booster in production (albeit in a heavily modified form) while also calling for a new orbital spacecraft, ISRS satisfied more of NASA’s internal political concerns--Marshall Space Flight Center was pleased by building on the foundations they had laid during Apollo, while the Manned Spaceflight Center preferred the idea for keeping crew further from newly developed boosters than the TAOS side-mount concepts. NASA overall benefited from the absence of an expensive dedicated naval recovery force, as all components either burned up or flew back to the United States. Very importantly, the development cost of the winged S-IC was only half that of the TAOS orbiter (the glider’s development, drawing as it did on existing X-20, X-15, and lifting body research at NASA, was cheap enough that it fit comfortably into the difference).
With the full two-stage system clearly unlikely to be approved, the fall of 1971 saw proponents for each system bombard NASA’s leadership and the Flax Committee with ever more detailed studies demonstrating the virtues of TAOS over ISRS and vice-versa. Gradually, committee members and administrators sympathetic to Big Gemini and Titan III or still stubbornly clinging to two-stage full-reusability came to one side or the other.
The committee’s discussions ultimately came down to “intangible benefits” and room for growth in each architecture, as well as architecture cost. “Intangible benefits” refers to the research and operational experience value of the architecture--how much the architecture lays a foundation for future development. Despite all the economic analysis, it was still generally understood that the end-game of the Space Shuttle system was a fully-reusable vehicle with “airplane-like” operations that could perform a wide variety of tasks in space. The system that most directly contributed to that vision was held to have superior “intangible benefits.” In this regard, the full-sized TAOS orbiter and the smaller ISRS glider actually had roughly the same value--experiments with satellite servicing and payload bay operations could be performed as well in a 10’-by-20’ bay as a 15’-by-60’ bay, and hypersonic flight data from the smaller vehicle could probably be generalized to the larger one; the ISRS glider provided those same benefits at a fraction of the cost. For larger NASA and USAF cargo missions, the ISRS could be flown without the glider, and would in fact exceed the targets both for mass to orbit and payload envelope. The intangible benefit of recovering a satellite was deemed minimal, as the communications satellite industry itself had previously been found to be lukewarm to the idea. As far as intangibles went, TAOS could not deliver anything to justify its greater cost.
As far as room for growth, ISRS could, at some point, replace its second stage with a fully-reusable Orbiter, as initially envisioned by NASA, while the first stage continued to see incremental development and improvement, eventually yielding the desired two-stage fully-reusable system. TAOS, by comparison, seemed a dead-end, and an expensive one at that. There was no way to make the system fully reusable without a complete rebuild, and to get to the point of partial-reusability, it required gigantic solid or pressure-fed boosters, advanced new cryogenic engines, advances in thermal protection, and a host of other innovations. ISRS, on the other hand, used off-the-shelf engines and operated mostly in a flight regime fairly well characterized by tests conducted with the X-15 in the early 1960s, and a size tested by the XB-70 shortly thereafter. For these reasons, the development cost of the ISRS was only half that of TAOS, while delivering the same per-mission cost savings and equal intangible benefits.
Until this point, the President had been fairly divorced from discussions between NASA and the OMB regarding the details of the program and its required budgets, leaving it mostly to deputies like Fletcher and Weinberger to mediate the details. However, it became increasingly clear that without a direct presidential decision, the Flax Committee might be on the verge of rejecting any of these options or demanding yet more studies, which could in turn halt the momentum which had begun to build for the proposed program. The effects for NASA and for the aerospace industry could be cataclysmic, a fact which worried Nixon for two reasons. As already demonstrated, he had no interest in being remembered as the president who “cancelled the space program,” and had already been willing to step in to arrest the budget’s descent when it seemed it might imperil the operation of the agency’s manned space program. He wanted to give NASA a new grand vision all his own, though one on a budget. In addition, Nixon worried that further delays in the Space Shuttle program and the continued wind-down of Apollo could exacerbate job losses in an aerospace industry already reeling from the failure of the Lockheed L-1011 and the cancellations of the American Supersonic Transport program. With a mind set on taking some decisive action soon, Nixon waded into the details of the program personally in late November, after taking a week to digest the OMB’s summary report.
In this summary report, following a detailed comparison of both systems presented by George Low, the Flax Committee finally ruled in favor of ISRS, with a small 10’ by 20’ payload bay for the glider. The decision to go with ISRS over TAOS was hotly debated, and there remains to this day a small but vocal community insisting that solid rocket boosters or pressure-fed rockets fished out of the ocean would be cheaper than refurbishing the 1950s-designed F-1, while a larger orbiter would have offered substantial benefit from having crew available to assist in satellite deployment. The budget projected for ISRS was within the OMB limits--if barely--and Nixon would be able to offer NASA both its booster and its orbiter. While they might not be the visions which NASA had originally developed, they would be indistinguishable to the public if sold carefully, and offered enough roles for centers and corporations in key states to address Nixon’s other concerns.
This combined program won official presidential approval December 23rd, 1971, with the development of the booster to be included in the FY 1973 budget. The orbiter, whose design had evolved chaotically during the closing weeks of the debate over the design of the system, would require further study before it could be awarded, as would the upper stage which would complete the ISRS, but the program would shortly be on a firm footing to proceed. With the administrative details set, the program was officially rolled out to the public by President Nixon in an early January address from the White House.
“I have decided today that the United States should proceed at once with the development of an entirely new type of space transportation system designed to help transform the space frontier of the 1970s into familiar territory, easily accessible for human endeavor in the 1980s and '90s.
This system will center on two space vehicles. The first, the Space Lifter, will draw on the rich legacy of the Apollo program and will lift payloads to the very edge of space, with the journey to orbit and back completed by the Space Shuttle. These vehicles will revolutionize transportation into near space, by routinizing it. They will take the astronomical costs out of astronautics. In short, it will go a long way toward delivering the rich benefits of practical space utilization and the valuable spinoffs from space efforts into the daily lives of Americans and all people....
Views of the earth from space have shown us how small and fragile our home planet truly is. We are learning the imperatives of universal brotherhood and global ecology-learning to think and act as guardians of one tiny blue and green island in the trackless oceans of the universe. This new program will give more people more access to the liberating perspectives of space....
"The reason many people fail is not for lack of vision,” said the great American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard, “but for lack of resolve and resolve is born out of counting the cost." Let it never be said that the United States lacks the resolve to lead the world in the exploration and development of space.”
Nixon’s staff had initially chosen the name “Space Clipper” for the program as a whole, with the individual components named “Uranus” (for the booster) and “Argo” (for the Orbiter). Nixon, however, was adamant that the point of the program was to open space to economic development--such poetic names were fine for the glory-seeking days of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, but the simpler, utilitarian names captured the everyday nature toward which the program aspired. The launch vehicle would be the “Space Lifter,” carrying the “Space Shuttle” for manned flights, with the two together being the parts of the “Space Transportation System.”
With Nixon’s speech and Congress’s authorization of funding for Space Shuttle development, NASA and its prime contractors had crossed the Rubicon. They had committed themselves to the successful development of the Space Transportation System. Now “all” that remained was to define, design, build, and test the largest and fastest flying machines ever.