In 1969 NASA came up with a plan for a system of reusable spacecraft that was to be our jumping-off point for future exploration of the solar system. It included an orbiter that would use ultralightweight components that could be recovered and reused. When compared to littering the seabed with thousands of tons of very expensive scrap metal every year, it seemed a good idea. Of all the vessels that were to be created in this system, only one was ever funded and the space shuttle was born.

The Space Shuttle lacked the enormous lift capabilities of the giant Saturn V but was far less expensive. Expensive things could be refurbished and reused. Fill ’em up again and away we’d go.


Enterprise was the first to be built but was never to get into space. We did take it up on top of a modified 747 and released it to test its glide and landing capabilities. It was decided it would be less expensive to upgrade another shuttle that had been built for structural testing than to upgrade Enterprise, so she ended up in a museum. Only 4 functional orbiters where originally built, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis.

Endeavor was built from spare parts after the destruction of Challenger, It now sits in the California Air and Space Museum.

In comparison, the original Space Transportation System (STS) included:

  • A permanent space station to be launched by Saturn Vs with a build-out of 50 to 100 person capacity.
  • A nuclear-powered rocket to be assembled in space (NERVA) that could quickly take us to the moon and back and on to Mars in a reasonable time.
  • A permanent orbiting space tug for moving stuff around up there
  • What eventually became the Space Shuttle.

The only two things that remained after Jimmy Carter got hold of it were the Space Shuttle and the STS designation for each shuttle launch. What Nixon agreed to in 1969 was gutted. If cost were no issue we’d have had men on Mars and probably several other solar bodies by now. (I can’t imagine it would have cost more than the Vietnam war and would have killed a lot fewer people.) When I was very young they were talking about men on Mars by 1985.

There were two true catastrophes in the shuttle program. NASA had become both overconfident and too driven by deadlines. They allowed the political importance of the launch to trump launch safety. For Challenger, both the launch protocol and the recommendations of the engineering staff responsible for the design of the solid rocket boosters were overruled.

The O-rings on the shuttle had been seen to leak before but not fatally so. NASA administrators assumed that if it happened before and the shuttle didn’t blow up, it was not an issue.  So the issue was never addressed. Then when Challenger was to launch it was below the safe temperature the engineers had specified. Cold rubber is hard rubber and does not seal properly. There was a leak and it blowtorched the big fuel tank.

This didn’t kill the astronauts. They died when the shuttle cabin impacted the water. There was no crew extraction system for early launch emergencies. Every other manned space launch had had one and it was considered mandatory to make a launch system “man-rated.” They got a waiver for budgetary reasons.

Columbia burned on reentry because NASA had also ignored repeated instances of damage to the shuttle from ice and foam insulation falling off the liquid hydrogen tanks. They did not learn anything from the Challenger disaster.

They knew “something” had happened to Columbia but NASA refused to accept that it could be serious. You could see it on the launch videos. But they refused offers to check out the shuttle from either the military’s ground-based hi-resolution scopes or satellite-based imaging and also refused to authorize a shuttle EVA to look at it. There was no effort to prep a rescue shuttle or to use the ISS as a lifeboat. This time the damage was severe enough to have compromised the integrity of a leading wing edge. It disintegrated on reentry.

For budget reasons, no crew emergency escape pod was included. No protocol for examining the shuttle in orbit had been created nor had a repair kit of any kind been included to fix damaged areas. The protocol and kit were devised only after Columbia burnt up.

For all the problems with the system, if you ignore the 2 big disasters and 14 deaths the shuttle program was a success. The shuttle was capable of carrying 50,000 lbs into low Earth orbit and had a 7 person crew. Five shuttle launches matched the capability of one Saturn V at a much lower price. Between 1981 and 2011 the shuttle flew 135 missions and put millions of pounds into orbit.

“Canadarm” the Shuttle’s robotic arm.

Different modules were designed as payloads. One was the Spacelab, a package designed by the European Space Agency specifically to be launched by NASA and the shuttle. It was primarily intended as a laboratory for microgravity research but could be configured to study many other things as well depending on which components were included.

The unique design included a cargo bay with doors that could open in vacuum. An arm could be mounted to drop off and retrieve satellites from orbit. The most famous and prolific of them is the Hubble Space Telescope which (with the help of a pair of glasses

Hubble Space Telescope

and other maintenance performed by shuttle astronauts) continues to deliver astounding photos and to push back the limits of the visible universe. The arm also allowed for construction work in space and built the greatest orbital structure of the space age, the International Space Station (ISS).

In the 80s Ronald Reagan had pushed for a project called Space Station Freedom. It became politically unpopular and in 1993 it was recast as the International Space Station (ISS). Construction of the ISS became the primary customer of the shuttle. ISS was completed in 2000 and the Shuttle retired in 2011. Until private enterprise stepped in we had no access to the ISS after 2011 other than Russian launch vehicles and we still don’t have a way to get a man up there on our own.

The Soyuz/Proton launch system used to send astronauts and cosmonauts up in the Soyuz capsule may not be a reliable as we thought. One recently aborted right after launch. Maybe Sarah Brightman was right to decline the trip she’d trained for.

While we were doing all that, The Soviets weren’t sleeping. First, they tried to match the US heavy lift capability of the Saturn series rockets. The N1 progam was the brainchild of Sergei Korolev. Korolev died in 1966 of a heart attack greatly aggravated by injuries sustained when he spent 6 years in a gulag under Stalin, essentially for not progressing fast enough in the pre-WWII Soviet rocket program. When Korolev died, N1 went off the rails.

N1 failed to launch 4 times. One time resulted in one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. (I think I mentioned in a previous post how much I love to see really big explosions.) We never knew a thing about it until after the fall of the USSR.

The Soviet’s Proton rocket was their workhorse. It launched each of the Salyut stations as well as the Soyuz capsules and eventually launched the MIR space station, one 8 ton module at a time. Inspired by the Space Shuttle, the Soviets decided to create their own, the Buran. To launch the Buran, they built their own heavy launch vehicle, the Energiya. Our Shuttle and its launch vehicle were dedicated. It could not launch anything but the Shuttle. The Soviets created the Energiya as a stand-alone launcher and Buran was just one payload it could lift.

Buran was supposed to be completely reusable. It did not have a massive engine. All the thrust was produced by the Energiya booster so it could have a larger payload bay. No O-rings to burn thru and no liquid oxygen tanks positioned above the wings for lumps of ice to fall off.

The Energiya (in the heaviest planned configuration) would have been a Saturn V class launcher capable of throwing 200,000 lbs into low earth orbit. It never happened. It successfully launched a satellite that failed to orient itself properly and successfully launched an unmanned Buran for an orbital test flight and that was that. Canceled for lack of funding. Russia could not afford what the Soviet Union would pay for to match the US.

Speaking of MIR, it had been assembled bit by bit using a smaller booster over time. Eventually, it grew to have even more habitable space than the US Skylab. The final piece, a docking module, was delivered by the Shuttle. However, in 1986, MIR got defunded by the Communist government and was deorbited. What a waste of resources!

Just for comparison, this is a list of all the “ultra-heavy” boosters developed over the years along with their maximum payload to low earth orbit. The SLS launchers, Long March 9, and the BFR are just dreams on paper at the moment. The N1 never got into space. The Energiya launched twice, succeeded twice and was canceled. Right now the privately owned and operated Space X Falcon Heavy is the big boy on the launch pads today.