Why Did NASA Retire the Area Shuttle?

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In 1972, Apollo 17 carried the final batch of astronauts to the lunar floor. However throughout that very same 12 months, NASA was already starting the design and develop their subsequent technology of crew-carrying craft. Almost a decade later, the Area Shuttle was born.

The Area Shuttle Program finally flew 135 missions, making it the core of American crewed spaceflight efforts for almost 4 a long time. The first orbital check flight, STS-1, carried out by Area Shuttle Columbia, blasted off April 12, 1981 from historic launchpad 39A at Kennedy Area Middle. Greater than 30 years later, when Area Shuttle Atlantis rolled to a cease on the runway July 21, 2011, the shuttle program formally got here to an in depth.

After the tip of shuttle period, American astronauts have been pressured to pay for rides aboard Russian rockets ­— a state of affairs many discovered galling. However that’s not the case anymore.

On Could 30, 2020, NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken launched to the Worldwide Area Station (ISS) aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, marking the first crewed spaceflight launched from American soil since NASA retired the Area Shuttle. And in only a few quick days (on November 14), NASA plans to launch the primary official mission, Crew-1, of their Industrial Crew Program.

However given the hiatus between the tip of the Area Shuttle Program and the beginning of the Industrial Crew Program, many have questioned: Why did NASA cease flying the Area Shuttle within the first place?

The Hype of the Area Shuttle

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Area Shuttle Atlantis blasts off on Could 14, 2010, kicking off STS-132. (Credit score: NASA)

First conceived through the heady and well-funded time across the preliminary Moon landings, the Area Shuttle was meant to supply NASA with a low-cost means to carry people and payloads to low-Earth orbit. The shuttle was deliberate to not solely go to Skylab, but additionally assist with the development of Skylab’s successor area stations. Utilizing the Spacelab module (constructed by the European Area Company), which was positioned within the rear of the shuttle’s cargo bay, the Area Shuttle might pull double obligation, performing many scientific experiments initially meant to be carried out aboard full-fledged area stations.

All these potential advantages of the shuttle have been piled on prime of 1 key promise: speedy turnaround of the spacecraft between flights. Some NASA personnel even anticipated {that a} shuttle would have the ability to perform back-to-back flights inside only a week or two.

Lots of the predictions for the Area Shuttle got here true: the fleet helped construct the ISS, docked with the Mir area station, made intensive use of Spacelab, and carried many necessary payloads to orbit — together with the Hubble Area Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and interplanetary probes MagellanUlysses, and Galileoamongst others. By any yardstick, NASA might be pleased with these accomplishments.

Nonetheless, the Area Shuttle fell quick in lots of respects.

First — and maybe most significantly — this system was wildly costly. The common price of a shuttle launch was a mind-boggling $450 million, way over NASA had predicted. Whereas the shuttle was proposed to make disposable rockets a factor of the previous, it did precisely the alternative. Most clients who needed to place satellites into orbit discovered typical rockets to be a less expensive various.

Second, the proposed launch schedules and turnaround instances for the shuttle fleet have been primarily fantasy. The quickest turnaround for any shuttle within the historical past of this system was 54 days. And after the Challenger catastrophe, the quickest turnaround was 88 days — a far cry from what NASA officers thought they may accomplish. Slower turnarounds meant fewer flights, which meant much less entry to area for paying clients, additional driving enterprise away from NASA.

The Hazards of the Area Shuttle

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Area Shuttle Atlantis blasts off on Could 14, 2010, kicking off STS-132. (Credit score: NASA)

Security was additionally a difficulty of paramount significance for the Area Shuttle Program. In 1982, the area shuttle was declared “operational” by NASA, a time period that conveyed that the applied sciences concerned have been much more mature than they really have been.

By the mid-1980s, a lot of the American public thought that spaceflight was routine. NASA was even launching astronauts into area sporting simply easy coveralls and helmets, having ditched the stress fits used within the MercuryGemini, and Apollo packages. Spaceflight on the Area Shuttle was so protected, the considering went, that even a “common” citizen might fly aboard the craft.

Then got here the catastrophic launch failure of the Challenger on January 28, 1986which killed the complete crew, together with the primary “instructor in area,” Christa McAuliffe. This perpetually dispelled the notion that spaceflight was routine.

The shuttle was revealed to be a high-risk, experimental automobile — one thing most astronauts had recognized all alongside. The next investigation additionally revealed severe issues with NASA’s security tradition. Nonetheless, the area company took its lashings and made the adjustments required to get the shuttle flying once more.

However 17 years after Challenger, Area Shuttle Columbia broke aside whereas reentering Earth’s ambiance. But once more, the complete crew — this time that includes the extremely publicized first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon — was killed. Though the technical explanation for the Columbia catastrophe was very completely different than what led to the lack of Challenger, the investigation once more discovered deep cultural issues at NASA.

The tragedy drove house that the Area Shuttle might by no means be really protected.

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The crew of STS-107, seen right here, had their flight aboard Area Shuttle Columbia delayed 18 instances earlier than launching in 2003. Whereas reentering Earth’s ambiance, Columbia broke aside, killing the complete crew. (Credit score: NASA)

All of those elements — excessive prices, gradual turnaround, few clients, and a automobile (and company) that had main security issues — mixed to make the Bush administration understand it was time for the Area Shuttle Program to retire.

In 2004, President Bush gave a speech that outlined the tip of the shuttle period, with out clearly figuring out what would come subsequent (or how a lot it could price). This choice left NASA in limbo, as they have been immediately depending on the Russians for entry to area.

The remaining three area shuttles, DiscoveryEndeavour, and Atlantis, at the moment are museum items, as is the check orbiter Enterprise. Having seen a few of these vessels in particular person, I can attest that they nonetheless are breathtaking sights to behold.

With SpaceX already launching people into area, and with different business area ventures making speedy progress, the way forward for manned spaceflight underneath NASA appears unclear. As an example, the company’s proposed successor to the Area Shuttle, the Area Launch System with its Orion crew module, has but to efficiently fly in any respect, not to mention with a crew.

The tip of the Area Shuttle Program nonetheless looms giant within the thoughts of NASA, and within the public at giant. However ultimately, it appears retiring it was the apparent selection — though a greater plan on what would fill the shuttles’ sneakers would have been good, too.


Doug Adler is the co-author of From The Earth to the Moon: The Miniseries Companion



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