This April 1980 Washington Monthly cover story on the problems
and progress of NASA's space shuttle program was written one year
before Columbia's first launch in 1981. To view a larger image of
the original cover, click here.
The most expensive flying machine ever constructed sputtered and
smacked through the low waves, kicking up spray, straining mightily
to take flight. It had been bobbing by the dock in Long Beach harbor
for two days that November of 1947. Now the Spruce Goose was trying
to fly. People couldn't take their eyes off it. Who could comprehend
its size! Three hundred-foot wingspan, seven-story tail, 200 tons of
plane with room for 700 soldiers. It upstaged even the ocean liners
lounging nearby. There it was, $25 million worth of prototype
seaplane, skating along toward take-off, engines cackling and
fuming. Howard Hughes, America's most publicized aviator, designed
it, swore by it, and was at the controls. "If it doesn't fly, I'll
leave the country forever," he had promised. Now his Spruce Goose
was churning through the water, trying to lurch skyward, better get
up soon or we'll run out of harbor ....
And... it's aloft! The beast flies! Four hundred thousand pounds
of wood and wires break the bonds! Alas, not for long it splashes
right back down, hull groaning. The flight crew hears the sound of
cracks here and there. Crawling out the hatch back at the dock, the
engineers look slightly pale. Can't call the flight an unqualified
success. The Spruce Goose had flown about a mile, rising to the tree
trimming height of 70 feet.
The crowds cheered, however, and the next day The New York Times
pleaded for more federal money to continue the project. "Had our
armed forces had a fleet of such planes during World War II," it
explained, "many battles might have been won sooner, and many lives
A fleet? A fleet of these sorry pelicans? Hadn't it occurred to
anyone that the Spruce Goose--with throttles thrown wide open, no
cargo, and only a few tons of fuel where dozens would be needed--had
managed to make 70 feet for 45 seconds? That it was so badly damaged
by this sortie it would never fly again? How would we win battles
with this plane--make the enemy die laughing? Couldn't anybody see
the aviator's new clothes were not clothes at all?
The Spruce Goose remains today in the hangar where it came to
rest 33 years ago. The record for most expensive flying machine has
long since been surpassed. There's something heavier, too. Down at
Cape Kennedy the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is
tinkering with the champion, the $1 billion, 2,300 ton space shuttle
Columbia. Columbia is the first of at least four space shuttles. It
will blast into space like a rocket, and sail back like an airplane.
It isn't a "capsule," as they called the Mercury orbiters, or a
"module," as they called the Apollo moon machine. It's a spaceship,
designed to be used over and over again, instead of thrown away like
a rocket. Much cheaper than rockets, much more versatile, it is the
key to the next phase of space exploration. The space shuttle is to
the Apollo module what the DC-3 was to Wright's flyer. With a fleet
of these ....
But something doesn't look right about the astronaut's new
clothes, either. The Columbia has yet to fly. It's several years
behind schedule, with no imminent prospect, despite official
assurances, that it will fly at all. But more important, if it does
fly, it won't do anything those old throw-away rockets couldn't do.
You've probably heard, for instance, that the space shuttle will
retrieve damaged satellites and return them to earth for repair. Not
so. It can't. Simply and flatly, can't. And, according to The
Washington Monthly's sources, flying the shuttle will cost more, not
less, than flying those old disposable rockets.
If you haven't heard this, don't be surprised. After all,
reporters clustered around Howard Hughes for years, begging to know
when the Spruce Goose would fly and scribbling down the predicted
dates. Nobody spent much time asking what it would do once it got up
there. Getting it up there was the drama. What it would do was...
well, there must be a reason or they wouldn't build it, would they?
Even as the Apollo 11 moonship was being primed for what
President Nixon called "the most important event sine Creation"--the
August 1969 moon landing--plans for a space shuttle were being
drafted. By spring of 1969, Apollo's impending success seemed
assured. The technological precision of Apollo was nothing short of
remarkable; its builders and astronauts accomplished more than even
the most optimistic among them predicted. But even NASA officials
had to admit that being on the moon didn't amount to much. Getting
there was all the fun. Some space venture had to be found to succeed
A special White House "task group" was formed to select the next
program. Roy Day, now a top official for the shuttle program, was
pulled off Apollo to help NASA order its options. "It was assumed
from the start that we needed some sort of manned mission," Day
explains. "The progress of high technology and national prestige
demanded it." After summarily dismissing less-expensive but
less-glamorous mechanized space exploration (see "Battlestar
Bureauctica" on page 42), NASA devised these possibilities: a manned
landing on Mars; a manned fly-by (approach without landing) of Mars
or Venus; a permanent moonbase; a permanent orbiting space station,
with a shuttle vehicle to supply it; or, at last resort, the shuttle
Planetary missions were rejected as technically feasible but
absurdly expensive. (A single Mars flight, requiring a
nuclear-propelled spaceship traveling for years, was pegged at $100
billion. Apollo cost $20 billion.) The moonbase was nixed as
useless. The space station sparked a lot of interest, but it too was
overwhelmingly expensive. Its components would be so heavy, NASA's
entire budget would be required to pay for the launch rockets--to
say nothing, as space proponents are wont to do, of building or
servicing it. The task group members reasoned that a reusable space
shuttle would be the logical first step to prepare for a space
station. Only the economy of a reusable shuttle could make the space
The shuttle was to be nothing more than that--a space truck to
lug things back and forth to orbit. The craft itself would have no
scientific function. It was assumed by task group members that, once
the shuttle was approved, somebody, could devise some missions for
it. "First you have to get the horse," said Dr. Jerry Gray, former
NASA scientist and now public policy director of the American
Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, "then you decide where to
A Horse By Committee
NASA longed to abandon the familiar one-shot rocket-whose stages,
once fired, went tumbling into the sea or burned up, taking their
titanium castings and navigational computers with them. The Saturn V
moon rocket, for example, weighed 3,050 tons at blast-off, and you
got exactly seven tons back--that dinky little "command module" the
men rode in. "We wanted to have only miniscule involvement with the
rocket concept in the future," Day says.
At first NASA asked for an all-reusable shuttle. Grumman and
McDonnell-Douglas came up with a plan that called for two huge
winged ships, each with its own pilots and engines, mated piggyback.
They would blast off together, with the larger ship-the
booster-spitting fire for the first 10 to 20 miles of altitude.
Then, fuel spent, it would circle back to land like an airplane. The
smaller ship would continue into orbit, drop its cargo, reenter the
atmosphere, and also land like a plane: NASA believed this system
would be economical to operate, but would cost $10 billion to build.
The Office of Management and Budget balked. Ten billion, it
gasped--out of the question!
What could you do, OMB asked, for $5 billion? Design of the horse
was referred to committee, where a compromise was found. A partially
reusable shuttle was conceived.
In this plan, the shuttle's main part would be the "orbiter."
That's the section that gets a name, like Columbia. It would be a
winged rocket-powered flying machine about the size and weight of a
DC-9 airliner. This orbiter would carry 65,000 pounds of cargo into
a low orbit, stashing the goods in a 60-by-15-foot bay. It would be
flown by a crew of two to seven astronauts. Not ridden by
strapped-down guinea pigs like those capsules and modules, but, down
by pilots. Flown during landing, at least; the rest of the time they
would pretty much watch the instruments. But there would be people
in control--a concept popular with people, who seem to be less in
control of things with every passing day.
The shuttle ship would be mounted piggyback on a cavernous
150-foot long fuel tank carrying the frigid liquid gases to power
the shuttle's main engines. Strapped to it would be two booster
rockets, powered by reliable solid fuel. Their motors would be the
fiercest ever imagined generating 2.5 million pounds of thrust each,
as opposed to 470,000 pounds for each of the shuttle's three main
engines. Those insatiable trolls would burn through their fuel in
scarcely a moment.
Bolts and hoses fastened, the shuttle spaceship, its fuel tank,
and the boosters would blast off together from Cape Kennedy, a
tremendous troika of power. At an altitude of 20 miles, the spent
boosters would fall away, floating down on parachutes. They would be
fished out of the sea and used again. The shuttle's own engines
would keep firing until, nine minutes after launch, their fuel was
exhausted. Then the empty fuel tank would tumble away, to burn up in
the atmosphere. (Since it's only a tank, NASA reasoned, it's cheaper
to let it fry than bolt on all the navigational and heat-shielding
hardware needed to get it back.).
The shuttle would go about its business in orbit. Lacking
main-engine fuel, it would employ two small reaction rockets for
maneuverability and to slow it down for reentry. Once back in the
air, it would glide toward a landing field, setting down like an
airplane but "dead stick"--without any power to compensate for
miscalculations. After landing it would be refitted, mated to a new
tank, strapped to two refilled boosters, and blasted off again.
Estimating a cost of $5 billion to $6 billion, NASA got its
launch-commit for this design in 1972. The agency explained that
having a crew of pilots aboard would add "flexibility" and "new
dimensions" to space flight, but otherwise NASA wasn't terribly
specific about what the astronauts would do. It was assumed that
with the horse under construction some carriage maker would build
something for it to pull--a space mission only a shuttle could
handle. Meanwhile, petting the animal became an obsession. It would
be "the dawn of a new age" (Nixon), a "breakthrough" (Ford), the
first "commuting to space" (Carter).
James Gehrig, staff director of the Senate Commerce Committee's
space and science subcommittee, sums up the two features that
shuttle backers have cited again and again: its "wonderful
advantages of higher payloads and lower costs." NASA planned the
first launch for 1977. Didn't quite make it that year, and won't
this year. NASA officials won't be too upset if it doesn't fly next
year either because when you're not launching them, you don't have
to explain awkward things like higher costs and lower payloads.
Down at Cape Kennedy, Columbia lies in an assembly hangar,
imprisoned in scaffolding. Arc lights gleam off its impossibly
smooth surface. They shine round-the-clock, as 500 technicians work
double ten-hour shifts, six days a week, trying to make the shuttle
spaceworthy. Columbia was supposed to be finished last March, when
it was transferred from the factory of the prime contractor,
Rockwell International. Instead, it arrived at the Cape only 75
percent complete, according to NASA. No one is certain when--or even
if--the remaining work will be finished.
The drydocked Columbia represents at once all the shuttle
program's problems. They are: delays; cost overruns; performance
underruns; and lack of work for the horse to do. Delays, the least
important problem, are the easiest to understand. "People don't
appreciate that the shuttle, as a technical goal, is much more
ambitious than the moon program," says Eugene Covert, an MIT
professor and rocket-propulsion expert. "The schedule couldn't
possibly have been met."
Considering what the Columbia is supposed to do, it's no surprise
that it didn't fly in 1977, or in 1978, or in 1979, and can't fly
now. The rockets it is supposed to replace have always been
throw-away affairs for very pragmatic engineering reasons: the
fiendish forces of space flight twist and sizzle machines into
scrap. Rocket engines are essentially explosions with a hole at one
end. Exploding gases roar out the hole, shoving the rocket in the
opposite direction. The act of firing does such violence to the
rocket engine, immolating and warping its components, it's
impractical to use again even if you can get it back. Yet the
shuttle's main engines will have internal pressures three times
greater than those of any previous large engine, NASA says and the
goal is to use them on 55 flights before an overhaul.
To truly grasp the
challenge of building a space shuttle, think about its flight. The
ship includes a 60-by-15-foot open space, narrow wings, and a large
cabin where men must be provided that delicately slender range of
temperatures and pressures they can endure. During ascent, the
shuttle must withstand 3 Gs of stress--inertial drag equivalent to
three times its own weight. While all five engines are screaming,
there will be acoustic vibrations reaching 167 decibels, enough to
kill an unprotected person. In orbit, the shuttle will drift through
-250°F. vacuum, what engineers call the "cold soak." It's cold
enough to embrittle and shatter most materials. During reentry, the
ship's skin goes from cold soak to 2,700°F., hot enough to transform
many metals into Silly Putty. Then the shuttle must glide along,
under control, at speeds up to Mach 25, three times faster than any
other piloted aircraft has ever flown. After reentry, it cascades
through the air without power; finally thunking down onto the runway
at 220 m.p.h. The like-sized DC-9 lands, with power, at 130
m.p.h. Rockets are throwaway contraptions in part so that no one
piece ever has to endure such a wild variety of conditions. The
shuttle's design goal is to take this nightmare ride 100 times.
The main cause of delay is currently the shuttle's refractory
tiles, which disperse the heat of reentry from the ship's nose and
fuselage. Columbia must be fitted out with 33,000 of these tiles,
each to be applied individually, each unique in shape. The
inch-thick tiles, made of pyrolized carbon, are amazing in two
respects. They can be several hundred degrees hot on one side while
remaining cool to the touch on the other. They do not boil away like
the ablative heat shieldings of capsules and modules; they can be
used indefinitely. But they're also a bit of a letdown in another
respect--they're so fragile you can hardly touch them without
"The tiles are the long pole holding up the tent," says Mike
Malkin, NASA's shuttle project director. Fixing them to the Columbia
without breaking them is like trying to eat a bar of Bonomo Turkish
Taffy without cracking it. Most of the technicians swarming over
Columbia are trying to glue down tiles. The tiles break so often,
and must be remolded so painstakingly, the installation rate is
currently one tile per technician per week. All this mounting was
supposed to be finished before Columbia left Rockwell's factory.
When it wasn't, the work had to be resumed at the Cape. "We've had
to put up what amounts to a manufacturing facility there," says
Walter Kapryan, who retired as the Cape's shuttle project director
last spring. "The most we ever did for Apollo was a little
patch-wiring." NASA sources privately acknowledge that Columbia was
taken to the Cape in unfinished condition partly for
public-relations value--to make it appear that preparations were
accelerating. The move also allows computer testing to proceed while
the tiles are being mounted. This exercise may have been practical,
but it was staggering in cost: $50 million extra to attach the tiles
at the Cape, according to congressional sources.
Some suspect the tile mounting is the least of Columbia's
difficulties. "I don't think anybody appreciates the depths of the
problems," Kapryan says. The tiles are the most important system
NASA has ever designed as "safe life." That means there is no
back-up for them. If they fail, the shuttle burns on reentry. If
enough fall off, the shuttle may become unstable during landing, and
thus un-pilotable. The worry runs deep enough that NASA investigated
installing a crane assembly in Columbia so the crew could inspect
and repair damaged tiles in space. (Verdict: Can't be done. You can
hardly do it on the ground.)
According to the computers, as long as you can bring the shuttle
back into the atmosphere, you can fly it to the airfield even if the
tiles are damaged. Former Apollo astronaut Richard Cooper doubts the
computers know what they're meeping about. Many of the projections
are based on the magnificent accuracy of the Apollo landings. Apollo
went to the moon, came back, and dropped all its little manned
modules into a target area about the size of Los Angeles
International Airport. But Apollo modules were ballistic
projectiles. They were slightly asymmetrical and thus had a little
lift for control, but basically they fell like well-aimed stones.
The science of ballistics is much more precise and predictable than
the art of flying. To assume that experience with one is the same as
experience with the other is to confuse a slingshot with a seagull.
The only way to find out about something as big and balky as
Columbia, Cooper says, is to launch the thing and see what happens.
Computers have never flown with the unpredictable combination of
damaged tiles that a shuttle may experience. They've never been
whacked by a sudden, nonprogrammed gust of jetstream wind. They've
never flounced like a twig on the crazy rapids of "bias"--the bland
physics term for unexplained variations in the earth's gravitational
and magnetic fields. These are the wild, uncharted rivers of space.
Unknown; unknowable; beyond programming. To find out if your ship
can cope with them, you have to take it up there.
One Year And Holding
The people struggling with the tiles serve a useful function.
They make the rest of the project look good by comparison. "You have
to keep your pole a little shorter than everybody else's," says a
NASA engineer. "That's why everybody likes to be under the tent of
tile delays." The Air Force, a partner in the shuttle project, is
happy to be there under the tent. It's supposed to build a small
rocket booster, the Inertial Upper Stage (IUS), to ride in the
shuttle bay. IUS, will float away from the shuttle and fire
satellites into the high altitudes that shuttles can't reach. It's
based on conventional throw-away technology and should be the
easiest part of the project, but it's two years behind schedule and
$144 million over budget. Yet Secretary of Defense Harold Brown
recently assured Congress that IUS is not a problem--because of
"revised operational requirements and shuttle program delays."
The shuttle's main engine is also lurking under the tent.
Columbia is to be powered by the first large, high-performance
"cryogenic" rocket engine, burning liquid hydrogen for fuel instead
of kerosene. Cryogenie engines can achieve the impossible
dream-combustion efficiency of 99 percent. But the shuttle's
cryogenic engines have the annoying habit of blowing up. Not
conducive to 55 reuses.
The failures, of course, are taking place on the test stand.
During development, it's assumed that some engines will blow up;
pushing them to the limit is part of testing. But the shuttle
engines often start flaming under normal operational conditions. And
then there was this embarrassing snag that made checking their
reliability all but impossible. Although the engines must fire for
520 seconds dining a shuttle flight, Rockwell's test stand held only
enough fuel for 300 seconds.
For a time, engine progress looked so bleak that Congress
convened a panel of National Academy of Science members to decide if
the motors would ever work. Just after the engineers managed to get
single engines to fire properly for the full duration, for instance,
they tried to fire three simultaneously, as would be required during
a launch. All three blew up; acoustic vibrations from one would
destroy the next.
Meanwhile, down at the Johnson Space enter in Houston, astronaut
preparation was months behind even the short-pole schedule. The
reason? Computer-simulators, used to stage mock failures in the
flight trainer, weren't working. This was a triumph of accurate
simulation, but otherwise not amusing.
Artique Builders Perth - just don't!
Despite these problems--which have been widely discussed in the
trade press since as early as 1977-NASA made routine announcements
that a launch was right around the corner. The day the corner would
be turned was never specified. "You'll notice that NASA always says
the first shuttle will launch within the year," says Dr. Marshall
Kaplan, a Penn State physicist. "I call this a 'one year and
holding' countdown." The routine came close to slapstick comedy in
March 1979. A cluster of three shuttle engines had just caught fire
at NASA's test stand, a scant nine seconds into a test. The
partially finished Columbia was mounted on the back of its 747 ferry
plane for the flight to Cape Kennedy. The instant the 747 nosed off
the field, Columbia began to rattle itself to pieces. Tiles flew
off; tape and electrical connections began flapping everywhere. The
big jet hastily banked back to the field and rolled to a stop. There
was so much damage to Columbia after 17 minutes in the air--a Sunday
afternoon stroll disabling a spaceship!--that it took a week to get
her ready to go up again.
So on a fine morning m March 1979 with engines blowing up, pilots
playing parcheesi to pass the time, Columbia melting like an icicle
in routine flight NASA announced that the first shuttle launch would
be December 1979. History will record that there were no rolled eyes
in Congress, no catcalls and guffaws at press conferences, no panic
on the floor at Lloyd's of London. December 1979? Right. Sounds
fine. Everybody wrote it down.
Since then the outlook has brightened considerably. The engines
have been fired in unison several times. If it turns out they work,
they will take their rightful place among the premier achievements
of modern engineering (see "Because Out There is There" on page 49).
Problems involving tiles continue, with residual doubt about
"whether they can be relied on at all," according to the General
Accounting Office. Countdown is back to minus one year and holding.
NASA administrator Robert Frosch says Columbia will fly "between
late 1980 and the first quarter of 1981." Cape Kennedy observers say
the "back end" of that schedule is "possible."
A Flooded Basement
There's good and there's bad to being stuck under the tent. The
good part is that Congress throws you money, hoping you will come
Until recently, the shuttle program had an admirable record for
cost control. But NASA had made its $5 billion to $6 billion
projection based on "success-oriented planning." That means it
assumed everything would work the first time. Budgets were drawn as
if redesigns would never be needed, as if no contingencies would
arise, as if 520-second engine tests could be conducted with
Of course, NASA planners knew everything would not work the first
time. In a complex technological project, very little works at
first; delays and failures are perfectly normal. But to help the
shuttle win budget approval, NASA estimated costs as if there would
be no problems, according to Dan Cassidy of the House subcommittee
that oversees space projects.
To be "success-oriented," NASA decided to test shuttle components
only after assembling them together, instead of individually as had
been the case with all previous spacecraft. If the bundle worked,
great. But if it didn't, the damn thing had to be torn down and
tested from scratch. NASA budgeted for only a couple of backup
engines. When they started blowing up, as every engineer knew they
would--wanted them to!--the scheduling went berserk. Sitting around
waiting for new engine parts to be built can cost the program up to
$7.5 million a day in idle facilities and personnel, Cassidy says
much more than what would have been spent had the costs been
predicted honestly in the first place. "So now we're throwing money
at it," former NASA official Gray declared.
In 1979 NASA asked for, and got, a $220 million supplemental
appropriation for Columbia. Then it asked for another $185 million,
and got that. This January it asked for still another $300 million
extra. Money is also being shifted from other NASA projects, mainly
planetary probes that are interesting but lack immediacy, and from
construction of the other three shuttles, into patching Columbia. In
all, shuttle construction is budgeted at $1.8 billion in fiscal
1981--$800 million more than NASA said it would need, according to
the Congressional Research Service.
By the time all four shuttles are built, the bill for development
and manufacture will come to $13 billion, GAO estimates. It'll hit
$16.5 billion if you figure in NASA salaries and construction of a
second shuttle launch base for the military at Vandenberg Air Force
Base in California. Asked about the supposed bargain basement
approach of "success-oriented" planning, Richard Cooper observes
"Some basements get flooded."
Considering the ambitious nature of the shuttle program, the
overruns are not unspeakable. The promised $5 billion inflates to
about $8 billion today. If it really costs $13 billion, that's
within reason. And NASA wants you to remember all the money we'll
save when Columbia flies. No more throw-away hardware! No more
zillion-dollar towers of power crumbling into ashes downrange over
the Azores! The shuttle's promise of cheap "commuting to space" will
finally be realized. That's what they say. Fine--if you don't mind
paying more for a "cheap" launch than for rockets you throw away.
Economy At Any Price
Walk into NASA headquarters with a long enough line of credit,
and you can buy yourself the top floor of a rocket. For $23 million,
for instance, you can buy the services of a Delta, a rocket that
will toss 2,750 pounds of whatever you have into the 22,000-mile
geosynchronous orbit used by communications satellites. For $33
million, you can get the more powerful Atlas-Centaur, which could
kick a small payload out of earth orbit altogether. If you plunk
down $50 million or more, you could probably arrange to get a Titan
III, the rocket the Air Force uses to launch military satellites. A
Titan III, the Clydesdale of space horses, will heave 29,000 pounds
into due-east, low orbit.
The money you pay is "total cost incurred"--NASA's price for
everything associated with the launch, covering the rocket itself,
the fuel, the command personnel to fire it, and the guys who sweep
up the pad afterwards. Commercial rocket launches, by law, must be
If you want one of these rides, sign up now, because NASA plans
to terminate all throw-away rocket launches as soon as the shuttle
"The shuttle will be able to carry three Delta-class payloads,"
says Chet Lee, the shuttle pricing director. That means, for
instance, three communications satellites and the extra boosters
needed to push them to high orbits. To launch three Delta-class
payloads on Deltas would cost three times $23 million--$69 million.
Compared to this, the shuttle looks like a fire sale. You can
book Columbia for $22.4 million, Lee says. That's all you pay. A
third the price of those wasteful old throw-away rockets. This is
the official rationalization of the official contention that the
shuttle will be cheaper.
Let's take a closer look at the numbers. NASA is using the
conventional business technique of a loss-leader. For the first
three years of shuttle flights, Lee says, "We'll make no attempt to
recover all of our direct operational costs." This is necessary, he
maintains, to attract customers away from disposable rockets and
into the shuttle. Seems odd, since NASA would only be stealing
customers from itself. So how was $22.4 million arrived at?
Back in 1972, when shuttle designs were still on the table, a
consulting company called Mathematica did some cost-benefit studies
for the project. Mathematica estimated that, under certain
conditions, an individual shuttle flight would have a direct cost
(fuel, command salaries, sweeping the pad) of $22.4 million. In
1975, NASA froze that number. It started selling contracts for
shuttle launches at $22.4 million per, for the first three years of
flight--a guaranteed price with no escalator for inflation.
The spirit of '75 is great for satellite customers, since the
cost of regular rockets is inflating right along with the rest of
reality. The 1975 estimate inflates to about $32 million
today--still cheaper than our three Deltas.
What happens to the cost of shuttle flights at the end of three
years? "Then our direct-launch price will go up to reflect true
costs," Lee says. All the evidence is that "true" costs will be high
indeed. Flying and refitting the shuttle--even assuming all goes
well--will be more expensive than predicted. All the things that you
used to throw away and forget about now must be returned to earth,
fixed, and cobbled together for another launch. Lee says the "true
cost" of a launch is "about 25 percent" more than will be charged in
the first three years. The "true cost" of one flight of the shuttle
thus approaches $40 million. Costs keep rising, like a rocket
gushing flame and trembling to get off the pad. But NASA says the
shuttle is still a bargain, payload for payload. Better keep a close
eye on that cost-rocket. Once those things get moving, they really
pick up speed fast ....
Turn Down the Volume
What was the basis of Mathematica's cost projections? The
analysts assumed that the shuttle fleet would stage at least 50
flights a year. With each vehicle having a 10-year life, that meant
at least 500 flights over a 10-to-12-year period. (At one point in
1976, NASA was projecting 75 flights a year. The number has been
dropping steadily since, and now stands at "around 40 to 50 flights
a year," Lee says.) As with any volume merchandising, the more
flights there are, the lower the cost of each individual flight. So
it was important to project lots of flights. These are "safe life"
Fifty flights a year? For what? Mathematica assumed there would
be 20 flights a year for something called Spacelab. Spacelab is a
little workshop that rides in the shuttle bay. The shuttle goes up
and opens its doors; scientists crawl from the cabin into Spacelab;
they sail around doing experiments; then the shuttle snaps closed
and brings the whole package back, to be outfitted for another
flight. Spacelab is being built by the European Space Agency. ESA is
paying for its first flight. (NASA likes to give the impression ESA
is paying for all its flights. It is not. NASA will pay for
everything after the second Spacelab cruise, Doug Lord, the Spacelab
Will Spacelab be used 20 times a year? "I can't imagine what
for," says Albert Cameron, a Harvard physicist who is chairman of
the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Science. "The
duration of the flight is so short," he explained, pointing out that
it will ordinarily last only four to seven days, "there's way too
little time to carry out any meaningful experiments." Even Lord
acknowledges that the applications of Spacelab are limited: "It's
really an interim step, to demonstrate to the world that a permanent
space station is a worthwhile idea." Meanwhile, will the interim
step fly 20 times a year--a total of 200 times? "Not a chance," says
an informed NASA source.
Also listed in the calculation are six flights a year for
communications satellites, like those made famous by Comsat, Inc.
Communications satellites fit Columbia just perfectly; NASA says
three of them could go up on one shuttle ride.
How many communications satellites are now being launched? Two a
year. Intelsat, the international consortium that is the largest
private space user (Comsat is part of it), plans to send up two
satellites in the next three years, a spokesman says. The satellite
communications business is expanding, with RCA, Western Union,
AT&T, and SBS (a venture of IBM, Aetna, and Comsat) planning to
enter. But to require six shuttle launches a year, there would have
to be 18 satellites. "Barring some extraordinary breakthrough in
technology," says an informed communications industry source,
So how many shuttle flights a year seem reasonable? Maybe 20,
insiders say, with the largest share devoted to launching defense
Suddenly, like a rocket veering off course, NASA's numbers are
shaking. If there aren't 50 flights a year, the cost of each flight
shoots up from the projected "true" cost of $40 million. It's
getting closer and closer to the $69-million cost of using three
Deltas, the throw-away equivalent of a shuttle.
Take A Walk
But we all know there's something the shuttle can do that rockets
can't. The shuttle can recover damaged satellites. This is a widely
publicized aspect of shuttle mythology--grabbing and returning to
earth a satellite that has worn out or broken down, so that it can
be repaired and returned to orbit later. According to a GAO study,
fully 75 percent of the shuttle program cost savings are based on
Mathematica's assumptions about how much we will benefit from
recovering crippled satellites.
The only problems are:
(a) The shuttle can't retrieve satellites;
(b) Nobody wants them back in the first place.
More than two thirds of the satellites being launched are sent
out to geosynchronous orbits--22,000 miles up, where, relative to a
spot on the rotating earth, they hang in the same place all the
time. Others are sent to nearly-as-high sun-synchronous orbits,
where they follow the movements of the sun.
The shuttle, on the other hand, orbits at 200 miles. The highest
it could reach, unloaded, would be 600 miles. Routinely, the shuttle
will fly to 200 miles and release a satellite mounted on the LUS
booster, or a smaller booster called a SUS (for Spinning Upper
Stage). The booster then blasts the satellite out to its final
destination. Once there, it is beyond the shuttle's reach. Period.
When something is 22,000 miles away, getting 200 miles closer isn't
much of a help.
Cassidy of the House space subcommittee acknowledges this is "a
flaw in the system."
Like most mythology, the "retrieve and return" business has a
basis in fact. When the shuttle was being planned, there was
supposed to be a "space tug." This was to be a robot rocket vehicle
of some kind, assembled in space and left there. The shuttle would
bring it fuel and satellites to move around: The tug would take a
new satellite out to high orbit, then go find a damaged one and tow
it back down to the shuttle.
The tug proposal has been killed. Every year NASA sticks it back
in the budget under a different name, and every year it gets killed
again. It gets killed because people don't want their satellites
back. "A communications satellite has absolutely no salvage value,"
says Larry Weekly, spokesman for SBS, Inc. "They almost never fail,
and by the time they wear out, after seven to ten years, they're
obsolete. It's much cheaper to build a new one." Especially, Weekly
adds, since the cost of a new satellite--now running $20 million to
$40 million--is likely, to be less than the cost of sending a
repairman after an old one.
Some satellites are parked in low orbits, within Columbia's
reach. But even then they may exceed its grasp. A shuttle has little
maneuvering power; basically, it can only intercept things in its
launch path. Few existing satellites are in orbital inclinations the
shuttle uses. NASA is adjusting for this by launching satellites
worth recovering--$90-million spy-eyes and telescope-observatory
satellites--into paths the shuttle will cross. But this doesn't
guarantee that Columbia will be able to cope with them. When
satellites get into trouble, they often suffer loss of stabilit--the
gyros fail and the little robot starts tumbling wildly. NASA
acknowledges that the shuttle wouldn't even try to recover an
unstable satellite. How could it? What could it grab hold of? Would
you pull a billion-dollar spaceship under a rumbling stellar bowling
ball that might come caroming into your ice-fragile tiles?
NASA has been casting about for other reasons to stage shuttle
flights. The agency hoped that companies would sign up for space
manufacturing tests--the search for the fabled flawless ball
bearing. But so far, according to Ed Fritz of GAO, only one American
firm has shown any interest. And, in order to entice it, NASA has
promised to foot the bill for the full cost of the test flight,
Fritz says. In return for accepting this fiscal hardship, the
company gets the patent rights to anything it might develop.
The price per flight keeps climbing beyond $40 million, as the
number of plausible missions decreases. But it's still less than $69
million for those three Deltas. Less, that is, until you remember
that the Deltas were already around. You didn't have to spend $13
billion to develop them. NASA has repeatedly noted that there will
be no attempt to recover--amortize, you might say--the development
cost of the "cheaper" shuttle.
Suppose the shuttles fly 500 sorties, as predicted, and cost $13
billion to build. That works out to an investment cost of $26
million per flight. Add that to the $40 million "true cost" of a
launch. Suddenly a shuttle launch costs $66 million just about the
same as three Deltas. Now, suppose the shuttles fly only the
pessimistic 200 flights. The investment cost leaps to $65 million
per flight. Suddenly the total cost of a shuttle flight becomes $105
million--almost twice the cost of three of those wasteful Delta
Of course, it once cost money to develop the Delta and the Titan
and what all, and that money is not amortized to each flight. But
those rockets are already developed. That money's already spent.
"Oh, the shuttle will definitely cost more than equivalent
expendable rockets," said Kaplan plainly. "The payoff is not in
dollars, but in flexibility and expanded horizons."
Weight A Minute ...
They didn't talk much about "expanded horizons" back in 1972 when
NASA was selling the shuttle as an economy move. They did talk about
flexibility, though, because the shuttle payload would, be greater
than the other rockets'. It was supposed to be able to carry 65,000
pounds into a low orbit, launching due-east. (Because the earth
spins west to east, rockets launching east get a boost from the
earth's own momentum. Launching north or south to reach polar orbits
bucks the spin. Nobody launches west.)
Here the "economy" calculations reach escape velocity. The
65,000-pound payload is being quietly dropped, too. "We'll be lucky
if we hit 30,000 due-east," says Kaplan. Columbia and Challenger,
the second shuttle, are turning out to weigh much more than planned.
Every pound added to the shuttle is a pound subtracted from the
The external fuel tank, for instance, is full of oxygen and
hydrogen cooled to -400°F. to make the gases flow as liquids. Ice
will form on the tank. When Columbia's tiles started popping off in
a stiff breeze, it occurred to engineers that ice chunks from the
tank would crash into the tiles during the sonic chaos of launch:
Goodbye, Columbia. So insulation was added to the tank. But while
thermal cladding solves the ice problem, it adds weight. The entire
vehicle, loaded, weighs 4.5 million pounds. Say you add one percent.
Doesn't sound like much. One percent comes to 45,000 pounds. That's
almost all of the payload.
Discovery and Atlantis, the third and fourth shuttles, are slated
to have stronger tiles and lighter components. They may be able to
lift 65,000 pounds. Meanwhile, remember the Titan III, lifting
29,000 pounds for about $50 million? "Getting only a 30,000 payload
from the shuttle is a giant step backward, compared to the Titan,"
says Albert Cameron. "But it's a moot point now to argue about the
practical virtues of the rocket. NASA has eliminated it. You have no
choice but to launch on the shuttle, do you?" Indeed, NASA has even
eliminated the word "rocket." Jack Mahon, NASA's Expendable Launch
Director, says they are now called "ELVs"--Expendable Launch
Vehicles. Surely you remember that fabled day in 1926 when Robert
Goddard, father of modern rocketry, lit off the first liquid fueled
rocket engine, sending a device the size and shape of a coat tree
screaming into the low clouds over Auburn, Massachusetts? Remember
how he called to his wife, "Come quick, dear, I've invented the
expendable launch vehicle!"
The original reason the shuttle was supposed to lift 65,000
pounds was to satisfy not commerce or science, but the Defense
Department. DOD plans to launch all its military spy satellites on
the shuttle, using NASA tracking facilities and astronauts. "DOD was
brought into the shuttle planning because they wanted something big
with a lot of payload," Doug Lord explains. "Without DOD, there
would have been no reason to make the shuttle so big."
DOD's chief concern was being able to launch south over the
poles, where sun synchronous orbits are available. In such orbits, a
spy satellite's cameras see the same sun conditions every day. A
shuttle launching 65,000 pounds due-east was supposed to have enough
energy to lift 40,000 pounds over the poles. But as time went on,
DOD began to perceive that Columbia couldn't even come close. So DOD
got funds to build a "thrust augmentation package"--yet another set
of engines to be strapped to the shuttle conglomeration.
The "thrust package" will be an abbreviated first stage of a
Titan rocket-two motors and four fuel tanks. Fitting under the
shuttle's fuel tank, it will generate enough thrust to lift an extra
10,000 to 20,000 pounds. The cost is $10 million a shot, NASA
says--there go those costs, picking up speed again--and it will not
be reusable. Tumbles into the ocean like those despised old rockets.
This doesn't dampen DOD's enthusiasm for the shuttle project. Air
Force Secretary Hans Mark recently told Congress: "It is important
to exploit the shuttle... because as far as we know, the Russians
have nothing like it." (It is believed the Klingons have nothing
like it, either.) DOD campaigned long and hard to get its own
shuttle launchers, at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Since
Cape Kennedy could already accommodate more shuttle flights than
were planned, it was hard for DOD to justify $4 billion to build and
operate another base. But the Joint Chiefs of Staff pointed out
that, after a polar launch from Cape Kennedy, the empty fuel tank
would tumble away and burn up in the skies over Russia. After a
polar launch from Vandenberg, it would not. Russia might interpret a
burning fuel tank as a nuclear attack, the Chiefs warned: The fact
that Russian instruments would immediately identify the launch as
that of an unarmed shuttle--or that we could notify them of the
launch via Mailgram, at a fraction of the cost of a telegram or a
Vandenberg base--was discounted. The Chiefs prevailed.
Because of the delays, DOD has ordered six more Titan IIIs to
ensure launch capacity for the next two years' worth of spy
satellites. Beyond that, however, no more Titan production is
planned, according to Jack Boyd of Martin-Marietta, the rocket's
builder. "By the mid-1980s," says Defense Secretary Brown, "we will
be almost totally dependent on the shuttle for our national security
space missions." No alternative but to rely on an untested system.
Wonder if the Russians have one of those?
Scotty, Beam Us Out
Technical problems are just that: technical. Much of what's wrong
with the shuttle will someday be fixed. If money is no object, as it
usually isn't in space launches, we can pay more for reusable
shuttles than for throw-away rockets if we have to. But the question
never answered is--what will the shuttle do that rockets couldn't
It can't launch more than they can; sometimes, it can't launch as
much. (Even the 65,000-pound target pales compared to the 250,000
pounds a Saturn V could hoist.) It can't bring back satellites. It
can't keep a space station aloft even a fraction as long as Skylab
stayed up there. It has no scientific value. It just has men in the
front seats ... and an enormous amount of weight and equipment
devoted to bringing them, and an empty cargo bay, back in one piece.
There is something noteworthy a rocket can do that the shuttle
cannot. A rocket can be permitted to fail. What if a billion dollar
spaceship wipes out on a "routine" mission "commuting" to space with
some puny little satellite? Cooper fears it might drive a stake
through the heart of the manned space program. Would the public
stand to lose a quarter of the fleet in a single day? Would it fork
over another billion dollars to build a replacement? Would it stand
for spending millions to train astronauts to be truck drivers, only
to lose truck and drivers both? The prospect makes the old rockets
seem kind of nice. One of the old throw-away jobs could go haywire,
and spiral down into the ocean off the Bahamas, and everybody would
feel miserable and millions would be wasted and everybody would go
back to work. Lost it, dammit--but then nobody ever expected it
You Only Go Around Once
The shuttle is the first space vehicle that can't be test-fired
unmanned, Cooper points out. Pilots have to crawl in and light the
candle and go. A couple of guys who ought to know better have to
wrestle with that stick and call out the numbers and write when they
get there. Then we'll know.
It goes like this. During blast-off, unlike those capsules and
modules with escape rockets to pull the pilots free in case of
trouble, there is no way out of the shuttle. Columbia has ejection
seats like a jet fighter, but they're useless during take-off.
Punching out at several thousand m.p.h. doesn't work. If the slab of
rushing air doesn't kill you, the engine exhaust flames will.
Here's the plan. Suppose one of the solid-fueled boosters fails.
The plan is, you die. Solid rockets can fail in two ways. They can
explode; enough said. Or they can shut down spontaneously. If a
booster shuts down, there will be 2.5 million pounds of thrust on
one side battling zero pounds on the other. Even a split second of
this imbalance will send the ship twisting into oblivion, overriding
any application of pilot skill.
Suppose one of the shuttle's three main engines fails. You have a
fighting chance. You blow the boosters off. Then, using the
throttles on the remaining engines, you try to turn the beast
around. It's screaming and trembling, a vicious wounded animal.
There's that damn fuel tank hanging there, and it has all the
aerodynamic grace of the Temple of Karnak. But it's got the fuel.
Ditch it and you've got no engines.
If you get twisted back around toward the Cape, you blow the fuel
tank off and glide home. If the beast is too badly wounded to land,
but you can slow it down to a few hundred m.p.h. before you splat
into the water, you're okay. At that speed you can eject.
But you're in luck--the launch goes fine. Once you get into
space, you check to see if any tiles are damaged. If enough are, you
have a choice between Plan A and Plan B. Plan A is hope they can get
a rescue shuttle up in time. Plan B is burn up coming back.
But let's not worry about the tiles. The tiles should be okay.
They're certainly spending enough time on them. So once you get back
into the atmosphere, the mad joyride begins. You have no power now,
the engines are spent and switched out. You get one shot at a
landing. Originally the plans called for a couple of regular jet
engines to give you enough power to maneuver, or maybe go around for
a second approach if the first one doesn't line upright. But jet
engines got killed in the cost-cutting. A billion-dollar ship, and
this is how they were cutting costs ....
The shuttle starts rubbing air at Mach 25--25 times the speed of
sound. At 250,000 feet, you have a little control with the reaction
thrusters. By 80,000 feet, they've shut off, and you're gliding.
It's silent in the ship. Just the air rushing by and the computers
meeping to each other. Biting into the denser air, your elevators
and speed brakes lend some control. You can still maneuver "cross
range"--several hundred miles north or south relative to your
approach from the west. But there are only 15 runways and lake beds
in the world where you can land, so don't get carried away.
Cross-range maneuvering is no longer possible by 50,000 feet.
You're locked in, wherever you're going. Now you have company.
Fighter planes--"chase planes"--have picked you up. They're swarming
all around you, snooping around the hull for damage. Eighteen miles
from the runway, you finally slow to subsonic speed. Now you really
have some options. At this low speed and altitude, you could punch
At 12,000 feet, the plummeting begins. Nose down at 24 degrees to
the horizon, 30 degrees in some flights. Feels like a dive bomber.
That DC-9, the one that makes your knuckles white on commercial
flights, comes in at three degrees. Thirty seconds out, you can
raise the nose back up. Now you have one and only one chance to
lower the landing gear. No time to cycle them. If the gear don't
lock, that's it. The chase planes are coming right down to the strip
with you, following your every move like baby ducks. They snoop
around the landing gear. Locked? If not, the chase pilots have a
couple seconds to tell you to bail out.
Only a few more seconds. The ground isn't coming up; some
prankster from Hell is throwing it at you. Whack! Down at 220 m.p.h.
Hope the rubber in those tires didn't blow from that long cold soak.
Crack! You bounce along, you roll to a stop.
Good thing you didn't have to punch out. Only Columbia will have
ejection seats. "The whole philosophy is that the shuttle is like a
commercial airliner," Day explains. "You test everything like mad,
but once it's checked out, you take your chances."
Now, let's check. Is the hull intact? Better be. NASA says it
will turn this ship around and have it flying again in two
weeks--only 96 of those hours for "safing" and refitting. Did all
that stress--stress that would have twisted any other flying machine
into a croissant--pop off any of your tiles? Let's hope not. The
cost-cutting plan says NASA will have to replace only 1.4 percent of
them after each flight. It's right here in the cost-cutting plan,
right under "C"--"Commuting to space."