Rethinking the Space Shuttle

One study of space shuttle development comments that during 1971 “pres­sures of financial stringency penetrated every aspect of the Shuttle program. Few high-technology development programs, if any, have been subjected to the kind of fiscal pressures and controls which the Shuttle Program endured, and it was during this period that they had the greatest impact on the design process.” Indeed, “the fiscal and political environment influenced the detailed engineering design decisions on a month to month, and at times, a day to day basis.”25

This pressure was already in the background as NASA’s Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight Dale Myers and his top associates decided in January 1971 to direct NASA’s contractors to restrict their stud­ies to a shuttle design that could meet all national security requirements. Myers convened a January 19-20, 1971, meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia, attended by all those involved in shuttle studies. At the meeting, Myers announced the requirements that would guide the remaining months of the ongoing shuttle studies. Performance requirements included:

• The ability to launch 65,000 pounds into a due east 100 nautical mile (nm) orbit, which equated with the ability to launch 40,000 pounds into a polar orbit, a national security requirement;

• Nominal cross-range of 1,100 nm, the least amount acceptable to the national security community; up to that point, NASA’s contractors had been studying both a delta-wing orbiter design capable of 1,500 nm cross­range as well as one with straight wings and only 200 nm cross-range;

• Engines capable of generating 550,000 pounds of sea-level thrust. NASA had allowed its Phase A and Phase B contractors also to examine the use of an engine with 415,000 pounds of thrust, and most industry stud­ies had preferred that option. Myers’s directive removed that choice. The more powerful engine would be required to launch the heaviest NASA and national security payloads;

• The ability to return payloads weighing up to 40,000 pounds, also a national security requirement.26

Although the cross-range requirement had originated with the Department of Defense (DOD) and in the early stages of shuttle studies had been resisted by NASA, by this time many of those within NASA and industry involved in shuttle design efforts acknowledged the limitations of the straight-wing orbiter design, which was the preference of NASA’s Max Faget, and recog­nized that a high cross-range vehicle had a number of operational advantages in terms of dissipating energy during return from orbit and of getting the shuttle orbiter to an appropriate landing site from various orbits. Myers’s January 1971 directive eliminated the straight-wing design from further consideration; whatever shuttle design NASA would choose would have delta-shaped wings.

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