Remaining Shuttle Options

George Low was finally able to meet with Don Rice in late November to bring Rice up to date on NASA’s current thinking on the shuttle. Low described the meeting as “extremely good. . . for we communicated well.” Once again, Low drew his development versus operation cost curve for Rice and used it as the basis for his presentation. He told Rice that on the basis of 18 months of contractor and NASA studies and of trading off develop­ment and operating costs, NASA had come up with “a class of [shuttle] configurations that costs much less to develop than earlier configurations, is smaller but can carry the required payload, and is still ‘productive’ in terms of operating costs.” He suggested that “for practical purposes,” the two – stage fully reusable and the baseline (a two-stage shuttle with disposable hydrogen tanks) configurations could be “discarded” because of their high development cost. He argued that “the glider, as presently proposed, also does not appear to be promising.” If the glider were to carry the same pay­load as the full size shuttle orbiter, it would “probably not offer a significant saving in development cost, but will be expensive to operate.” (This was a rigged argument, since neither the Flax committee nor OMB was suggesting a glider able to carry large payloads, and NASA had still not examined the implications of a much smaller glider.) This left, suggested Low, “the Mark I/Mark II configurations with four booster options: flyback, pressure-fed, parallel-staged pressure fed, and parallel staged solid rocket boosters.” (The term “flyback” referred to the use of a modified first stage of the Saturn V Moon rocket that could be operated by a human crew and flown back to a runway after launch. The term “pressure-fed” referred to a new booster design concept, developed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in which propellant would be forced into the booster engines by gas pressure rather than fed into the engines by a large turbopump. A “parallel-staged” con­figuration would have both booster and orbiter engines firing at liftoff, as opposed to the usual “series-staged” approach in which only booster engines would be fired on the launch pad.) Low suggested that a space shuttle using one of these booster options could be developed for between $4.5 and $6.5 billion, with operating costs between $6 and $12 million per flight. All shut­tles in this range could eventually “carry the same payload, 65,000 pounds into a due east orbit or 40,000 pounds to polar orbit, in a 15 ft by 60 ft. payload bay.” Low concluded that “the most promising configuration today is the Mark I/Mark II orbiter with the parallel-staged pressure-fed booster.” It is worth noting that NASA at this late point was still advocating the idea of phased technology development of the shuttle orbiter.43

Rice later would remark “that what sticks in my mind more than any­thing else was the difficulty of getting any solid attention paid to alterna­tive [shuttle] designs. . . alternative in terms of mission requirements and why that mattered.” He added “I still find myself a little bit incredulous to this day that there were three widely different concepts that NASA had for that system. All had the same physical capability to do work.”44 Rice was correct; NASA was strongly resistant to examining alternatives to the capabilities embodied in its preferred shuttle design. For one thing, NASA was still caught between OMB’s pressure to consider a signifi­cantly smaller shuttle or a glider and NASA’s perception that it had to meet national security requirements to gain the DOD support it thought essential for White House approval of the shuttle. Also, NASA’s human space flight team was being stubborn, convinced that the shuttle orbiter design coming out of more than eighteen months of study was a much better choice than any of the alternatives being discussed in Washington. In a 1979 letter, Low commented that “even long after those of us in the top NASA administration had decided that a less ambitious shuttle design was ‘all the traffic would bear,’ it took some time to get the rest of the people in NASA who had been working on the two-stage, fully reusable shuttle to agree with this approach. Therefore, what may have appeared to some as a NASA/OMB fight, in part, was really an internal NASA debate.”45