The Roots of the Policy Mistake

The policy mistake in the decision to develop the full capability space shuttle had deep roots in the history of the space shuttle program. The 2003 report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded that “the great­est compromise NASA made was not so much with any particular element of the technical design, but rather with the premise of the vehicle itself. NASA promised it could develop a Shuttle that would be launched almost on demand and would fly many missions each year.” The report added “the increased complexity of a Shuttle designed to be all things to all people cre­ated inherently greater risks than if more realistic technical goals had been set from the start. Designing a reusable spacecraft that is cost-effective is a daunting engineering challenge; doing so on a tightly constrained budget is even more difficult.”29 That was the situation in which NASA found itself in 1970 and 1971, but NASA’s leaders persisted in their advocacy of the full capability shuttle, even as some of them, particularly George Low, ques­tioned the wisdom of that advocacy.

There were actually two policy mistakes associated with the shuttle deci­sion. The first and more fundamental mistake was the White House accept­ing as the basis for its shuttle decision NASA’s claim that it could successfully go directly from the Apollo progra^m, characterized by brute force launcher technology and crew-carrying capsules parachuting to an ocean landing, to developing a highly capable vehicle in terms of payload capacity, in-orbit operation, and maneuvering during entry, incorporating a^dvanced tech­nology in many of its systems, with a high degree of reusability, and able to land on a runway and quickly be readied for another Sunch, all at res­tively modest cost compared to the alternatives. The bullish vision of people such as Tom Paine and George Mueller pushed NASA to focus on an ambi­tious shuttle design incorporating advanced technology and capable of “air­line type” operations. There was a significant degree of technological hubris in NASA’s view of what would be achievable. After all, NASA engineers and managers had just succeeded in landing American astronauts on the Moon and were convinced that they could overcome the next set of technological challenges.

NASA and its contractors thus focused their attention during 1970 and the first half of 1971 on finding the best design meeting NASA and national security community requirements and employing cutting edge technology in areas such as propulsion, thermal protection, and onboard electronic sys­tems. After May 1971 they had to carry out their design studies within an OMB-imposed budget ceiling in terms of both peak annual funding and the overall cost of the shuttle program. Although NASA recognized by mid-1971 that a two-stage fully reusable shuttle design was not feasible either financially or technologically, there was little emphasis on investigat­ing less ambitious, less expensive, alternatives to an advanced technology shuttle orbiter with a variety of means for boosting it into space. There was essentially no attention given at the engineering level to concepts such as the glider favored by the Flax committee or the smaller shuttle proposed by OMB, or even to the Mark I, less technologically ambitious, shuttle pro­posed by NASA Headquarters.

In addition to designing a shuttle that could be developed within a constrained budget, NASA engineers were forced into demonstrating the shuttle’s overall cost-effectiveness. In 1970, the Bureau of the Budget and then its successor OMB had insisted on proof that the shuttle development and operation would cost less than using expendable vehicles to launch U. S. space missions. NASA concluded that it had to satisfy that unprec­edented OMB requirement. Demonstrating the shuttle’s cost-effectiveness became perceived as a political necessity, and likely led to NASA’s lead­ers and engineers deluding themselves about the costs of operating the shuttle on a frequent basis in order to make the economic case come out positively.

The design ultimately recommended was likely the best engineering solu­tion to the demanding requirements NASA’s technical staff was asked to meet. But that design created a first-generation experimental vehicle, not a shuttle capable of delivering the cost savings and routine operational benefits that NASA was promising. Basing the White House decision to approve the NASA shuttle on other factors while implicitly accepting NASA’s optimistic claims with respect to the shuttle’s operation was a policy mistake with long – lasting consequences.