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A version of this diary is cross-posted at NMSTARG.

By the time of Nixon's Presidency (January 1969), our country was going though a bi-polar moment. On the one hand, we were about to land human beings on the moon, an achievement so profound that millions would be soon watching on their TVs. Yet at the same time, NASA was facing budget cutbacks so sever as to almost destroy the space agency.

NASA tried valiantly to make the politicians understand the importance of a vibrant space program. If nothing else, it was a great way to wage war with the Soviet Union without firing one shot, except rockets into space "for all mankind". JFK understood this; while he was building up a weapons industry, he also built up a spaceship industry. All in the name of fighting the USSR in the skies above.

It is the height of irony that the crowning achievement (Soviet humiliation?) that was Apollo 11 brought the final curtain down on the ailing space program. "Why should we keep beating the USSR over and over again?" came the indignant cry from the masses. Maybe because the space program should have been more than just something to bludgeon our mortal enemy (at the time) over the head?

What we threw away was criminal. To allow the hopes and dreams of young people as they grew to be inspired by what they saw on TV to wither and die is a terrible embarrassment. It really was a shameful period in US history.

More after the jump...

By the year 1969, NASA was ready to land on the moon. However, even during this time of glory, some where asking why go to the moon at all, and, more importantly, what does NASA do for an encore?

So the NASA people got together and came up with a plan; it was called the IPP (Integrated Program Plan). The plan called for building a reusable Space Shuttle, a LEO Space Station and Base, a LLO Space Station, and a Lunar Surface Base. A Lunar Shuttle along with an Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV) would have been used to transfer cargo and passenger to and from the moon. The OTV even had an add-on that would convert it into a Lunar Lander! All of this was on top of the already operational Saturn V Expendable Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (EHLLV).

The best part was how NASA planned to reuse Apollo hardware to reduce costs and make things simple. "Reuse and Commonality" could have been their mission statement (sound familiar?).

It really was the most natural and logical way to proceed after the moon landings. So, of course, NASA never had a chance to implement it.

NASA was doomed from the beginning with a new President (Nixon) wanting to slash NASA's budget, and a new NASA administrator (Paine) who naively went ahead with the IPP proposal despite the budget warnings from the White House. In this tug of war, Nixon and the budget won, and NASA, essentially, lost.

At the start of the Nixon Presidency, the big question involving space wasn't about the moon. Oh no. Instead: To Space Shuttle or not to Space Shuttle; that is the question. Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous expendable rockets, or to take arms against a sea of reusable space shuttles.

The Space Shuttle being talked about in the late 1960's and early 1970's was a totally reusable system, usually involving 2 vehicles with crews. Every major aerospace company in the US participated in some kind of design study. Most in the astronautics community were convinced of the logic behind the idea of reusing a vehicle after a flight, instead of throwing it all away and building another one.

There was only one catch.

As always when such vast sums are involved, politics got in the way. A fully reusable Space Shuttle would have been very inexpensive to operate, but would have been very expensive to research and develop it.

George Low, a NASA Deputy Administrator, drew a great graph of problems facing Space Shuttle costs:

As you can see, if you want a low operating cost, then be prepared to pay a high development cost. If you want a low development cost, then be prepared to pay a high operating cost.

Nixon was having none of the high development costs associated with the Space Shuttle; not when there was a war going on in Vietnam. So the Space Shuttle suffered, but at least the war went on...

The Decision Point in the above graph is where the Space Shuttle that the US built was at. It was a trade off: a medium operating cost for a low development cost.

What the US had actually built was in reality a bad machine, compared to what we could have had. Many design flaws were evident after the Challenger accident in 1986, and as a result, no one looked at the Space Shuttle as a viable way to get into space any more. More importantly, it was actually kinda dangerous to fly.

IMHO, Nixon killed every astronaut that died in the Space Shuttle. Cost issues and a weakened budget forced safety compromises that doomed the two Space Shuttle flights that eventually crashed.

A well designed shuttle will not only save lives,, it can also save money (in the long run).

What a concept.

Originally posted to The NM STAR Group on Sun Jul 29, 2012 at 11:16 AM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (5+ / 0-)

    Reuse and commonality are the keys to a robust and profitable space program.

    by The NM STAR Group on Sun Jul 29, 2012 at 11:16:25 AM PDT

  •  Skeptical about "could have had." (0+ / 0-)

    The Low graph captures something interesting about cost to a PDR system, but the numbers are WAGs at best.  And even today there's great uncertainty between cost estimates at proposal and the final bill through to first operation for any large engineering endeavor.   Finally, fully reusable single and two stage lift to orbit is still an unrealized dream despite tens of billions invested.

    •  Pete: Healthy skepticism is a good thing. (0+ / 0-)

      I would have to (grudgingly) agree with you, that these figures really are Wild-Ass Guesses at best.

      I would also have to agree with your statement:

      And even today there's great uncertainty between cost estimates at proposal and the final bill through to first operation for any large engineering endeavor.
      I think this has been true for the entire history of the aerospace industry. Not only do the costs increase, so does the time it takes to get the boilerplate made, as well as the weight.

      It's also too bad that that your last statement is also true (dammit!). Despite billions of dollars in R&D, we are no closer to a fully-reusable launch vehicle than ever before.

      The diary really never addresses these issues; I just wanted to talk about plans that were drawn up for a viable space program that, alas, never materialized.

      This was a great comment. It actually made me think.

      Reuse and commonality are the keys to a robust and profitable space program.

      by The NM STAR Group on Sun Jul 29, 2012 at 01:14:16 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Some light at the end of the tunnel. (0+ / 0-)

        In the past decade, we're seeing processes and tools come online that apply directly to RLV research.  We're also seeing a fortunate spark in productivity due to the confluence of high performance computing for CAD/CAE/CAM, evolvable liquid fuel architectures, and smaller, cheaper testbeds (for greater repetition in physical testing), market competition, and most importantly actual actual markets for products coming out of each generation in the pipeline.  SpaceX has a 10 mT, almost completely reusable lifter and vehicle already in operation, and they built theirs for $300 million evolving beyond their previous lifter.

        •  Recent technological advances... (0+ / 0-)

          ... have indeed made it easier to bring designs to light, especially in the area of CAD/CAE/CAM. There's even software that will flight test the design before it's even built (even though that's been around for a while).

          So I agree that there is some hope for the future.

          BTW, I did see Space X's new RLV. It reenters the atmosphere nose first, then turns around and lands like the Apollo lunar lander did. Very interesting concept.

          Also, I would point out the "socialistic" nature of Space X, where the good ol' US Government gave Space X money to complete it's design and flight test. Well done, USA!

          Reuse and commonality are the keys to a robust and profitable space program.

          by The NM STAR Group on Sun Jul 29, 2012 at 02:39:22 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  NASA didn't "give" SpaceX money. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            quarkstomper

            With the retirement of the shuttle, NASA was left filling its crew and cargo requirement using Russian vehicle.  To that end, Congress and the previous Administration agreed to fund COTS contracts to demonstrate cheaper cargo and crew lift.  SpaceX and other competitors were only paid upon meeting delivering the appropriate demo at each milestone.  The grand prize would be contracts to supply the station.  The government no longer requires a $1.2 billion lifter to haul material to the ISS, and the private sector develops a generation of lifters that will reduce ground to LEO costs by half to two-thirds.  Not socialism, but certainly public-private partnership in pursuit of clear, attainable mutual profit.

            •  Even though NASA indeed didn't "give it away"... (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Pete Cortez

              ... my point was that NASA did good by funding the private sector for a viable space program.

              I've actually been an advocate of COTS back in the '80's (even though COTS didn't exist back then). I believed then, as I do now, that NASA should push the frontiers, and let business follow.

              The competitors do get paid upon completion of their program objectives. I just find it funny that a lot of Conservatives would bemoan that idea; that's what I meant by the snarky "socialism" dig.

              I guess this was my awkward way of saying that the big bad Government did a good thing funding COTS.

              All your points are valid. Thanks for keeping me honest.

              Reuse and commonality are the keys to a robust and profitable space program.

              by The NM STAR Group on Sun Jul 29, 2012 at 04:45:57 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

  •  I'd like to add that the STS design was driven by (0+ / 0-)

    military requirements as well being limited by what was state of the art design software.

    The melding of civil and military requirements--coupled with the budgetary and political pressures that affect all large aerospace programs--produced the engineering compromises that haunt the space shuttle program to this day.
    Space Shuttle Born Of Compromise

    Not terribly surprising, the Vandenburg polar orbit flights never happened. Billions wasted and the MIC wants more, more, more.

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