June 22, 1980

Stretched across the Atlantic coastal flats of Florida is a kind of territory nobody ever much wanted. The Seminoles stayed away from it because tough podzol and palmetto scrub were of no use to them. The surf fishing there was probably wonderful long ago, but only an eccentric would bother to hike across a shadeless hot plate tormented by Nimrod mosquitoes when every easy waterway in Florida brimmed with fish. There have never been caverns or significant metal or mineral deposits. In other words, since Paleozoic times, this land was destined to host either a bird sanctuary or some sort of military establishment. That it also happened to become the site of our first total departure from the planet is perhaps what the Seminoles always knew it deserved.

The years since America’s moon walk have not been altogether happy at Cape Canaveral. Huge rocket casings and launch fixtures of the Apollo years lie abandoned among Sabal palms and saw grass. Birds live in them. There is a touch of Flushing Meadow or Angkor Wat here, the sadness of futures passed. And now there is the worst insult of all at what was supposed to be man’s embarcadero to the stars – a $9 billion spaceship that refuses to fly.

The spring of 1979 was to have marked the resurgence of the American manned spaceflight program. But when the space shuttle Enterprise (which the National Aeronautics and Space Administration wanted to call Constitution, before ”Star Trek” fans wrote to Gerald Ford) arrived at Kennedy Space Center on April 10, 1979, it was already a lame duck. Analysis of data from two years of glide landing and vibration tests had revealed that two of the ship’s most basic aspects – its weight and mechanical structure -were unacceptable. Two weeks earlier, Enterprise‘s younger sister, the space shuttle Columbia, had also been ferried in on a 747 piggyback flight. During transport, hundreds of pieces of its thermal insulation were damaged, or simply fell off. No one quite knew why.  Furthermore, the rocket engines which must boost these craft into orbit were still back in a Mississippi laboratory; they had logged only one-half of the total operating time required for certification. NASA officials in Washington faced the ignominious chore of asking Congress for $185 million to supplement the $1.4 billion they had already received that fiscal year. Today, the first launch still could be a year away, and this time NASA needs $300 million more to complete the shuttle.

The story of how this happened, and of why the project is so beset by difficulty, is the story of the space program in the twilight of the Apollo years. It involves disputes over basic design, a chain of budgetary and technological compromises, governmental infighting and corporate maneuvering. It is the story of an extraordinary engineering effort that has experienced equally extraordinary frustration in its attempts to push the state of the art in engine design and in thermal protection. And although the response of the project engineers has been to counter adversity with technological resourcefulness, the end result raises questions about both the ultimate use of the project, and about why so many billions of dollars will be needed before the space shuttle can accomplish its mission.

In its present configuration, the space shuttle consists of an airplane-like orbiter about the size of a DC-9, two large solid-propellant boosters, and a big aluminum tank that holds 800 tons of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, which power the orbiter’s engines. These components are mated in the old Vehicle Assembly Building left over from Apollo days at Cape Canaveral, then hauled out to a rejuvenated Launch Pad 39 on the same gargantuan tractor-crawler that was used to move the Saturn V moon rockets. At blastoff, the orbiter’s own main engines light up first, then the two solidpropellant boosters kick in to help lift the whole contraption.  Acceleration is relatively mild, at three times gravity. (By comparison, the Loch Ness Monster roller coaster at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., gives 3.5 G’s.) It takes about two minutes to reach an altitude of 28 miles, where the boosters burn out, separate from where they have been bolted to the external tank, and fall back, on parachutes, into the ocean. The 160,000-pound casings and motors are intended to be recoverable for multiple reuse – but this capability remains to be proved. Meanwhile, the orbiter and tank continue to accelerate toward a velocity of more than 17,000 miles per hour. When the engines have used all the fuel in the tank, this 127-foot-long, 27-foot-wide, 36-ton, $3 million cylinder drops off and disintegrates in the atmosphere (Or, more probably, plunges into the Indian Ocean.) The orbiter then coasts alone, using small self-contained rockets to place itself in orbit anywhere between about 175 and 250 miles high.

There, the orbiter’s crew opens the shuttle’s bay and deploys new satellites and does experiments. After finishing the hours or days of work they have been sent up for, the crew (two astronauts, a ”mission specialist” who operates experiments or deploys payloads, and sometimes up to four others) strap themselves in and let the ship’s computers fly them back home – to Cape Canaveral in the case of civilian flights, or to California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base for military missions. It is a completely unpowered plummet through the atmosphere, except for a few rocket bursts to help the shuttle slow down to come out of its orbit. The astronaut ”pilots” can feed updated information into the computers (this is called ”realtime programming”) or override the automatic system in the event of a catastrophic failure. But essentially, they ”fly” the shuttle the same way viewers ”control” a television. The pilots are, needless to say, a bit sensitive about such comparisons.

This vision of the space shuttle’s future seems somewhat dreamlike right now, given the continuing imbroglio of its development. To trace the origins of the debacle, one must return to the summer of 1969, during the days surrounding the first moon landing. Grandiose schemes were in the air. A special Presidential Space Task Group foresaw earth-orbital space stations, lunar-surface bases, manned flights to Mars by the mid-80’s and reusable carriers to service these adventures from Earth. But the glory of Apollo 11 could not obscure widespread concern about the war in Vietnam and domestic schism. By the middle of 1970, Richard Nixon struck a compromise between the lavish space program, which had always been popular with middle America, and the curtailed spending demanded by legislators whose foreign-policy support he coveted. ”We must realize that space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities,” he said. He modestly identified three ”general purposes which should guide our space program – exploration, scientific knowledge and practical applications.” NASA budgets were then projected well below the $4 billion supposedly needed for minimal new work. The ”aerospace depression,” which soon put 200,000 engineers and technicians out of work coast to coast, had begun.

The only big-budget item to survive through the early 70’s was the concept of a fully reusable launch vehicle. By the end of Apollo, everyone who was involved agreed that gold-plated stunts were not the way to attain routine access to space. NASA engineers sketched several designs for an earth-to-low-orbit booster that would simply ”shuttle” back and forth between the surface and the lowest practical parking altitude – taking off like a rocket, landing like an airplane. By 1974, through the pressures of inflation, the scrutiny of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the parsimony of a war-weary Congress, these designs were pared down to the partially reusable system that is now stalled at the Cape.

The political maneuvering of those first four years is worth close study because it set the course for most of the problems that would catch up with NASA later in the decade. The first shuttle authorization votes in 1970 and 1971 were extremely close. Senators Walter F. Mondale, William Proxmire, Clifford P. Case and Jacob K.  Javits, among others, spoke for a large constituency of scientists who opposed another manned spaceflight program. To counter this force, NASA wooed the Air Force and its strong Congressional ties. Given its sacrosanct budget for expendable launchers like Atlas and Titan, which put military satellites into space, the Air Force was at first ambivalent, but soon realized that it might exact quite a handsome concession from NASA in return for even lukewarm support. The fundamental justification for high initial investment in the space shuttle was (and still is) the prospect of a lively market waiting for cheaper launch services in the 1980’s. The Air Force could guarantee a substantial amount of business. They were also interested in some of the potential uses of the shuttle – manned reconnaissance missions, spaceborn command posts, laser-weapons platforms, the capture and retrieval of spy satellites and the like.

NASA thus drifted into the proprietary zone of powerful Congressmen who insisted that Air Force design requirements be accommodated: a 65,000-pound payload capacity in a 15-foot-by-60-foot bay (to fit the largest spy satellites) in place of the smaller, lighter NASA configuration; a maneuvering capability that would enable the shuttle to orbit the Earth once in any direction and then land at its takeoff point. These amendments meant changing the basic shape of the spacecraft and imposing severe demands on its thermal protection system. The cost implications of these changes were vague, but estimates added at least 20 percent to both development and operation. The most amazing part of the deal was that the Air Force would not have to contribute one penny to build the ship: It was to become the most expensive made-to-order gift to the nation’s defense by any civilian agency.

As is usual when billions of dollars are being staked on a project whose justification lies somewhere in the future, numerous studies were contracted to either prove or disprove the shuttle’s worth. NASA paid $600,000 for one by Mathematica Inc., a Princeton company that was headed by the econometrician Oskar Morgenstern. Using data supplied by Lockheed, the Aerospace Corporation, NASA and the Pentagon, Mathematica first showed that a fully reusable shuttle would be marginally cost-effective – the savings would be on the order of $100 million from a $12.8 billion investment. The controlling factor would be the total number of operational flights.  Despite this rather shaky forecast, budget authorization went smoothly through Congress, perhaps because members did not want to appear too anti-technology after voting against the supersonic transport airplane and antiballistic missile projects. Moreover, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. was by now taking a dim view of any moves against space industry jobs.

When the NASA administrator, James Fletcher, went back to Mathematica for a second study, however, he knew he had to persuade both the White House and Congress that the shuttle could be obtained for much less than $12.8 billion. In fact, OMB told him he might get half that much. So he instructed Mathematica to develop an analysis based on cheaper designs, and then turned the aerospace house inside out to produce a ”mission model” or ”traffic base line” showing a maximum number of flights. At one time, the figure finally given to Mathematica was 714 flights during the proposed 12-year shuttle write-off period from 1978 to 1990. At 65,000 pounds per launch, this postulated nearly four million pounds of new satellite payloads in orbit every year. (For comparison, in 1969 and 1971 – which were both big years for space – 390,000 and 425,000 pounds had been launched, respectively.) Nonetheless, armed with Mathematica’s analysis (which contradicted other studies by OMB, the Rand Corporation and a panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee), Fletcher persuaded Richard Nixon to buy the shuttle.

In the fiscal 1973 budget, Congress laid out several ground rules: a first orbital flight in 1979 at a total development cost of $5.15 billion (in 1971 dollars); $300 million for NASA support fa-cilities; $1 billion to produce a fleet of five operational orbiters, and an absolute limit of 20 percent on cost overruns. NASA had no choice but to accept, despite the extremely high state-of-art technological risks that were implied by all the design trade-offs.

Dr. Jerry Grey, former professor of aerospace science at Princeton, who has done a good job of placing the shuttle in NASA history in his book Enterprise, mentions a practice in industrial contracting known as ”buying in”: a firm will offer to do too much for too little in order to win the initial project approvals. Given the political environment of the early 1970’s, NASA was obviously in a position where it had to present a rosy picture to get the job. It would then bet on the outcome, hoping that the inevitable losses in credibility would be offset by accomplishments. Whether NASA was right or wrong in this ploy is by now irrelevant. The point is that by locking itself into a minimal development budget on the basis of shallow technical planning, NASA left itself no margin for error.  This is, of course, a classic engineering nightmare.  From the very beginning of the space shuttle project, two main technical obstacles were apparent. First, the orbiter’s high-performance rocket engines, unlike anything else ever made, must be capable of complex throttling and stop-start operation over a working life of at least 55 missions.  Second, the thermal protection system – unlike the ablating heat shields of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, that were destroyed during reentry – must be able to withstand the hypersonic maneuvers of reentry and be reusable without any extensive refurbishment.

Propulsion engineers had warned as far back as 1969 that the engines might be the element that would pace the shuttle development. They would require a far greater step forward in technology beyond the Apollo rockets than Saturn engines represented over the engines of previous boosters like Atlas. To get a sense of the magnitude of the challenge, one need only examine the high-pressure turbopumps that are necessary to get 375,000 pounds of thrust into an engine small enough to fit alongside two others within the envelope of the orbiter’s body. These pumps are roughly the size of a trash can, yet the amount of energy being released during combustion is equivalent to five million horsepower.

Preliminary design studies were finished at the end of 1970 by three major competitors – Aerojet-General’s Liquid Rocket Company (in Sacramento, Calif.), Rockwell International’s Rocketdyne Division (in Canoga Park, Calif.) and Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Group (in East Hartford, Conn.). Pratt & Whitney had already tested most of the components for a high-pressure engine, the XLR-129, that met shuttle requirements. It was scaled to deliver 250,000 pounds of thrust, but Pratt & Whitney had developed and tested turbopumps up to the 350,000-pound level. As for Rocketdyne, most of its effort had been on a different engine design called ”aerospike,” which was never used. The ”staged combustion cycle” favored by NASA, and employed in the XLR-129, had seen only a few limited component tests at Rocketdyne. Thus, when NASA awarded the $500,000,000 engine contract to Rocketdyne in July 1971 – six months before NASA administrator Fletcher got final approval to proceed from President Nixon – many workers in the rocket industry shook their heads in disbelief. ”It’s my feeling that the contract had to go to California for political reasons,” said Representative William R.  Cotter, Democrat of Connecticut, at the time. Cotter charged that the White House had played politics to sway NASA’s choice of contractors.  Of course, 1972 was an election year for Richard Nixon, and his home state was California. In August, Pratt & Whitney filed a protest with the General Accounting Office based on the alleged failure of NASA to observe pertinent statutes and regulations governing procurement conduct during its evaluation of the engine proposals. It was the first time Pratt & Whitney had protested a Federal contract award in 45 years of doing business with the Government.

Charges of political favoritism and payoffs have swirled around the space effort just as they have around other Federal programs that spend lots of money and create thousands of jobs. It is a fact that the nerve center of manned spaceflight is called the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, and is located a thousand miles from Cape Canaveral, in Houston – the hometown of Albert Thomas, who used to head the House subcommittee that approved NASA budgets. Political and business connections are as much a part of high technology as are chips of silicon. The engine contract was one of the fattest plums in years to fall to the financially hard-pressed aerospace industry, which had been lobbying frantically for shuttle business. The future, if not the existence, of major companies hinged on their obtaining new work.

After the protest and investigation, Rocketdyne kept the contract.  When NASA convened an ad hoc committee seven years later to assess delays in engine development, the members specifically acknowledged in their report the technical assistance of Richard Mulready of Pratt & Whitney, who had fathered the XLR-129 concept.  The certification of the space shuttle’s main engines is a complex process that consists of running two engines through a total of four cycles, which in turn consist of 13 separate firing sequences of 5,000 seconds’ duration. As of early spring 1980, almost 10 years after the preliminary designs were submitted, the space shuttle’s main engines were still about 20,000 test seconds short of the 80,000-second total that is required before the first manned orbital flight. Early on, NASA decided that for economic and technical reasons it was impractical to test engine components separately before they are assembled into a complete engine. This unorthodox procedure is fine if you are lucky enough to build perfect prototypes from beginning to end. But if anything from a whole turbopump to a lowly valve seal happens to malfunction, the entire engine can be damaged. This is precisely what has happened – not once, but four times in the last two years alone. Rocketdyne was not just running short on time, it was running out of spare parts. The first full-duration test of the total propulsion system, including engine throttling and gimbaling, did not occur until December 17, 1979.

The second technical obstacle that has worried engineers since the start is the thermal protection system. When the orbiter re-enters the earth’s atmosphere, it is careening down at over Mach 25 – that is, 25 times the speed of sound. In order to perform the maneuvers stipulated by the Air Force, the leading edges and controlling surfaces of the orbiter’s body must withstand temperatures as high as 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. NASA’s Ames Research Center developed a material called ”reaction cured glass,” a sort of silica soufflé that can be cut into blocks or ”tiles” that are glued to a feltlike material that is glued to the orbiter’s skin. Pure river sand from Leseur, Minn., is fired into glass in Richmond, Ind.; fiberized and strengthened in Chamco, Ky.; then machined and sawed into blanks at the Lockheed plant in California.

About 31,000 of these tiles – which feel like balsa wood and are about the size of a slice of Texas toast – cover the ship. Some are white, some black, and they vary in temperature tolerance, but the basic idea is to keep the aluminum skin underneath at a temperature of less than 350 degrees at all times. Each tile is unique; every single one has to be precision-machined to match the contour of the area it covers. The three-year history of putting together this monstrous puzzle has been nothing but hellish frustration.

When the Columbia orbiter arrived at the Cape last year, engineers believed that about two-thirds of its tiles had been satisfactorily installed. Other tiles had merely been taped on for the ferry flight from California. The job was going so slowly that fewer than 300 per week were being fixed to its fuselage. Working three shifts a day, six days a week, the rate was about 1.3 tiles per person per week.  Each time one is installed, the technician first fits a dummy tile to the space alongside the real tile that he has just installed on the orbiter’s skin. The dummy then goes back to the factory, where a tracing machine mills out a real tile, which is returned for fastening. The tiniest scratches, even marks left by fingerprints, cannot be tolerated. The spaces between tiles can be no more than 65/ 1,000ths of an inch. Any defect, any gap, can lead to structural buckling or even burn a hole right through the ship.  Depending on what is behind the hole (a hydraulic cable, say), such a breech could jeopardize a mission.

There is no argument at NASA today regarding the fact that the art of thermal protection engineering was very immature all along.  Originally, the tiles were thought of more or less as a coat of paint, a glove on an aluminum spaceship, rather than as a fundamental structural system. This is what led to the embarrassing problems during the transport of Enterprise from California. Although the heat-deflection characteristics of the tiles are sensational, they are mechanically fragile (a property exacerbated by the need to coat them against water absorption; they soak like sponges, and the added weight would be detrimental). Whereas the designers first believed that major acreage could be tested and installed blanket-style, recent tests have revealed that each tile must be viewed as a unique entity. As a result, separate testing must be done for almost every one of 31,000 tiles – a process that currently is taking about 12 days per tile from removal to reapplication. At any one time, 200 persons are working around the orbiter in a hangar at Kennedy Space Center, scrambling up ladders and across jury-rigged catwalks. A part of the tile work force – which is expected to peak this summer at close to 1,200 workers – consists of teen-agers on their first job out of high school. The kids commonly refer to the shuttle as ”the brick cloud.”

All of these headaches have meant that there has been managerial realignment and intensified labor. The shuttle project and NASA have flexed under the strain and sprung back looking quite different from their configuration in 1969. The network of managers, engineers and technicians that has been brought to bear on the space-shuttle project is unparalleled. The question that must be asked now is not ”Will the shuttle fly?” The judgment even of the critics is that certainly it will, sooner or later. Rather, it is most useful to step back slightly from an examination of the technical innards of the terrible beast and, in the course of marveling at it, to try to learn something about how it survives, day after day, year after year, billion dollars after billion dollars.

”In my opinion, the shuttle was funded at one-half of what it would have taken if it had been done like the Apollo program,” says John F. Yardley, NASA associate administrator and head of the project. ”Apollo was done in a different time – the different environment of a Presidential mandate – no holds barred. The shuttle was undertaken with Proxmire and Mondale knifing it. In order to get it started, you had to have a fairly low target.” By ”low target” he means low budget request. Besides coming up with a design more modest than the fully reusable juggernaut originally envisioned, this entailed the promise of low cost-per-flight operation, which in turn required a large number of customers, whose payments would amortize operations over 10 or 12 years. As has already been mentioned, NASA tried to make an early projection of 714 flights for the orbiter fleet during 12 years. When basic funding commitments were made in 1971, this figure dropped to 581. An early economic analysis of shuttle versus expendable launchers was made in 1973, using the figure of 725 flights. Today, the official figure is 487 flights, with claims that the shuttle can be economical even down to the level of several hundred. These are only planning estimates, based more on potential system capabilities than on approved commitments.  Nonetheless, the mission model is always used to justify the shuttle program. So how to explain such yo-yoing?

”The 487-flight model with four orbiters is a ceiling that’s based on seven days of work, three shifts, no major refurbishment,” says Chet Lee, NASA director of space transportation systems operations and chief salesman. ”I personally don’t think we’ll get a 160-hour (two-week) turnaround with these orbiters. We’ll go along for many years with a four- or five-week turnaround, not two. Our capacity will not be 487. Now a lot of people will say, ‘That’s going to change your cost per flight,’ because we based it on a fictitious model over a 12-year period to recover total operations cost. Well, there’s nothing to say that you can’t extend that investment period.  Maybe we’ll make it at the end of 20 years. The United States Government is in a position to wait a few more years before it breaks even, I would think.” Just what the reaction of the United States Congress would be today – let alone five or 10 years ago – to Lee’s prognosis is easy to guess. When the shuttle begins operations, NASA has estimated that the mission model can be accomplished with a ”moderately increasing” budget. Irrespective of this estimate’s accuracy, no Federal agency can be guaranteed a constant budget in the 1980’s, much less one that increases.

Down at Cape Canaveral, folks are at once sanguine and realistic about the shuttle. ”I think it wouldn’t be out of line for me to say that down here the guys out in the field feel that the traffic model being spoken of – when you get way out to 30 or 40 flights a year -we think that’s an ambitious plan,” says George A. Page, director of shuttle operations. ”We’ve been given very unrealistic schedules.  We’re going to slip them just as sure as we’re all sitting here.  That’s unfortunate. The public sees that. They say, ‘Well, the dumb bastards, they say we’re going to go such and such, and here it is a year and a half later – they obviously don’t know what they’re doing.’ I guess that’s a natural reaction.” Above all, the Cape is a place to shoot off rockets, an engineer’s dreamland (there are few scientists around) where splendiferous one-of-a-kind machines of incredible complexity are hurled into the sky with a rebel yell. The kind of person who works in this environment needs adrenalin, needs to have the bird on the pad ready to go. That brick cloud in the hangar is, quite frankly, a bummer.

Actually, the only top manager who does not seem at all fazed by shuttle difficulties is George W. Jeffs, corporate vice president of Rockwell International and head of aerospace operations. ”I think the program was going along well, and I think the program is still going along very well,” he flatly declares. Rockwell won the prime development contract in July 1972 by submitting a cost proposal of $2.6 billion over six years. (”We were screwed,” an official of Grumman Aerospace Corporation in Bethpage, N.Y. – Rockwell’s chief competitor – said at the time. Grumman’s bid of $4.1 billion now looks awfully realistic, but the company was outpoliticked by the Southern California giant.) There have been newspaper charges that Rockwell systematically hid cost overruns. Today, Rockwell is under investigation by the Justice Department after NASA’s Inspector General’s office and the Department of Defense provided information about allegations that the company had mischarged costs on the shuttle. Jeffs contends that this was due to ”people getting confused on their time cards,” that in any case it involves no more than $100,000, and that it was definitely not done with malice of management forethought. But there are other, bigger harpies in the air. Between July and December 1978, Rockwell received only 68 percent of its cost-award fee (NASA’s contract with Rockwell has an incentive feature that allows work to be rated retroactively). Between January and June 1979, it slipped to 57 percent. Last year, the House subcommittee on space science and applications drilled Jeffs on his inability to foresee more than $100 million in overruns – now known in the trade as ”Rockwell’s surprise.” And John Yardley recently caused a stir when he said that the people Rockwell had hired in Los Angeles to install tiles on Columbia before it was moved to Florida were ”a bunch of tomato pickers.” Jeffs admits to feeling troubled by the tile morass, but insists that other delays – including his Rocketdyne engines – were fully expected. Yet Congress was not aware of them before the necessity of budget supplementals that will exceed half a billion dollars.

Despite several obvious fumbles, NASA has made impressive leaps forward with shuttle technology in a budget atmosphere far more rarefied than Apollo. This is not to say the budget is small in objective terms. The exact figure for total current investment in the space shuttle is extremely difficult to locate. Budget lines branch out like a thorn tree. Official information is sometimes self-contradictory. One is forced to grab hold of the thickest limbs and say that the whole project costs at least this much. So far, then, research and development plus production costs amount to somewhere above $9 billion (in current dollars). This is roughly the amount that will be spent by the time Columbia gets off the ground.  The Department of Defense has already spent at least another $1.1 billion to start its own separate shuttle facilities at Vandenberg and to develop a kick-rocket called the ”inertial upper stage,” which would be attached to satellites in the orbiter’s bay and used to shoot them into geosynchronous orbits 22,300 miles high. Neither of these tasks is near completion. A fleet of four orbiters is currently budgeted (not including the disqualified Enterprise, which will never go into orbit) at a minimum of $650 million apiece for the three new ones. Thus, the rough, minimal sum up to here is $12.05 billion of nonrecoverable investment. No one is yet in a position to say how much it will cost to operate the whole system once the research and development phase is over, though estimates start at $15 billion in additional moneys. The current ”user’s fee,” which is how much a customer must pay NASA to get on board the shuttle, is based on 1975 cost data.

One is gradually led toward the conclusion that the real driving force of the project is clearly not the solid promise of cheap, routine access to space. As for commercial satellite companies, there is growing disillusionment with shuttle pricing and scheduling policies. The cost advantage of putting new satellites on board the shuttle over using traditional expendable boosters is quickly nullified by schedule slippage. Launch delays have already cost the industry on the order of half a billion dollars. Some companies have seen their flights displaced by Defense missions. Under the circumstances, Ariane, a new launch vehicle being developed by the European Space Agency, is beginning to look very attractive to the American telecommunications business.

The survival of the project since 1969 boils down to two factors: first, the ineluctable military needs of the Pentagon, which will be the shuttle’s priority user, and second, the lingering dreams of those in an increasingly retirement-aged NASA management for whom space exploration was mankind’s highest destiny. It is quite telling that NASA is slated to lose a substantial retinue of top managers as soon as Columbia flies her first mission. The average age in NASA is 45, rather old for a research and development enterprise. The shuttle may in fact mark the twilight of America’s civilian spaceflight program rather than its rebirth. In which case, Cape Canaveral will still be entitled to noble commemoration among the likes of Flushing Meadow and Angkor Wat.


Postscript: The space shuttle was launched 134 times from 1981 to 2011. Total program cost was about $200 billion in 2010 dollars, which resulted in an average of about $1.5 billion per flight.  Fourteen astronauts died in two mission disasters.  There is currently no operational American manned spaceflight program.