Future Tense

How American Spaceflight Entered Its Era of Compromise

Looking back at the shuttle program at 50.

A grainy image of the space shuttle, its bay doors open, and Earth visible below.
The Space Shuttle Discovery photographed in 1995 from the Russian space station Mir. AFP via Getty Images

On June 15, 1972, President Nixon hosted a White House reception for the three astronauts who had just returned from Apollo 16, the fifth mission to the moon. Their conversation was strained and awkward, as many led by Nixon were. In between rambling pointlessly about someone he had once known with the same name as astronaut Charlie Duke and advising the astronauts which wine to drink at that night’s state dinner, Nixon complained about the pressures he was feeling, especially about federal budget priorities. He told them the public was demanding he spend less on big outward-facing projects like defense and spaceflight and instead should put resources into, as Nixon put it, “ghettoes and all that.” He expressed his personal enthusiasm for the continuing space program, but he also told the astronauts, in a tone resigned to unchangeable realities: “The great excitement of the first space experiments has receded.”

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We know all these details because a full recording of that meeting is among the secret tapes that became part of Nixon’s downfall (and can now be downloaded online). Many people who knew Nixon described him as being terrible at small talk, but to me that critique doesn’t capture the deep struggle, the sense of sweaty desperation, he could bring to a simple reception like this one. Prone to filibustering when nervous, he never asked the astronauts a single question about their trip to the moon and instead lectured them on his own (ill-informed) thoughts on the importance of spaceflight.

I try to imagine how the astronauts must have felt, crammed on that sofa in the Oval Office on that summer afternoon while Nixon held forth. Uncomfortable? Bored? Offended? While they endured their brief meeting in that room, the last Apollo launch vehicle was being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After that, the facilities would close down indefinitely.

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Two days later, five men would be caught breaking into the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex.

A month later, Rockwell International would be awarded the contract to begin work on the next generation of spacecraft: the space shuttle orbiter. Once complete, the space shuttle would become NASA’s only spacecraft for more than a generation, and even though it was retired in 2011, we have yet to see its replacement, NASA’s new Space Launch System, fly.

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The space shuttle flew 135 missions from 1981 to 2011 and took 355 people to space—the majority of the humans who have ever left Earth. The shuttle constructed the International Space Station, ferrying most of its modules one by one to complete a permanently inhabited orbiting laboratory the length of a football field. The shuttle deployed the Hubble Space Telescope—called by some scientists the most important scientific instrument ever invented—and enabled astronauts to repair it by hand over five different servicing missions. The shuttle deployed hundreds of satellites and carried thousands of science experiments.

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Even now, eleven years after its last flight and fifty years after it got its start, people seem unsure how to evaluate the space shuttle’s legacy. Was it a triumph of engineering, perseverance, and cooperation? Or was it a lemon, an embarrassment and a failure? Maybe its history is big enough to allow for some of both.

When I was a kid, my father gave me a book entitled Space Shuttle: America’s Wings to the Future. It was published in 1978, in the limbo period after the moon landings were long over but before the space shuttle had overcome the many the technical issues that delayed its debut. The book seemed a bit frantic, even at the time, in hyping a space plane we hadn’t yet seen, one that was starting to seem as though it might never work—and, even if it did, would be a sad echo of the excitement and majesty of the Apollo era. The book promises that within a year of the shuttle’s first test flight, a fleet of space shuttles would form a National Spaceline, as smooth and predictable as Pan Am, and that there would be at least one space flight per week. Soon, the space shuttle would be able to pay for itself by deploying and repairing satellites for paying customers. None of these promises ever came to pass.

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The book invites us to imagine the many ways in which the technologies made possible by the space shuttle would soon make all of our lives better. A (now-comical) explanation of how “electronic mail” would work describes a postal worker collecting and scanning a letter, then beaming the information via satellite to the recipient’s post office, where it would be printed out and hand-delivered. We are also promised “two-way television,” instant communication using “Dick Tracy watches,” and electronic voting from the comfort of our homes.

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As much as Space Shuttle: America’s Wings to the Future emphasizes the practicality and frugality of the shuttle, it also does its best to sell a grand, idealistic vision of the future. A section on space colonies that will be made possible by shuttle operations is illustrated with hand-painted ‘70s visions of the future, an enormous rotating torus with hundreds of feather-haired inhabitants growing crops and enjoying artificial gravity. We can have all this one day, the book implies, starting with the economical baby step of the space shuttle. But even as a kid I understood that the shuttle was actually a step back from the enormous rockets that had taken men to the moon before I was born.

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“History tells us,” the book intones in one of its more self-indulgent moments, “that an idea which is ahead of its time periodically reappears with ever greater interest and enthusiasm until it can be implemented or is superseded by a better idea. Has space colonization’s time come?”

It hadn’t, and it hasn’t still, but all my life we’ve been acting as though its time is just around the corner.

It’s hard to say exactly when something as big and involved as the space shuttle project began. Sometimes we count from the first launch on April 12, 1981—but of course by then the launch vehicle was assembled, the components tested, the astronauts trained. Was it the day the plan for the launch vehicle was finalized? The day NASA agreed to combine their next-generation spacecraft with the military’s plans for a launch vehicle, forever compromising goals of peaceful exploration with the project of deploying spy satellites?

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The day NASA accepted that the space shuttle was the best they were going to be able to do for the foreseeable future, so they should fall in line and pretend to be happy about it?

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Might as well make it July 26, 1972, the day the contract for assembling the space shuttle orbiter was officially awarded to Rockwell International in California. Rockwell’s overall proposal hadn’t been ranked first, but the government chose it over the other bidders because of its emphasis on cost controls and because it planned to subcontract work among many companies all over the country. The more of the shuttle’s budget could be spread across multiple congressional districts, the more smoothly future budget approvals would go.

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The hopeful tones in which Nixon announced to the nation how great the new shuttle was going to be, at the press conference where he unveiled the design in January 1972, now fill me with a combination of nostalgia, envy, pity, and faint embarrassment. It’s odd to think of a technology being 50 years old, because technology always thinks of itself as being brand new. “It will revolutionize transportation into near space,” he said, “by routinizing it.” He promised the space shuttle would “take the astronomical costs out of astronautics.”

If that sounds like bragging about cheaping out, rest assured it sounded that way to a lot of folks at NASA as well. Not long before that press conference, in the euphoric afterglow of the first moon landing, the prevailing proposal for the next step in human spaceflight had been much more ambitious: an orbiting space station with a reusable launch vehicle to service it, a lunar base, and a crewed mission to Mars. The plan was well thought out, achievable, and massively expensive. The White House directed NASA to present Nixon with some more affordable choices, and of those, Nixon chose the very cheapest. No Mars transport, no orbiting space station—just the shuttles.

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This is the moment when space policy in this country changed from the “we choose to go to the moon” era to the “this is all we can afford right now” era—the space shuttle era. Space historian John Logsdon describes this moment in human spaceflight as a turn from exploration to exploitation: We went to the moon in order to discover a new world (ostensibly—there was also the whole Cold War thing, though that exigency had mostly died out by the time American boots actually hit the moon’s surface). But at the end of Apollo we needed to justify the expense of spaceflight by implying it would be good for business and could somehow pay for itself, or even be profitable. There is always an implication that at some point in the future maybe we’ll be able to afford another Apollo-style mission—for exploration, for science, for all mankind—someday, but not right now. But there have been plenty of times in the intervening decades when the nation has been flush. And we have never swung back toward exploration.

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In the summer 1972, while one era of spaceflight was ending and another beginning, a chess match between Soviet world champion Boris Spassky and American Bobby Fischer was held in Reykjavik. A photograph of a 9-year-old Vietnamese girl burned by napalm appeared on the front page of the New York Times. The Summer Olympics began in Munich. George McGovern accepted his party’s nomination as presidential candidate. Is it strange that some of these events feel like more than 50 years ago and some feel like far less?

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Also in the summer of 1972, I was born in Boston to a young couple who, I’ve been told, had met watching an obscure TV show. Neither owned their own TV, but both were interested in a little-watched series that played out an idealized version of what the future could be: men and women of many races working together on peaceful missions, living together for years on the starship Enterprise. My parents, the story goes, had gotten into the habit of going to the home of a mutual friend every week to watch, and though they came from different religions and had different interests, they became a couple.

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By the time I was born, Star Trek had been canceled, the Enterprise grounded, which feels like a metaphor for something.

One section of Space Shuttle: America’s Wings to the Future that I’ve always remembered, even when it’s been years since I took my battered old copy off the shelf, documents a series of flight trials that had recently been conducted on a first, engineless space shuttle orbiter: Iit was carried on the back of a 747 and released, then flown as a glider to land on the runway. A detailed description of the shuttle’s terrible lift-to-drag ratio ends breathlessly: “It is true that if you could throw a dead body out at 10,000 feet the orbiter would reach the ground first.” Why, I wondered even as a child, a dead body? Why not a brick? A paperweight?

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That first shuttle was named Enterprise, after the ship on Star Trek. NASA’s plan had been to install engines in Enterprise and include it as part of the shuttle fleet, but changes in design made it more efficient to construct the next orbiter, Challenger, around an existing airframe (the skeletal structure of a flying machine, minus the engine). Enterprise has lived out the rest of its life as a museum exhibit.

Previous space projects had been given grand, inspiring names taken from mythology: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo. NASA leaders submitted a list of possible names for the space shuttle project to the White House: Pegasus, Hermes, Astroplane, Skylark. Nixon rejected all of these and kept calling it the space shuttle. I suspect he feared the big, inspiring names would sound to his critics like large amounts of money, and that using a name reminiscent of a van that takes you from the airport terminal to the parking lot would imply a more level-headed era of spending.

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In the summer of 1972, the International Time Bureau for the first time added a leap second to try to resolve a difference between International Atomic Time and the less-precise solar time. Another extra second would be added in December, making 1972 the longest year in modern history. It will likely remain so.

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A few months later, in the fall of 1972, Nixon was re-elected in the biggest landslide in American history.

The story I’ve held onto of how my parents met turns out not to be entirely true. The last time I asked my father about it, he told me that he and my mother did in fact watch Star Trek at the home of a mutual friend, but that that wasn’t how they had met. It’s been hard to let go of the story I grew up with because it felt so right to me as an origin myth. Two people with little in common, huddled in front the saturated colors of a bright tube television in a threadbare graduate student apartment, paperback books and dying spider plants in macrame holders, the theremin-inflected theme song on tinny speakers. To seek out new life and new civilizations. Two dissimilar people brought together by a shared vision of a for-all-mankind peaceful future in space. Sometimes I still repeat this story, out of habit from having told it for so long. I’ve become so accustomed to it, and maybe it’s close enough to being true.

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Like many space fans of my generation, I regret the decisions made in 1972 to shelve the dream of Mars, but I also dearly love the space shuttle, the only spacecraft I have ever known. I was fortunate enough to see the space shuttle launch in person four times; I got to meet people who helped design it, maintain it and launch it, people who have flown it themselves, and family members of people who have died on it. It was a compromise and a kludge, sure, but it was also a beautiful space plane, and the things it did were important and awe-inspiring.

In August, the week I turn 50, NASA has scheduled the first launch attempt for its newest rocket, the first capable of going to the moon since Apollo. “Space Launch System” is a name maybe even more boring than “space shuttle,” but the crewed moon project that will constitute its first missions has been given the pleasing name Artemis: twin sister to Apollo.

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I’ve been grumbling about SLS for years, just as most space fans I know do. I have insulted SLS many times, calling it not so much a space vehicle as a space-vehicle-shaped excuse for politicians to avoid responsibility for having no space program at all. (No one wants to be the leader who canceled the future, so lawmakers tend to keep big space projects limping along rather than putting them out of their misery). Few space insiders would dispute any of this slander, and yet—just as with shuttle in my childhood—it’s what we have now. And as with shuttle, I suspect that after feeling Artemis’s rumble in my chest, I will come to love it. One day not long from now, an Artemis crew will send back video from the moon, where no one has been since before I was born, and in moments like that, we will forget that it was a compromise and a kludge, and Artemis will be the most beautiful thing in the sky.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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