Soaring toward Von Braun's vision
The International Space Station has given the space shuttle program a clear mission at last
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- It is a 10-story,
fire-belching confluence of fragile technology, brute force, grandiose schemes and political reality. NASA's Space Transportation System is, in so many ways, the horse that was designed by committee. There was a time when NASA's
shuttle-herders would have been slightly embarrassed about this. But these days, they'll walk a mile to drone on about their delightful dromedaries.
You see, at the century-mission mark, the Bedouins of Boosterland are facing a long journey across some uncharted territory. They can only hope their camels are good for the long haul, because the Next Big Thing in human spaceflight is, thus far, little more than a mirage.
More on that in a moment. First a little history.
Rocket scientist Werner Von Braun and one of his wheeled space station concepts from 1952
Like so much of what NASA has accomplished in the realm of piloted space flight, the shuttle concept was rooted in the brilliant vision of Werner Von Braun. The man who designed and built the V-bombs that terrorized Londoners in World War II laid it all out in a seminal series of illustrated articles in Collier's Magazine in 1952. (By that time, he and his Peenemude pals were ensconced in Alabama -- helping the good guys try to terrorize the Soviets.)
It should come as no surprise the father of the Saturn 5 rocket was thinking big. Von Braun envisioned huge spacecraft sending legions of humans to the moon and to Mars. The craft would be assembled at huge wheel-shaped space stations orbiting the Earth (Clarke and Kubrick latched on to this idea in "2001: A Space Odyssey").
While Von Braun did not envision the space station as a Pan Am terminal, he did see the need for a fleet of piloted space cargo carriers to ferry up supplies and crews for the outpost itself -- and for the long missions that would begin there.
Von Braun is God inside the halls of NASA. So when it came time to answer the "What Next" question -- literally as the Apollo moonwalkers were getting lunar grit on their suits -- Von Braun's apostles laid out their pie-in-the-sky plan. Then NASA administrator Thomas Paine told the Nixon White House it was time to go to Mars -- on nuclear powered rockets -- that would stop at huge space bases along the way. Wow.
And, oh yes, let's not forget, we will need a fleet of space shuttles to offer easy, inexpensive access to the
Paine got mugged by the Nixonistes. The man in the Oval Office didn't really get that space thang -- and besides, the pet project of any Kennedy was immediately suspect, if not reviled, by association. Nevertheless, Nixon understood Tip O'Neil's maxim that all politics is local, and the aerospace industry in Nixon's native California needed some work. Besides, no legacy-minded chief executive would want to go down in history as the president that pulled the plug on Americans in space -- even if it was Kennedy's baby.
NASA tried to settle for the shuttle/station combination, but the timing was terrible. Congress was paying the piper for Vietnam. So by 1970, all that remained of Von Braun's grand, three-pillared scheme for putting footprints on Mars -- was the shuttle.
The shuttle had an important ally that kept it alive through a series of budgetary battles. The Air Force wanted a cheaper way to launch military and spy satellites. NASA bent over backwards to please their prospective Pentagon client: designing a vehicle that would meet military specifications for cargo weight, size and performance -- assuming this unholy alliance with the military would make the space agency bullet-proof from White House and Capitol Hill fire.
But it didn't. The shuttle was nickeled and dimed -- nearly to death. NASA had envisioned a fully-reusable piggy-back concept in which the orbiter would ride a portion of the way to space on the back of another piloted rocket whose crew would glide back to Earth after its fuel tanks were dry. But the White House dropped the hammer on the development budget -- and NASA went to plan B: solid rocket boosters. Up-front savings were traded for higher ongoing cost.
Despite compromises, the shuttle was pitched and designed as a reliable, cost-effective space truck that could handle a military and a commercial role. It would be like a space airliner, they claimed, dispatched every two weeks to bring satellites to and from low Earth orbit. And it would be able to pay for itself. During the first 24 missions, NASA was hell-bent to deliver on that absurd promise.
The explosion of Challenger in 1986 put an end to dreams of the shuttle's commercial viability
But when Challenger went up in smoke, so did the myth that the shuttle would ever be a commercially viable -- much less "operational" -- space vehicle. In fact, in the wake of the disaster, commercial and military satellites were taken off the shuttle manifest.
So once again, NASA found itself wondering: "What next?"
Sure, there were space telescopes to be deployed, fixed and serviced ... interplanetary probes to send on their way. There were protein crystals to grow ... rodents and insects to torment. And, of course, there was a septuagenarian space hero to fly. It wasn't a bad run. Every now and then, it was downright interesting. But it wasn't exactly what Von Braun envisioned.
And then came the International Space Station -- and an unlikely partnership with the Russians. In July of 1995, during the 100th piloted U.S. spaceflight, the first shuttle (Atlantis) docked at Space Station Mir, ushering in a whole new era for the space shuttle. Suddenly the Space Transportation System had an overarching mission that made some sense.
On this, the 100th shuttle mission, the orbiter Discovery will rendezvous with the International Space Station, attach some key pieces, support four spacewalks and leave some equipment and supplies behind. It's the kind of mission where the space shuttle really shines. It's Manifest Destiny, you might say.
A few years ago, before all the space station fun began, the Conventional Wisdom went something like this: The shuttle fleet would be retired and replaced with a new generation of fully-reusable single-stage-to-orbit vehicles before it would be necessary to pay for wholesale improvements to the current fleet. But that was then.
Artist's concept of the X-33, NASA's proposed replacement for the shuttle
And this is now: The X-33 that was supposed to pave the way to a Shuttle-2 is delaminated and derailed -- perhaps for good.
So now NASA wants to spend billions to upgrade the shuttle fleet -- replacing old avionics and toxic hydrazine-burning auxiliary power units and, perhaps, trading the solid rocket boosters for reusable "fly back" chemical rockets.
All of this designed to keep the four-orbiter fleet flying safely for perhaps another 20 years. A 40-year shuttle run? That's not what NASA envisioned when the shuttle was born. But the orbiter's aluminum airframe is certified for 100 flights. Discovery is now the most traveled in the fleet
-- and this is only her 28th flight. You do the math.
The space shuttle may yet turn Von Braun's vision into reality, but the journey has been a lot longer than most would have predicted back in 1952. Maybe a camel is just what NASA needs right now.
Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien is a regular columnist for CNN.com.
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