We are in a time of solemn NASA anniversaries. On 27 January 1967, the Apollo 1 (AS-204) fire claimed the lives of astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. Their deaths slowed Apollo’s breakneck pace, helping to ensure the success of the lunar missions that followed.
On 1 February 2003, the Space Shuttle Orbiter Columbia, wounded at launch on 16 January by a chunk of ice-hardened foam from its External Tank (ET), broke apart during reentry, killing STS-107 astronauts Rick Husband, William McCool, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon. Their deaths led President George W. Bush to declare that the Space Shuttle Program would be ended as soon as the American, European, and Japanese segments of the International Space Station were completed. The Shuttle Program resumed with STS-114 (28 July-9 August 2005) and ended with mission STS-135 (8-21 July 2011).
I have not forgotten the crew of the Space Shuttle Orbiter Challenger, which broke apart just 72 seconds after launch on mission STS 51-L (28 January 1986); in fact, I write this commemoration because I have a question concerning Challenger even now, 28 years after that horrific fireball blossomed in the cold skies of Florida. I have asked myself this question many times. Now I ask here in the hope that I might receive a satisfactory answer.
Challenger‘s last crew comprised astronauts Francis “Dick” Scobee, Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. Their mission was the 25th of the Space Shuttle Program. By the time they flew, the Shuttle had already shown itself to be a finicky beast. Mission STS 51-L illustrates this as well as any; NASA had originally scheduled its launch for 22 January, and it was rescheduled, scrubbed, or held six times before it finally lifted off from Launch Pad 39-B.
After Challenger, NASA sought to “fix” the Shuttle and make it “safe.” It did this in three ways: it altered procedures and reset limits; it modified or eliminated hardware; and it abandoned many of the missions for which the Space Shuttle had, ostensibly, been built. The faulty Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) design that destroyed Challenger was modified. Nearly all planned satellite launch or repair missions went by the boards. The Manned Maneuvering Unit, which had never performed quite as well as hoped, was consigned to storage.
The Centaur G’ upper stage, long a political football, was cancelled. It had been meant to fly for the first time later in 1986. Those robotic planetary missions that could abandon the Shuttle’s payload bay moved to expendable rockets; those that could not – Galileo, Magellan, Ulysses – waited for years to depart Earth. The Department of Defense cancelled most of its planned Shuttle missions and abandoned plans to launch Shuttle Orbiters from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Launch and landing weather conditions became an obsession at Kennedy Space Center. Light blue jump suits gave way to bulky orange pressure suits.
Challenger also kicked off the messy Space Station redesign process. NASA unveiled its massive, 500-foot-wide Dual-Keel station design months after the accident, and it was instantly and loudly derided as unrealistic given the Space Shuttle’s revealed frailties. The Space Station shrank in size and capability with each new annual budget cycle and was almost cancelled outright in 1993.
All of this means that, after Challenger, we settled for a reduced space program. That fact leads (finally!) to my question, which is simply this: why?
We had it in our power to make the Space Shuttle better than it was before Challenger. Instead, we elected to prune back our dreams to fit its limitations.
Some efforts were made to turn Challenger to good. NASA, the U. S. Air Force, and their contractors conducted Advanced Launch System (ALS) studies beginning in 1987. ALS sought to supplement the Shuttle Orbiter’s 15-by-60-foot payload bay with heavy-lift rockets capable of launching larger and heavier cargoes into space. One ALS design, offered up by Hughes and Boeing, was called the Jarvis to commemorate STS 51-L Mission Specialist (and Hughes employee) Gregory Jarvis.
NASA also put forward plans to replace the Orbiter’s fragile, makeshift booster system. These would have done away with its twin reusable SRBs, which could not be turned off once ignited, and its throw-away ET which, despite being the lightest structure in the Shuttle stack, formed the backbone that held the entire system together.
When first proposed, the Shuttle was to have had a piloted, winged, liquid-propellant, fully reusable booster. Sturdy and at least as large as a jumbo jet, it would have toted the smaller Orbiter most of the way to space. After Orbiter release, two astronauts in the Booster cockpit would have flown their craft to a runway at the Shuttle launch site. The Orbiter, meanwhile, would have ignited rocket motors to complete its climb to orbit.
Technological advances meant that, by the late 1980s, a winged liquid-propellant booster no longer required a crew; automated boosters might have launched piloted orbiters to space. There were even proposals to fully automate the Space Shuttle Orbiter, so that it could accomplish some missions – for example, Space Station resupply without crew rotation – with no astronauts on board.
There were, of course, plans put forward to replace the Space Shuttle entirely, and indeed one or more of those should have been adopted so that Columbia, the first Orbiter to reach space, would have been in comfortable retirement in a museum, not flying, in January 2003. Describing those plans is not, however, my purpose here. The Shuttle – and the NASA space program – might have grown, become greater, based on the lessons and sacrifices of Challenger. Instead, we let them be diminished. Why?