Who Invented the Space Shuttle?

Who Invented the Space Shuttle?

The question of who invented the space shuttle is a complicated one. The simplest answer is NASA. The actual answer is a bit more complex. The shuttle was too large to be invented by one person. And its design was deeply influenced by a complex set of financial, technical, and political considerations.

Space Shuttle Enterprise on Display

Space Shuttle Enterprise on Display, Photo by Imma_Thai

NASA began developing the shuttle in 1968 in an effort to bring down the high cost of getting into space. To understand the problem, imagine this scenario:

Your family wants to take a month-long trip across America, from coast to coast and everywhere in between. So you purchase a large recreational vehicle (RV), outfit it with everything you need for a month away from home, and you go. Four weeks later, you return home and drive the RV to a junkyard where it is crushed as scrap metal. For your next summer vacation, you buy a brand new RV.

You wouldn't be going on very many vacations, would you? Even with billions of dollars, NASA had a hard time affording many trips into space because everything it flew was thrown away or put in a museum.A reusable shuttle would solve that problem. Or so NASA thought.

Space Shuttle Concepts

Space Shuttle Concepts, Photo Courtesy of NASA

The space agency began to do studies, with contractors such as Lockheed Martin and North American Rockwell (later Rockwell International) developing concepts. The initial space shuttle designs were ambitious. Rockwell proposed a fully reusable manned first stage the size of a Boeing 747. On top of it would be a smaller space shuttle orbiter. The first stage would boost the orbiter to a high altitude before flying back for reuse. The orbiter would fly the rest of the way into space and land on a conventional runway once its mission was completed.

That plan proved to be too ambitious technically, financially, and politically. NASA faced deep cuts in its budget in the early 1970s, so it downsized the program. What emerged is the space shuttle system we know today -- an orbiter the size of a DC-9 aircraft, two reusable solid rocket boosters, and an expendable external fuel tank. The 60 by 15 foot cargo bay was a compromise to obtain the political support of the U.S. Air Force, which planned to launch large satellites from the shuttle.

Although NASA invented the space shuttle, the elements of the system were built by private companies. The orbiters were constructed by Rockwell International, the solid rocket boosters by Morton Thiokol, and the expendable tanks by Martin Marietta.

NASA promised that a small fleet of orbiters could eventually fly 50 missions per year, meaning a liftoff roughly once per week. However, the flight rate never rose above nine missions in a single year. The space shuttle was too delicate to fly like an airplane. Preparing, launching, and refurbishing it cost far more than anyone anticipated. Thousands of workers were required, driving up expenses.

By 2010, the cost of each space shuttle flight averaged $775 million. Costs for the entire shuttle program totaled $113.7 billion unadjusted for inflation. This was a far cry from the inexpensive, routine access to space that NASA promised in the 1970s. Despite the agency's best efforts, it couldn't reach the goal it set out for itself.

Link for Who Invented the Space Shuttle?

NASA Space Shuttle website


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