Things have changed since the first space shuttle flight 35 years ago, when optimism abounded about America’s place in the cosmos.
Cold War, Meet Space War
Shortly after the first flight of the space shuttle Columbia in 1981, U.S. News spoke to officials with NASA and military experience about how the new reusable space plane would revolutionize space flight, and pointed toward the possibility that the U.S. one day would build a fleet of such winged spacecraft.
That first shuttle launched exactly 35 years ago on Tuesday, and while expectations for the program were overoptimistic — and perhaps a bit foreboding about the future state of world affairs — it was a key step in the evolution of space travel. At the start of the 1980s, the shuttle was hailed for its potential to help the Pentagon assert itself against the Soviet Union. But as the Cold War thawed, it enabled NASA to help build the International Space Station, where American and Russian astronauts now work together.
NASA retired the shuttle program in 2011 and is aiming for Mars as its next major goal for human space exploration. Here, U.S. News takes a look back at what the shuttle achieved and what hopes connected to it were off the mark, in light of the current state of play in space.
Space Is Militarized, Not Weaponized — Yet
“Military officials believe that late in [the 1980s a fleet of shuttles] will be needed to protect the nation from combat in outer space. They warn that the Soviets have tested ‘killer satellites’; the shuttle may be a key element in an American defense against such weapons.”
–U.S. News & World Report, April 27, 1981
The space race began as a veiled effort by the U.S. and the Soviet Union to show off their respective abilities to launch ballistic missiles, and fortunately this competition did not result in space warfare. But while there are no weapons in space, running a 21st-century military would be impossible without the help of satellites that locate targets, track vehicles and link communications around the world, says Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
Not only did the Pentagon consider the shuttle program a potential laboratory for a system of satellite laser weapons that could protect the U.S. from intercontinental ballistic missiles, it also saw it as a vehicle for bringing spy and navigation satellites into orbit.
But the department lost interest in such plans after the Challenger exploded in 1986, Pace says.
“The Department of Defense used unmanned rockets to launch military satellites after that,” he says. “But they still had military activities in space that are still classified.”
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty that led to joint space operations between the U.S. and Russia has been signed by more than 100 nations, which have agreed not to place weapons of mass destruction in Earth’s orbit and to explore other planets only for peaceful purposes.
The treaty does not, however, prohibit the placement of conventional weapons in Earth’s orbit.
“The Soviets and the U.S. were in process of testing satellite weapons but they never went very far,” says Pace, a former NASA official who worked with the shuttle program.
Attempts by the U.S. during the 1980s to create space weapons included the Strategic Defense Initiative — a system nicknamed “Star Wars” that aimed to destroy ballistic missiles using X-ray lasers but was later abandoned.
Russia has recently circled back to researching space weapons, having announced its work on a weapon to target and jam satellite communications. And China in 2007 used a missile to destroy one of its decommissioned weather satellites, though that satellite-killing technology is not very useful, Pace says.
“The problem with destroying satellites is that it creates a debris field that wipes out your satellites, too, so it is very counterproductive,” he says.
Meanwhile, a report to Congress last year from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said China’s recent space activities indicate it is developing armed “co-orbital” satellites that could target other space machinery, perhaps via an explosive charge, laser or even a robot arm.
“Once a co-orbital satellite is close enough to a target satellite, the co-orbital satellite can deploy its weapon to interfere with, disable, or destroy the target satellite,” the report states. “Co-orbital satellites also may intentionally crash into the target satellite.”
Earth’s Orbit Is Filthy
“Orbital positions for satellites over the earth are becoming crowded. Clark Covington, a planner for NASA, says the shuttle may be able to solve some of these problems.”
“Under development are wireless telephones that could be carried anywhere, and some engineers predict they will become routine options on new cars. Wrist, pocket or purse telephones would become possible … Television signals could be sent directly to the viewer from space.”–U.S. News & World Report, April 27, 1981
The successes of the space shuttle missions included repairing the Hubble Space Telescope and building the International Space Station, but it was too expensive to use the winged craft to carry satellites into orbit or move existing satellites on a regular basis. Estimates have put the cost of the 30-year space shuttle program in the range of $200 billion.
The space agency predicted the shuttle could fly up to 50 times every year, but unexpected maintenance and fuel expenses drove the average cost of a mission to around $1 billion, resulting in only a handful of shuttle launches per year, says Roger Launius, NASA’s former chief historian.
“The space shuttle was sold as a vehicle for satellite servicing, and they did some, including servicing the Hubble five times,” says Launius, who is now an associate director at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. “The shuttle was absolutely necessary for completing the space station. I don’t see how we could have retired the shuttle any sooner.”
Even without extra shuttle-based satellite payloads, NASA still has to keep a close eye on devices already up there, because Earth’s orbit remains crowded with debris that could damage them. In fact, the Air Force is tracking 23,000 objects in space today, Lt. Gen. Jay Raymond, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for operations, said recently during a meeting with reporters.
NASA also estimates there are approximately 500,000 objects in Earth orbit that are around the size of a marble or larger, up to 10 centimeters in diameter.
“We provide conjunction assessment and warning to make sure that nothing collides in space,” Raymond said. “We provide a warning across the world to keep that from happening.”
Of course, experts did correctly predict increased wireless technology, which no doubt has been aided by further satellite saturation — even though purse phones have not yet caught on.
NASA Needs Friends, and Frenemies
“The American public is going to get their money out of this baby. It will allow us in the ’80s and ’90s to do things we must for our defense and technology.” –astronaut John Young in 1981, per U.S. News & World Report
Space shuttle experiments and flights showed America’s strength, but the craft’s fixed-wing design was not as efficient as NASA had hoped and contributed to the high cost of maintenance between missions, Launius says. Engineers since the early days of NASA, inspired by science fiction like “Flash Gordon,” had a long-term goal of building a reusable space plane, but they did not foresee the difficulty of maintaining the shuttle’s wings in the face of elements like the extreme heat endured when returning from orbit.
“Every one of these shuttle missions was an experimental flight,” Launius says. “It achieved a lot of technical progress on spacecraft design and planning for missions.”
Including both a cargo bay and a crew section on the shuttle also added to the weight of the vehicle, so NASA since has realized “it makes more sense to specialize” when designing a spacecraft, Launius says. NASA now relies on booster rockets to send unmanned cargo vehicles into space, while the latest generation of manned space vehicles are simplified capsules that only include a crew section.
Other evidence of lessons learned can be seen in NASA’s new Orion capsule, which may look like the module from the Apollo missions to the moon or the Vostok 1 capsule that pioneering cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin rode into orbit, but is larger and outfitted with solar arrays to capture energy and better shield it against extreme heat. The agency is also developing a new rocket, dubbed the Space Launch System, that it promises will be more powerful than the Saturn series of boosters and able to carry the Orion craft into deep space, NASA spokeswoman Kathryn Hambleton says.
“The early missions for Orion and the SLS will be the first of many missions that will travel more than 40,000 miles beyond the moon to an area of space that is only about three to five days away from Earth, yet farther than the Apollo astronauts traveled,” Hambleton says.
The Orion craft are still being tested, however, so NASA often relies on Russian space agency Roscosmos to help it launch astronauts into space since the retirement of the space shuttle program in 2011. Private space companies are also developing capsules to ferry astronauts into orbit, such as the Dragon capsule being tested by SpaceX, which is scheduled to perform its first manned flight to the International Space Station in 2017.
Raymond said during a meeting with reporters recently the military relies very heavily on the growing commercial space industry, but “there’s also a core set of capabilities” the U.S. government needs to maintain, such as “the ability to command and control our forces” and “provide missile warning without fail.”
“We have to have space capabilities,” he said. “They fuel our American way of life and they fuel our American way of war. We have to make sure we can continue to do that.”
“Technologists are studying the possibility of mining on the moon or in the belt of asteroids to extract minerals and ores that are scarce on Earth.”
–U.S. News & World Report, April 27, 1981
NASA is planning missions to deep space but mining operations are still a long way off, and the most precious resource prospectors find is likely to be water, not rare minerals.
The European Space Agency became the first to land a probe on a comet in 2014, and recently announced plans to build an international village on the moon. Former NASA officials and astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin, have also advocated building a moon base, but the U.S. space agency is focused on other projects, Hambleton says.
President Barack Obama, for example, has challenged the agency to send a manned mission to Mars by the 2030s.
“NASA believes our journey to Mars is humanity’s next giant leap into our solar system,” Hambleton says. “We know that our international partners want to send humans to the lunar surface, and while we may participate in some level, our human spaceflight focus is on deep space, including to an asteroid and Mars.”
On that note, NASA in September is scheduled to launch the OSIRIS-REx mission to bring a piece back to Earth from the asteroid Bennu. NASA is also in the planning stages of a mission aimed at deflecting an asteroid and moving a boulder from it near the moon for sampling and study, .
And even though asteroid mining is years away from feasibility, startups such as Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources have staked their claims as two of the first businesses interested in space prospecting.
Yet advocates of a moon mission argue that going to an asteroid does not serve the higher purpose of preparing for a risky mission to Mars, which is 140 million miles from Earth. James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is among those who say it could be a prudent and more affordable step for manned space travel to build a base on the moon, which is a relatively mere 239,000 miles from Earth.
“It has been decades since the Apollo missions to the moon, so NASA no longer has staff with operational experience running missions that land on other planets,” Lewis says. “By going to the moon, you could get more valuable experience of living on another planet that you won’t get on a space station.”
It would be easier for space agencies and private companies to supply a base on the moon, and minerals there could be used to build structures instead of bringing all of the materials from Earth, Lewis says. What’s more, frozen water has been discovered on an asteroid and at the north pole of the moon, which would be a prized commodity that would cut the costs of supplying deep space missions.
“It’s unlikely that we’ll find precious ore on the moon — and if we did, it would probably be too expensive to bring it back to Earth,” Lewis says.
NASA’s Next Frontier
“In recognition of foreign efforts, backers of the shuttle insist that the U.S. must not drop behind in space work as it did after the Apollo moon-landing program.”
–U.S. News & World Report, April 27, 1981
“We’ll become a second-class nation if we continue to feel that science and space are luxuries.” –Sen. Harrison Schmitt, R-N.M., in 1981
The Nixon administration in the early 1970s decided to build the space shuttle as NASA’s next major step to follow the pioneering Apollo program. The space agency under the Obama administration is experiencing a similar moment by deciding how best to follow 30 years of shuttle missions, though some have criticized its current plans as either too ambitious or not interesting enough.
“The shuttle was a good idea, but we stuck with it for too long,” Lewis says. “The space station is also a good idea, but we need to ask if we are sticking with that for too long.”
During a hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology in March, lawmakers promised to support NASA’s funding needs for space exploration but added that the agency needs to develop a specific road map for its goals. Rep. Donna Edwards, a Maryland Democrat and member of the committee, says she is among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who are “unenthusiastic” about NASA’s asteroid-related plans, but adds that the agency’s multiple missions “don’t need to exclude each other.”
“It’s very important for NASA to provide more concrete details” about how it wants to achieve its goals for human exploration, she says.
“Then you can get the Congress and policymakers focused on what it would cost, how much time it would take and what other technology we need to invest in,” she says. “Right now it’s hard to know what questions to ask.”
Edwards says it’s “understandable” to be optimistic about scientific missions in which the outcome is uncertain — a feeling she remembers from her work as a systems engineer at Lockheed Martin, when she assisted NASA with the Spacelab reusable laboratory that was carried on certain space shuttle flights.
“I was completely enthused to be in that environment and remembered watching a black-and-white broadcast of the moon landing when I was a kid,” she says.
A more important resource than funding for a mission to Mars or any future endeavor by NASA would be political will, says Edwards, echoing a sentiment voiced by former NASA astronauts, including Mark Kelly.
There is no concrete estimate for how much a mission to Mars will cost, she says, adding that if the agency puts together a solid plan for its goals, “the American public would be incredibly enthusiastic,” and it would ensure “the U.S. remains in the driver’s seat” of human space exploration.
More on Space:
— The Dividends the Space Shuttle Will Pay
— Russia’s Space Triumph and What it Means
— Scott Kelly’s Picturesque Year in Space
— Recalling the Challenger
— Photos: A Key Day in the Space Race
Tom Risen is a technology and business reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
GRAPHIC: Picture, AP
Picture, Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Picture, Ben Smegelsky/NASA/AP
Picture, John Raoux/AP