Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Before the Shuttle

In the early days of the space program there were several dynamics that worked for and against a winged, reusable space vehicle. First, the space race itself put resources and focus on a moon landing. A winged, reusable vehicle, while studied extensively by NASA and the Air Force through the X-1, X-15, and lifting body programs was not in the immediate plans for the civilian space program. A winged, reusable spaceplane was the ultimate dream, but too far ahead of its time for NASA. This was especially true for an organization that’s main charge was to get to the moon. Capsule technology was the quickest and simplest way to achieve that task. This would, in the early days of the space program, leave the military as the chief evangelist, owner and operator of such a vehicle.

There would be other political and technical issues. Eisenhower’s motivation for creating NASA was due largely to creating an image that America would seek the civilian and peaceful use of space rather than a direct militarization of space. While in practice this was true, both the Soviet and the U.S. program pulled its astronauts from the ranks of the military, and both used rocket technology derived from military ICBMs. Despite the peaceful, public facing manned space programs of each country, neither had been deterred from planning for the military uses of space. The Cold War in space was fueled by Kennedy’s moon landing challenge, but Kennedy quickly backpedaled and sought cooperation for a joint effort with the Soviets. It would be too late, the space race was off and running and long with it a huge national effort that left the military scrambling for ways to use space for military purposes. Military uses of space would require different vehicles and orbiting platforms to dock the vehicles for extended stays. That would require the development of a unique craft with versatility, re-usability, and payload capacity as key characteristics. A military spaceplane would need to plan for a multitude of activities ranging from reconnaissance to perhaps serving as a space “bomber” to potentially conducting on-orbit missions to disable satellites. The vehicles used and planned by NASA to accomplish the moon landing were too expensive, too clumsy and did not offer the rapid turnaround required by the military. The very public NASA program also did not offer the military
the ability to operate with some level of secrecy.