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The Space Shuttle Program - The Post-apollo Vision

nasa nixon station orbit

In the early 1960s NASA planners envisioned a space station program as the next step after Apollo. It was assumed that the United States would establish large space stations in orbit around Earth and possibly outposts on the moon. In fact, NASA hoped to put at least one twelve-person space station in Earth orbit by 1975. This would require a new type of reusable space plane to carry cargo and personnel to and from the station.

These grand plans did not mesh with the political, cultural, and technological realities of the times. By the late 1960s the nation was heavily engaged in the Vietnam War. Domestic unrest and social issues dominated the political agenda into the early 1970s. Richard Nixon was president of the United States from 1969 to 1974. According to historians, Nixon was not interested in pursuing any grand and expensive vision for space exploration. In a March 1970 statement on space policy Nixon noted, "We must build on the successes of the past, always reaching out for new achievements. But we must also recognize that many critical problems here on this planet make high priority demands on our attention and our resources" (T. A. Heppenheimer, "The Space Shuttle Decision: NASA's Search for a Reusable Space Vehicle," 1999, http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4221/ch9.htm.) NASA's budget was severely cut, and plans for space stations were put on hold.

NASA did not give up on the shuttle program. They began promoting the project as a transport business, rather than an exploratory adventure. NASA officials argued that a shuttle could haul government and commercial satellites into space in a cost-effective manner because it would be reusable. The shuttle astronauts could service and repair these satellites as needed. The shuttle was touted as an investment. It would make money from commercial customers and save the government money on launching satellites for weather, science, and military purposes.

The argument was successful. In 1971 NASA was given a $5 billion budget over a five-year period for development of a shuttle program. This was later increased to $5.5 billion. NASA assured the White House that each shuttle would be good for 100 flights and each flight would have an average cost of $7.7 million. The planners agreed that the shuttle program would have to operate about fifty missions a year to satisfy demand for satellite launches. It was expected that the shuttle program would be operational by the end of the decade.

Historians such as T. A. Heppenheimer in The Space Shuttle Decision (1999) suggest that President Nixon had strong political motives to approve the space shuttle program. A presidential election was coming up in 1972, and he was anxious to gain favor in states like Florida and Texas that would benefit from new NASA projects. Also, the Soviet Union had already put a space station (Salyut 1) in orbit during 1971. The last Apollo mission was scheduled for 1972. On January 5, 1972, President Nixon announced to the nation that NASA would build a new Space Transportation System (STS) based around a new vehicle called a space shuttle.

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