Farewell to American Manned Space Operations

Yet another chapter in U.S. technical excellence has closed.


Final decent of Atlantis into darkness

What have we lost? What have we accomplished?  What will we do?

This last flight of the Atlantis provides a reason to review the melancholy  history of one of our greatest achievements.

Go to Infrastructure-1,  Saturn-Apollo
Go to Infrastructure-2 ,  Space Transportation System and the ISS
Go to What’s Next,   trying to make sense of this.
Go to Infrastructure-0,   X-program space planes



The 7 original Mercury Astronauts

Timeline 1959-1972: Man-In-Space, Infrastructure-1.  The U.S. Man-In- Space program started in 1959 with Project Mercury leading to the selection of the first 7 U.S. astronauts.


Launch of John Glenn orbital mission

Alan Shepard was the first American to ride a rocket (on suborbital mission MR-3).  John Glenn (MA-6) rode an Atlas ICBM into orbit.  At least 10 Mercury capsules were built and 6 missions launched (1961 May05 – 1963 May15).  Mercury was replaced with 10 misisons of the 2-man Gemini capsule, 1965 Mar23 – 1966 Nov11-15. Gemini tested capabilities needed for the final lunar landing phase of the program.

The unused Mercury and Gemini capsules went to technical taxidermists who mounted them to display in all kinds of museums.


Saturn 5 launches Apollo 11 to the moon.


Apollo-15 1971 lunar orbit

The Apollo moon program (1961-1972) was given political priority by Pres Kennedy, 1961 May25, although the concept of a lunar lander project had been approved in 1959.

The first Saturn/Apollo launch, SA-3, testing a mockup capsule,  was on 1962 Nov16.


1971 image of Apollo 14 Astronaut

Apollo 11 (SA-506), 1969 Jul16-24, was the first of our 6 landings.  The last lunar mission was Apollo-17 1972 Dec07-19.

The last Saturn V was launched 1973 May14, when a smaller 2 stage version carried the Skylab station to orbit.


Skylab station launched by Saturn V 1973, final crew launched 1974, Apollo on smaller IB launchers

Timeline 1973-1975:    Skylab (1973 May14-1979 Jul11) was a serious scientific space station. The Apollo lunar solar observatory that had been mothballed when the Lunar landings were stopped, became one of the main instruments installed.


Skylab from Apollo 1973 3rd mission

Skylab had 3 manned missions during its  10 active months.

To be or not to be?  That was the real question, The Skylab team had uses for all the remaining Saturn launchers, and had plans extending deep into the Space Shuttle days for developing a much larger facility that might even have been in use today.

Shuttle program delays kept it from providing Skylab with its necessary orbit boost. Since it would have re-entered in an uncontrolled way, it was de-orbited in 1979 Jul11.


Soyuz-19 from Apollo “18” 1975 Jul18

1975 Jul15 was the last launch of the Saturn/Apollo program. This was for a diplomatic rendezvous with the Soviet Soyuz-19.  The rocket was a 1B similar to those that launched the Skylab crew.

At the end of 1975, there were 2 fully functional Saturn V launchers on hand, and an unknown number of Saturn IB and Apollo modules.  These were “abandoned in place” and the drawing set was broken up and sent, in pieces, to safe repositories all around the U.S., whereabouts currently unknown.   Some of the spare Pratt-Whitney F2 liquid hydrogen engines made it to various museums to serve as door stops and outdoor art.

The rusted Saturn V pieces were gathered up sometime in the 1980s and sent to expert technical taxidermists.  One might call them technical morticians, since the idea was to make these dead pieces look pretty.  The dysfunctional parts were assembled into some of the most spectacular, awe-inspiring historical monuments in the history of man.  Go to the one at Cape Canaveral and see for yourself.  Thus ended Infrastructure 1.

Hearsay:  in late 1978 or 79, a knowledgeable aerospace engineer told me that we had invested an unofficial $100,000,000,000 (100 US billion or 100 thousand million) in the development of the Saturn rockets and the Apollo capsules.  It is as though we trashed all this and started up new concept line.  Something like this happened in the Soviet Union during the late 1960’s when the N1 (Saturn V competitor) was developed too rapidly and dropped for competing system after 3 explosions.  BTW, It looks like NASA politics was no gentler than Soviet politics, the final word on this historic, nasty infighting is yet to be written.



Discovery ready to go

Timeline 1981-2011:  The space shuttle development and operation is the setting of Infrastructure-2.


Endeavour at liftoff

A true space plane was authorized in 1968, the Integrated Launch and Recovery Vehicle.  Pres Nixon recommended and Congress authorized the design in 1972.

The Shuttle was sold on at least 4 basic points, which form the source of problems Skylab and Saturn/Apollo team faced.

  • Enhanced launch schedule. Original sales pitch:  50 launch/yr, later 12/yr
  • Greatly reduced cost for launches
  • Massively safer launch and flight operations
  • U.S.A.F. access for top secret missions.

The Space Transport System (STS) did not live up to its selling points very well.

STS_tblPrimary failure – The launch schedule    In the 30 year (1981-2011) timeline, the shuttle was launched 135 times.  Overall,  4.5 launches per year.  8 launches occurred for only 2 years, 1992 and 1997.  1985 had the all time record of 9, a success that led to much pain.


Challenger, STS-51, exploded on launch 1986 Jan28

Overconfidence Kills
In January 1986, Pres Reagan really wanted a launch for his State of the Union speech. Thiokol engineers (makers of the solid fuel boosters) vetoed it due to extreme cold at the launch site.

In this early period of his decline, Reagan’s handlers wanted a happy president for the speech.  They browbeat the NASA officials and Thiokol management into submission.  The Challenger launched next morning, 1986 Jan 28.   The flight lasted a tragic 72 seconds.

15 years later, things had gone so well that NASA managers stopped using physics and decided being hit by foam was a kind of pillow fight.  We lost Columbia (more below).

Second failure was in cost reductions   –  The development of the shuttle could serve as a classic example of bad planning management.  An engineering design fad,  Success Oriented Management (SOM), was adopted in the 1970s and used with the STS design.

SucssOrientMgnt_defThe Wikipedia reference is not good;  I have had little luck with finding a widely accepted definition for SOM.   Applied to the shuttle, SOM meant starting design at the nose of the craft and designing inch-by-inch to the tail, never looking back at previous design assumptions. 

In the end, you have an inexpensive design that is perfect.  At least one of the last two clauses  is correct.

Massive cost overruns happened to the shuttle because SOM is unrealistic.

Cost reductions, with inexperienced people.
Launch costs were not as low as envisioned during the sales pitch.  Tasks are lot easier before you do something, and the people figured that they had the expertize, this brand new system, radical in design at every point, would not need a prototype development phase.  In fact much of the knowledge in the lunar program had been lost to the “new team.”  They built a complex machine without adequate (“expensive”) testing and the shuttle had flaws in nearly every aspect.   They also underestimated the facility costs, overestimated the payload to be carried to orbit, and came up with the huge launch rate estimate.

The Shuttle was an engineering system under development.


Discovery at ISS 2006

The shuttle was a  pretty fine prototype device.  It is actually a monument to human endeavor.  Shuttle management did a good job of hiding this through early touting of their  “Space truck” as though the newly invented space ship was as robust as any 18 wheeler which has undergone multitudes of modifications and improvements. What senator could be blamed saying this was the opposite of perfect, it was a boondoggle?

Prototypes need continuous evaluation with corrections done every flight and to all ships in the fleet. We build cars using 120 years accumulated knowledge.  In the automotive fuel line industry where I worked, we supported new model releases with 500 to 5,000 prototype fuel lines.  Our beautiful shuttle program had 5 prototypes, total.   This should have been understood (and probably it was) but early strategy for program authorization was to bid for an inadequate budget, do what was necessary and ask forgiveness later;  they might never have gotten permission otherwise.

The tally
IncrementalCost_TxtTotal spent was about 175 G$ ($175,000,000,000). This works out about 1.3 G$ per actual launch. This is within a factor of 2 of a single day’s cost 5 years ago for our useless war in Iraq.  The incremental cost is about $55M/launch.  The inflation adjusted estimate amount originally in the original proposal was about $35 M, both estimates in current dollars.  This is about a 50% increase


Columbia, STS-107, 2003 Jan16-Feb1. Lost on reentry

Third Failure is Safety – The estimate was originally a possible failure in a thousand launches per failure-mode analysis, 0.1% fail chance.  Actual failure rate was about 1 every 50 shots, 2% failure rate.  People died with the Challenger launch because we fired the system when the climate was murderously wrong.  Columbia failed due to an original design mistake:  The shuttle was mounted on the vulnerable side of the rocket, not its top.  Engineers went around and around this point in the 1970’s.  Current designs for future manned systems (A) are mounted at the top, (B) mostly look a lot like enlarged Apollo capsules.

Rockets are terribly dangerous systems and the Shuttle has a great record.  NASA officials overreacted to criticism during our two disasters.

Fourth failure – the Air Force found the shuttle to be much too expensive for what it needed, and did not use it very often. This means the program did not attract the income projected which caused even greater issues at point 2, cost per launch.

So much for the down side.  The STS program produced a lot of really good things.

Science missions.


Hubble Space Telescope released 1990

Hubble Space Telescope (HST) was redesigned (overrunning costs) to allow it to be shuttle launched. At the time, this looked political.  Had it launched in something like a Delta IV Heavy Lift rocket, its optics flaws would have doomed it to failure.

The HST is the shuttle’s proudest moment.  Since placed it orbit, it has been serviced three times by a shuttle;  it stands as the one of the premier gems of astronomical science.  Its scientific output has been staggering.  There is no HST-based reason that it could not be serviced again – just political.


Some experiments released by Shuttles

Other accomplishments include three missions in the four NASA’s Great Observatory program came from the STS.  HST was one that needed human care to be a success, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory did not extend its antennae properly, a spacewalk fixed the problem. The Chandra X-ray Observatory was launched in 1999, without a hitch.

Although STS was not an optimal launcher and cheaper methods were available, the human presence meant that hugely expensive missions did not fail. It also provided in-space fixes:  the Solar Maximum launched 1980 needed the 1984 fix to allow it to work properly There are an array of other scientific programs, from Spacelab, to Magellan (Venus) and Gallio (Saturn) explorers.

My own assessment is that the Shuttle has been a valuable asset, whose real value becomes apparent only in hindsight to any of these projects.

International Space Station.


ISS in 2000

The ISS is the result of a decision by the NASA (U.S.), RSA (Russia), ESA (E.U.), JAXA (Japan) and CSA (Canada) to combine their separate space station plans, due to the staggering expenses involved. The U.S. and Russia signed a memorandum of agreement in 1992 June, with plans for the ISS starting the following year.

Russia launched the first segment (Zarya) in 1998 November, and the first US segment (Unity) was attached in 1998 December by an extra-vehicular excursion.  The second Russian module Zvezda (the only part of Mir-2 that had been built) was launched in 2000.  By the end of 2000, the ISS appeared as shown (right) and permanent habitation began.


ISS as of 2010 February

The resulting station could not have been assembled without the shuttle fleet, supported by many flights by Russian Proton and Soyuz rockets.

By  2010, the station was nearly complete, waiting for 2012 delivery of the primary Russion research module, Nauka.


Endeavour STS-134 at ISS 2011

After the final delivery, all signatories will have their own specially organized research sections. Total cost for this orbiting human treasure has varied between US$60 G and US$160  G, with a probable value of about $100,000,000,000.


What Next?

Pres Obama shut down the space shuttle programs and terminated the follow up developments. Museums across the country bid for these artifacts; call in the technical taxidermists again so the American Public can be proud of our (gone) accomplishments.  Now the question –  do we in the United States have any future in manned spaceflight?


Atlantis landing after STS-30

We threw away Infrastructure-1, worth at least the value of the current ISS.

We replaced it by Infrastructure-2, worth at least the same amount .  This month, we officially discarded most of that.  The last shuttle has landed and its unique capabilities are now denied us.  Forever.

I have found it hard to accept that even a politician could discard that much money, but  – part and parcel – that is the history of big technology in the U.S.

Currently, jingoists  claim is that American Private Enterprise will take over and boost us to new and even higher trajectories.  Pause while the trumpet blasts die down.   This says that private corporations will somehow invest the very huge sums of what would become Infrastructure-3.

click for list of our Space Exploration posts

We could explore this line of thought.  Pres Obama seems to have turned over all his trust to the yet-unproven SpaceX, Inc. and Ed Musk  … to be continued in later posts.

If we do not get a replacement booster within a short time, HST will stop and this historically productive instrument will shut down.  Forever.

It is interesting to hear folks casually talk about destroying ISS infrastructure by 2020 (merely 9 years from now) or maybe 8 years later.  9 or 17 yers is not enough to assure we, the human race, have gotten all that we can from the resource.   Once deorbited, the ISS, would be truly gone.  Forever.

My fear is that without the shuttle, all the good things that have come about will be gone, also, forever.

Update: 2011 May 02   The May 2nd Science Insider blog (from the American Association for the Advancement of Science) outlines more on the American decline in space capabilities.  This is an excellent overview of how, by 2020, our functioning Earth-observation satellites are slated to drop to about 1/4 of our 2012 capabilities.  Good information, though a downer if you grew up proud of what we  have accomplished.

Update: 2013 Jan 18 In the main body of this post, we ignored the very first Infrastructure that the U.S. terminated with ‘extreme prejudiced.’ probably because there are no readily available amounts to the dollars involved. Estimate? At least several billion U.S. dollars at then-current development, but probably no more than 20 billion US dollars when adjust to 2012.

Timeline 1947 – 1968:   X plane space plane development, from the X-1 that explored the transonic region to the X-15 hypersonic vehicle.  When canceled, this program was well on the way to developing a manned craft that would be able to reach low orbit. Click images for larger pictures.

X-1 with Mother plane

X-1 with Mother plane


X-15 with Mother plane

All these modules were dropped from a specially designed Mother plane, starting with a B-29 bomber to a B-52 carrier. Every single one of these craft was a working prototype test modules aimed at spaceflight.  None were finished items, none suitable for general purposes. Every X- craft was considered dangerous to the test pilots who flew them.

X-1 with work crew 1949

X-1 with work crew 1949

X-1: 1947-1958. This craft involved 5 different models built to successively pushed the supersonic envelope.

Chuck Yeager took the first model from its initial unpowered test drop through the first flight ever to exceed Mach-1.  (The Mach number is the ratio of the measured speed to the speed of sound at at sea level.)

The final unit was grounded due to deterioration of its internal mechanism.

X-15 with Pilot Scott Crossfield 1958

X-15 with Pilot Scott Crossfield 1958

X-15: 1959-1968. This is the most advanced manned hypersonic vehicle ever built.  13 pilots won Astronaut rating for making into officially designate ‘space;’ more than in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs combined. Neil Armstrong had a near death experience in the same craft shown here.

The X-15 was the final space craft in the X-1 development line, though there were next generation designs under discussion. These could have changed the way we went into space. One gets an intimation of the frustration this cancellation caused in the movie The Right Stuff  (Chuck Yeager played a bartender).  As with all space technology we have thrown away, surviving craft were sent to technical-taxidermists to be cleaned, stuffed and mounted;  all are awe inspiring displays in technical museums around the country.


Charles J. Armentrout, Ann Arbor
2011 July 24
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About LastTechAge

I am a physicist with years of work in fusion labs, industry labs, and teaching (physics and math). I have watched the tech scene, watched societal trends and am alarmed. My interest is to help us all improve or maintain that which we worked so hard to achieve.
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