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IV. SCOT and the Shuttle’s Wings

So how do examples of SCOT such as Vincenti’s and Schatzberg’s explain why the Shuttle has wings? This section will go beyond the four social-political goals of the Shuttle to look at some other possible explanations. Was the reusable Shuttle viewed as an extension of atmospheric flight by the engineers who designed it? Do comparisons between U.S. and Soviet/Russian styles of aerospace technology development clarify why NASA decided to build a completely new system, effectively disregarding the rocket and spacecraft systems that performed so well on the earlier Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs? Would another configuration have worked? The answer to this question entails some fundamental observations about NASA’s culture and its effect on the development of space technology.

Since the early twentieth century, aeronautical engineers have dreamed of developing an airplane that could fly into Earth orbit by taking off and landing horizontally on a runway. The German rocketeer Max Valier had simply suggested adding rockets under the wings of conventional airplanes such as the Junkers G-23 transport. Valier was conducting research on rocket-propelled gliders in the years leading to his accidental death in 1930 (Hallion, 1983, pp. 523–524).

Eugen Sanger, whom some have called the “father of the reusable space transporter,” designed a “Silver Bird” rocket-plane with wings as early as 1933. Sanger was trained as an aeronautical engineer and got his inspiration from similar work done by Franz von Hoeff, Valier, and other earlier European figures (Sanger-Bredt, pp. 167–170). Irene Sanger-Bredt, his colleague and wife, wonders explicitly why “manned spaceflight did not evolve gradually and consistently from aviation” (Sanger-Bredt, p. 167). She concludes that the main factor pushing the development of ballistic capsules was the World War II legacy of military missiles. Sanger also contends that her husband and other designers were certainly aware of the ballistic capsule approaches that Robert Goddard, Hermann Oberth, and Konstantin Tsiolkovski, the three giants of early rocketry, envisioned. But certainly if it were ever possible to create a viable space plane that could take off and land like a conventional airplane and go into Earth orbit, this could be much more economical, and thus Sanger took that line5 (Sanger-Bredt, pp. 166–167).

During World War II, the Germans developed the V-2 rocket and worked on winged missiles such as A-9, A-10, and A-4. Sanger took note of these developments and continued to refine his Silver Bird concept accordingly after World War II (Smith, pp. 1–2).

Despite the ballistic rockets developed by the military during World War II, many leading aerospace figures continued to envision winged space vehicles. In 1951, for example, Wernher von Braun wrote of winged rockets (Von Braun in Marberger, pp. 22–23). The next year, Collier’s magazine published a well-known series of articles by von Braun that proposed a space station tended to by a three-stage rocket, the third stage being a winged glider for crew reentry (Smith, p. 6). Then the Air Force funded the Bell Aircraft Company, under the leadership of former German military rocket experts Walter Dornberger and Krafft Ehricke, to do some limited research on a piloted bomber-missile called Bomi that entailed a two-stage vehicle where both stages had delta wings (Jenkins, pp. 11–12; Peebles, November 1979, pp. 435–436). In the 1960s, the Air Force sponsored a relatively short-lived program called DynaSoar (for dynamic soaring) which featured a winged, piloted vehicle that would be launched into Earth orbit aboard a Titan launcher.

Thus, when it came time to design the Shuttle, there was a history of people designing winged vehicles to go into orbit. Faget wanted a straight-winged vehicle that was somewhat similar to Bomi (Jenkins, p. 67). This seemed to be a natural technological progression, despite the obvious fact that wings serve no purpose in airless space.

On the other hand, Faget had designed the Mercury ballistic vehicles. Reed also claims that in 1969, Faget had promoted a parachute system for a larger Gemini ballistic capsule until he became convinced that horizontal landings were superior for the Shuttle; he then switched firmly to the straight-winged design (Reed, p. 142).

Another way to look at this question of why designers endowed the Shuttle with wings is to examine the “technological style” of the U.S. space program, especially vis-à-vis our Soviet rivals during the late 1960s and early 1970s (Hughes in Bijker, Hughes, and Pinch, p. 70). Generally speaking, the Soviets opted for rugged, reliable, simple technologies that worked. To go faster, further, or higher, they tended to rig together or modify existing rockets instead of developing whole new systems from scratch. This incremental, brute-force approach to engineering technology contrasted sharply with the U.S. emphasis on invention, innovation, and sophistication in technology. The reasons for these different approaches lie in social, political, economic, and cultural mores that are largely beyond the scope of this paper but include such things as the co-optation of technology for propaganda purposes in the Soviet Union and the emphasis on individual achievement and the free-market economy in the United States.

The Soviet emphasis on functionality versus sophistication is illustrated in such examples as the Soviets’ use of colored pencils in orbit, while the U.S. went to considerable effort and expense to design a special pressurized pen that would write in microgravity.6 Since the 1960s, the Soviets/Russians have made only relatively minor changes to their Soyuz space capsule and Vostok rocket (Clark, passim and p. 64; N. Johnson, p. 99; Gauthier, p. 24; Neal et al., p. 64).

Thus, in keeping with the U.S. “technological style,” it may be useful to think about whether NASA made a specific effort to develop, as President Nixon called it, an “entirely new type of space transportation system”7 (Logsdon 1978, p. 14) instead of modifying proven technology. NASA had developed a culture in which employees embraced risk so that they could anticipate and prevent technological failures (McCurdy, pp. 64–65). This "frontier culture" led NASA employees to adapt technologies in new ways, but also to design new tools to accomplish difficult tasks (McCurdy, p. 77). Although one NASA professional said that “[w]e didn’t try to invent new technologies for the sake of inventing new technologies” (McCurdy, p. 76), in the case of Shuttle development, it is certainly possible that designers had this “technological style” embedded in their training enough that at least some designers subconsciously wanted to create something new. As one anonymous Administration official at the time remarked, “NASA’s a high-technology agency—[then-NASA Administrator James] Fletcher could curb but he couldn’t eradicate the desire to go for a complicated new technology ‘because it’s there’” (Barfield, p. 1295).

At a political level, the creation of an exciting new space vehicle would have been reason enough for NASA to push for Shuttle development at a time when the Agency’s budget faced severe future cutbacks. A new space program also meant jobs in industry, and thus votes during the upcoming November 1972 presidential election. The Nixon Administration was fully cognizant of the key electoral votes that California, a bastion of the aerospace industry, held (Barfield, pp. 1289, 1294). While such a political analysis speaks mostly to garnering support for the Shuttle program as a whole, if the Shuttle had been largely an adaptation of earlier spacecraft programs, it would have been more difficult for the Administration to sell the program politically.

Overall, such arguments about NASA’s culture of high technology and the U.S. “technological style” of invention are germane to the Shuttle’s winged configuration because if not for these factors, NASA might have realized another wingless way to achieve its goals. Again, why discard the proven technology of the Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury programs?

Indeed, some important people in the U.S. space community saw the value of adapting existing technology. During the critical period of decision, the Office of Science and Technology in the White House and a special PSAC panel both favored an evolutionary approach to Shuttle development based on a reusable version of the Apollo or Gemini spacecraft and an ELV (Logsdon 1978, p. 24; Barfield, p. 1289). In 1969, NASA’s Space Shuttle Task Group looked at putting a reusable orbiter atop an existing ELV such as a Titan III or Saturn 1B rocket, but instead decided to try for a fully reusable, two-stage-to-orbit configuration, which proved to be too difficult (Jenkins, p. 49). As early as the mid-1960s, while the Apollo program was gearing up, some people at NASA were far-sighted enough to initiate the Apollo applications program, which was to use existing Apollo spacecraft and rockets for future human spaceflight efforts or other technological “spin-offs” (Peebles, December 1979, p. 489; Dethloff, p. 280), but this effort never went too far for various reasons.

It is important to consider that these arguments about NASA’s culture and the U.S. “technological style” of innovation and invention do not necessarily contradict the notion of aerospace designers at the time who wanted, even subconsciously, to build a space plane with wings. While NASA had a reputation as a high technology agency, its engineers were largely schooled in aeronautics because in the late 1960s and early 1970s, spacecraft were barely a decade old. Thus, there was an urge to develop new technologies for space, but it may well be that the designers’ thinking was still limited by what many of them knew best, namely aeronautics.

Robert Truax, a former naval officer with considerable rocketry experience and a somewhat radical reputation, echoes this theme of constricted thinking in a slightly different way. In a brief 1970 article, he argues that NASA was preoccupied with finding an “elegant” solution despite the viability of other options. Focusing on the linked goals of reusability and cost, Truax contends that Apollo or Gemini ballistic capsules would work fine and would save money by being simpler. He explains this by noting that ballistic capsules have lower overall heating rates due to shorter heating times than either lifting bodies or winged planes, so relatively minor modifications in the capsules’ heat shields could be made to make them less expensive or reusable. Truax dismisses another purported “advantage” that vehicles with higher lift-to-drag ratios such as winged planes and lifting bodies enjoy, namely the larger “footprint” or selection of a larger number of landing sites from a particular deorbit, by noting that most of Earth’s surface is water. Unlike lifting bodies or winged airplanes, ballistic capsules can splash down in water or be rigged to land, even in poor weather, with parachutes on ground that is not a smooth runway. One minor disadvantage of ballistic capsules is the high G forces that they experience upon reentry, but Truax discounts this as only a factor if relatively frail people were to go into orbit. He also dismisses a flyback booster that would be used in a two-stage-to-orbit, fully reusable scheme as an excessively complicated solution that would save little money or time. Truax concludes by noting that the only advantage of a reusable flyback booster is its graceful sophistication over the splashdown method, but he wonders “how much are we willing to pay for elegance” (Truax, pp. 22–23).

Truax’s argument for ballistic capsules is itself elegant in its articulate brevity. Yet one important flaw exists: ballistic capsules would have been problematic to design with sufficient cargo capacity. Nevertheless, Truax’s analysis brings out the broader point that NASA may have defined its options in too limited a manner. E. P. Smith points out, for example, that during the 1960s, designers came up with various spacecraft proposals involving paragliders, deployable rotors, and other more esoteric designs (Smith, p. 6) that turned out to be too complex. Truax essentially argues that some of the socially constructed criteria were unnecessarily restricting and that perhaps there was another, simpler way to achieve NASA’s goals.

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5The technological challenges of building such a vehicle are still quite daunting. One of the latest attempts was a joint effort between NASA and the military in the late 1980s and early 1990s called the National Aerospace Plane (NASP). The NASP program made some significant breakthroughs in developing necessary advanced technologies, but it was widely considered a failure and was cancelled by Congress because it failed to produce any prototypes that could fly in the atmosphere, let alone into space and back.

6Thanks to Margaret Weitekamp of Cornell University for suggesting this example and general line of argument.

7This quote is originally from a White House press release of 5 January 1972, when Nixon made the formal announcement of the Shuttle development program.

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the flight of sts-1