“in moving out from our present beach-head in the sky to achieve a real working presence in space – because the Space Shuttle will give us routine access to space by sharply reducing costs in dollars and preparation time. The new system will differ radically from all existing booster systems, in that most of this new system will be recovered and used again and again – up to 100 times. The resulting economies may bring operating costs down as low as one-tenth of those present launch vehicles.”
It didn’t completely work out that way. As Jeffrey Kluger’s 2011 Time commentary on the last shuttle launch discussed, it ended up costing $500 million and required months of maintenance in between flights. Of the five shuttles, Discovery made the most flights (38 flights in 28 years). And of course, both Challenger and Columbia and their crews perished in flight.
However, while the shuttle was not the reusable vehicle that NASA and President Nixon envisioned, the shuttle made giant leaps in space exploration possible. As Kluger also noted:
“These shuttles built the International Space Station, carried the Magellan, Ulysses and Galileo probes aloft and sent them on their ways to Venus, the sun and Jupiter respectively. They lofted the Hubble Space telescope too — easily the most productive scientific instrument ever built — and made occasional servicing runs to it, with astronauts conducting surgically precise repair work on the $1.5 billion instrument in the impossibly challenging environment of space.”
Seeing the shuttle’s use and our nation’s fascination with it in the 1980s and 90s makes it hard to imagine the notion that we could still be using the one-use Apollo rockets in this day and age. Hopefully, history will show that the shuttle ultimately served us well.