Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Space Shuttles, Satellites, and Competition in Launch Vehicles

Posted on | February 25, 2017 | No Comments

The NASA space shuttle program provided a valuable new launch vehicle for satellites. This post recounts the beginning of the US space shuttle development and its impact on satellite launches.

The notion of a reusable spacecraft had been a dream since the days of Flash Gordon in the 1930s, but a number of technical problems precluded its feasibility for NASA’s objectives. Foremost was the lack of sufficient insulation to protect the shuttle during multiple re-entries. NASA instead had relied on the launch-only rocket model inherited from Nazi Germany’s work on the V-2 that killed approximately 10,000 civilians in attacks on England but later launched the team that landed on the Moon. With the Apollo program winding down in the early 1970s, new plans were developed and forwarded for a reusable space shuttle.

In January 1972, President Nixon made the announcement that NASA would begin a program to build a Space Transportation System (STS), more commonly known as the Space Shuttle. During the previous summer of 1971, Nixon was convinced by John Ehrlichman and Casper Weinberg that the US should pursue the Space Shuttle.

NASA had various plans for “Reusable Ground Launch Vehicle” as early as 1966 but in the wake of the public’s boredom with the Moon visits, enthusiasm for space exploration diminished. Democrats running for President in 1972 were critical of the billions of dollars needed for the “space truck.” Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME), campaigned on the promise of shelving the space shuttle. Senator Walter Mondale (D-MN), another candidate for president, called the Space Shuttle program “ridiculous” during a nationally televised debate. The country felt that problems of housing, urban decay, and poor nutrition for children were higher priorities.

But the Congressional vote that passed in the Spring of 1972 for the NASA budget 277-60 included funding for the Space Shuttle and Nixon’s resounding electoral victory later that year ensured the administration’s support, at least for awhile.

The next ten years were challenging ones for NASA which faced numerous funding and technical problems. The space agency made up for its diminishing budget by allocating more internal funds to the space shuttle project. Although enthusiasm for space exploration had diminished, the practical uses of space-based satellites were encouraging.

The space shuttle was be launched on the back of a traditional rocket, maintain a relatively low orbit, and then glide down to a runway on Earth. This latter part was particularly difficult at temperatures exceeded 3000 degrees F during the descent. This was solved by gluing some 33,000 silica thermal tiles to the bottom of the vehicle.

As the STS descended at 25 times the speed of sound, it also needed a complex guidance system to direct it. The avionics (guidance, navigation, and control) system used four computers to coordinate data from star trackers, gyros, accelerometers, star trackers, and inputs from ground-based laboratories to guide the spacecraft. Whereas the Mercury flights were satisfied with landings within a mile from their pickup ships, the space shuttle required a precise landing on a specific runway after a several thousand mile glide.[1]

On April 12, 1981, the space shuttle STS-1 Columbia blasted off from Cape Kennedy on its inaugural flight. After 54 hours and 37 earth orbits it landed safely at Edwards Air Force Base in California. (I remember the event because my little kitten, Marco Polo, went up to the TV and started to paw at the descending spacecraft) During its initial flight, it had a successful test of its cargo doors that needed to be open to launch satellites from the maximum shuttle orbit to the geosynchronous orbit thousands of miles higher. During the next flight, they tested a Canadian remote manipulator arm designed to retrieve satellites from orbit and repair them.

The space shuttle provided a significant boost to the satellite industry. Columbia’s fifth flight successfully launched two satellites, the Canadian Anik C and the Satellite Business Systems’ (SBS) third satellite for commercial use. The remote manipulator arm later proved useful when it retrieved and repaired the Solar Max satellite in April 1984 and then later one of Indonesia’s Palapa satellites that had failed to reach the geosynchronous Clarke orbit.

The program ran very smoothly until the Challenger space shuttle blew up on a chilly January morning in 1986. Seventy-three seconds after launch, the spacecraft exploded, killing the entire crew. The disaster stopped shuttle launches for over two years. During this time President Reagan announced that when the shuttle resumed service, it would carry very few if any commercial satellites. Reagan’s intention was to privatize launch services and reserve the shuttle for military and scientific activities, including the infamous “Star Wars” program to create a space-based shield to protect the US from attack.[2]

Incidentally, the plan to privatize space launches proved disastrous for the US, as the Europeans and Chinese quickly captured a significant share of the market. The Ariane and Long March rockets proved to be a viable alternative to the space shuttle. The Bush and Clinton administrations continuously approved the launching of American satellites by other countries under pressure from the rapidly growing telecommunications industry and the transnational corporate users who needed the additional communications capacity.


[1] Space Shuttle’s development from By Henry C. Dethloff. Accessed February 24, 2006.
[2] Winter, F. 1990. Rockets into Space. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 113-126.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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