Category Archives: NASA: Scuttling the Shuttle

Decentering National Narratives and Historicizing the Shuttle

Our Scuttle the Shuttle series continues with a fortuitous offering from Asif Siddiqi, whose wide-ranging, thoughtful historiographic essay in the most recent Technology and Culture speaks to a debate we’ve already witnessed on this blog: can and should historians write histories of space exploration that do not privilege national narratives or boundaries (here, and in the comments)?

It’s fascinating to see historians of science innovating in the growing field of transnational history (especially in justifying such an approach in thinking about the last century and a half, where the great and growing power of the nation-state encourages nation-bound histories). This essay provides a fine example of such historiographical innovations.

The question remains, though: how would this advice give us a new way of thinking about the decision to scuttle the shuttle?
I include a few highlights from Siddiqi’s piece in the extended entry.

In his essay, Siddiqi considers the dominant approaches to the history of space exploration and notes their national variations:

Both the United States and the Soviet Union, then, the two earliest spacefaring nations, produced narratives on space exploration that were deeply grounded in domestic cultural discourses that simultaneously couched their achievements as if they had universal import. This dichotomy runs through most of the historiography on both the Soviet and American space programs. The grand narratives of each nation—frequently utopian in nature—rely on the assumption that each is the normative history of space exploration.

Drawing on the historiographical problems posed by writing the history of space exploration in India, Siddiqi argues for a postcolonial approach to space history:

This new postcolonial vision of space exploration is as much part of the fabric of space history as the more well-known American and Soviet models grounded in the cold war. These multiple perspectives on space travel suggest that our view of the long history of spaceflight may benefit from a standpoint that no longer privileges borders—demarcations that create rigid analytical categories such as ownership, indigeneity, and proliferation. The Indian space program was at the intersection of multiple flows of knowledge from a variety of sources, including, of course, local expertise. Likewise, the history of spaceflight has been part of a consistent flow of knowledge and technology across (geographical) space and time—among Germans, Soviets, Americans, British, French, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Israelis, Brazilians, and so on. By rethinking the relationship between modernity and the postcolonial state, postcolonial thought challenges us to rethink the connection between modernity and spaceflight, and, ultimately, to replace the “national” with the “global” when thinking of space exploration, an exercise that has become doubly important as dozens of developing countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are now spending money on space exploration.

Heading off critics who will rightly point out how crucial nations have been and still are to these histories, Siddiqi makes his case for maintaining national narratives, but only alongside a host of other equally important considerations:

I am not suggesting that we should ignore nations, national identity, or vital indigenous innovation. But I believe that nation-centered approaches, useful and instructive as they were, occlude from view important phenomena in the history of space exploration. My hope is that by deemphasizing ownership and national borders, the invisible connections and transitions of technology transfer and knowledge production will be become clear in an abundantly new way. Such an approach would inform a project encompassing the entire history of modern rocketry and space exploration, from the late nineteenth century to the present, focusing on Europe, America, Russia, and Asia.

Drivers of American Space Policy

We began our “Scuttle the Shuttle” series with the question: how can we use history to better understand the recent decision to end shuttle missions?

Robert MacGregor kicked us off with a long set of suggestions in an e-mail to me. He suggested we should think about the peculiarities of 1960s politics, about the jobs created by aerospace spending, and about the narrative of the “space race.” Instead of exploring these bigger narratives, I chose to highlight a side note that Bob made, in which he attempted to explain how naive narratives of colonization with a decidedly progressive bent may encourage Apollo conspiracy theorists.

Erik Conway, historian at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, took a moment out of his well-deserved celebration over the release of Merchants of Doubt—co-written with Naomi Oreskes—to take me to task in the most productive of fashions. Erik shows exactly how many fascinating angles I passed over. Consider this bit from the end of his comment:

To historicize the Shuttle decision by comparing it to earlier colonization attempts is to impose a historical narrative that conceals more than it reveals. But the decisions made by several administrations to try to replace the Shuttle were shot through with conflicts over the militarization and / or weaponization of space, over whether we even need to continue putting humans into space given the growing capabilities of robotic explorers, over the proper role of government in space activities, and with interagency rivalry.  Too, there’s a large historical question hovering around the willingness of government agencies to misrepresent the true cost of space technology to Congress and the White House.

The Cold War, weapons platforms, and the growing grip of neoliberalism inside in the Beltway have been far more important drivers of American space policy. These are where the interesting historical questions about Shuttle replacement lie.

Wow. Keep reading for Erik’s entire note, including a nice brief summary and analysis of the shuttle decision. It’s worth reading.

The previous post suggested that we should frame the decision to replace the Space Shuttle, America’s space truck, in the larger narratives of white colonization of the non-Caucasian world.  I’m going to reject that set of narratives out of hand, because it was never the policy of the U.S. Government to colonize.  The Apollo program was approved by the Kennedy administration, and was continued in the Johnson administration, as a Cold War technical stunt, intended to demonstrate American technological mastery. While many people within NASA (Von Braun, of course) saw Apollo as a prelude to human expansion off Earth, that’s not why it was funded.

President Nixon cancelled Apollo in 1970, shortly before the flight of Apollo 13. He had campaigned as a fiscal conservative, devoted to balanced budgets, and Apollo made for a high-profile budget reduction. Apollo had only briefly found majority public support, for a few months around the Apollo 11 landing, and after that its public standing plunged. Less than half of all voting Americans thought Apollo was worth their money, presaging a long-standing political problem for space advocates. Americans often have grand space dreams, but aren’t willing to pay for them. Nixon saw a great deal of political risk in continuing Apollo, and little in killing it.

It took another 2 years, and, as Tom Heppenheimer has pointed out, a deepening aerospace industry recession, before Nixon approved Apollo’s replacement, the Space Shuttle. It was, quite famously, a Shuttle-to-Nowhere, because Nixon didn’t approve the companion space station. In fact, the Shuttle he approved was a politically compromised vehicle.  It was not the highest performance Shuttle concept; it also wasn’t the lowest operating cost Shuttle concept. It was the lowest development cost concept—in other words, Nixon accepted higher operating costs, knowing his own administration wouldn’t be the one paying those costs.

The Shuttle first flew in 1981. The first administration to decide to replace the Shuttle was Reagan’s. By 1984, it was already clear that the Shuttle’s high operating cost and unreliability was undermining that administration’s own space fantasies.   Reagan sold America on “strategic defense” from space—“Star Wars.” As both I and Andrew Butrica have already written, the Shuttle’s inability to deliver low cost space access set the Reagan administration off in search of cheaper launchers. The National Aerospace Plane was one of those proposed replacements. Sold at a $3 billion price tag, its cost estimate ballooned over $30 billion before it was cancelled.

But the effort to replace the Shuttle continued. The George H. W. Bush administration embarked on the “National Launch System” development, cancelled in the Clinton administration. The Clinton administration fixed on a program called “Orbital Space Plane,” cancelled early in the George W. Bush administration. And, of course, the George W. Bush administration set out on the Constellation program to return to the Moon.

It remains to be seen whether Constellation lives or dies, though I personally hope it dies. The Constellation architecture was a political design, intended to maintain the Shuttle’s own Congressional alliance. (Ask yourself “why do the Powerpoint pictures of the Constellation rockets have a big orange tank in the middle?” The orange foam was the result of a mistake in the Shuttle design having to do with the boil-off rate of the cryogenic fuels. Why keep it?? It’s a visible symbol of political continuity on Capitol Hill, that’s why). That alliance has kept the US going around in circles for the last thirty years, but seems incapable of propelling NASA beyond low Earth orbit. If there’s to be a human future in space, the Shuttle’s political alliance needs to be either expanded or replaced with one more powerful.

To historicize the Shuttle decision by comparing to earlier colonization attempts is to impose a historical narrative that conceals more than it reveals. But the decisions made by several administrations to try to replace the Shuttle were shot through with conflicts over the militarization and / or weaponization of space, over whether we even need to continue putting humans into space given the growing capabilities of robotic explorers, over the proper role of government in space activities, and with interagency rivalry.  Too, there’s a large historical question hovering around the willingness of government agencies to misrepresent the true cost of space technology to Congress and the White House.

The Cold War, weapons platforms, and the growing grip of neoliberalism inside in the Beltway have been far more important drivers of American space policy. These are where the interesting historical questions about Shuttle replacement lie.

Shuttle Primer

Don’t know much about the shuttle program’s history? MIT’s OpenCourseWare provides the perfect place to start: a guest lecture from 2005 by leading space science historian John Logsdon.

The lecture works on two levels now. It’s an excellent primer on shuttle history, first and foremost. I learned quite a bit—in truth, I had given very little thought to the origins of the shuttle up until recently. The complex institutional negotiations involving NASA, Nixon’s OMB, and the various aerospace firms tell a particularly interesting story about the origins of big national science programs.

The lecture also serves as a piece of history in its own right. Logsdon salts the conversation with references to the plan for space exploration then just recently announced by President George W. Bush—a plan that would hold NASA funding steady while making it a priority to get Americans back on the moon (and very eventually on Mars). As you’ve no doubt heard, the Obama administration has made such plans history.

(Thanks again to Bob MacGregor for directing me to this lecture.)

Historicizing the Decision to Scuttle the Shuttle

This marks the first in what I hope will be a series of historical comments on NASA’s transition away from the Space Shuttle. Robert R. MacGregor, a Princeton grad student writing a dissertation on rocket design in the US and Soviet Union, kicks us off.


Upon my request, Bob offered a host of powerful historical frameworks to help us think about scuttling the shuttle. Part of what Bob suggested was that we consider this transition alongside the earlier decision to replace the Apollo program with the space shuttle program in the first place. I was struck by one of his side points about the disjoint between the powerful narratives we all know of technological progress and what actually happened to manned space flight:

A big part of why Apollo hoax conspiracy theories are so successful is precisely because the space race narrative doesn’t fit in with the narrative of technological progress.  Why would we go to the moon and then just stop? It doesn’t make sense—if technology is getting better—that we could go to the moon and then not go back for a half century.  How could the Europeans have ignored the New World after Columbus came back?  While the original Apollo hoax believers were a small minority, and the public cheered Buzz Aldrin when he punched Bart Sibrel in the face while filming a documentary on the moon landing conspiracy,  these arguments only gain credibility as time goes on.  

You might ask, what alternative narrative is there?  Well, the Soviet Union never publicly saw the space race as a race to the moon, and indeed the entire Soviet lunar effort was only made public in the late 1980’s during glasnost.  For the Soviet Union, the narrative focused on Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, who kicked off the rest of the narrative with a bang, but left its ending unfinished.
I’d like to suggest that the real answer is that space flight is hard and it’s not getting any easier.  It’s not the kind of problem that better computers or better plastics solve, and the technology involved only gradually gets better over time.  It’s a drag-out slugfest with nature that will always be dangerous and expensive.  So instead of Columbus and his conquistador followers, who found a tropical paradise comparatively emptied of its inhabitants by disease and easily overrun with guns and horses, perhaps the better metaphor to the moon landings were the Norse Vikings who, in the early 11th century, landed at L’Anse aux Meadows in Canada and built a small settlement.  They, unlike the Spaniards, didn’t find a lush and inviting paradise with cities of gold, but instead found a hostile, bitter environment full of people intent on killing them far from their home and loved ones.  They decided to leave.  No Europeans would come back for four hundred years.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments. More smart NASA comments coming this week.

What a difference 45 years makes.

Today’s headline: Shuttle Atlantis Lifts Off for Final Planned Mission

Compare that to this video showing highlights from NASA’s space program in 1965.

It is hard to believe that the US has gone through a few manned space systems in such a short time.

I like this comparison for three reasons.

  1. It gets to the heart of one of the question we care about most here at Americanscience: how can we best understand science as it took shape within the boundaries of the United States/North America/the Americas? That’s a question that we’ve explored at some depth: here, here, here, and here. No matter the framing for your answer, I’m pretty sure NASA has to enter the picture.
  2. We here at Americanscience want to help you think about today’s news with a historical perspective. That’s a tall order. But juxtaposition is a way to start. Any space science historians out there? Shoot me a note in the comments. We’d love to share your insights at this crucial moment in NASA history.
  3. This is Prelinger Archives week: where I showcase the terrific Web holdings available for free on the Web to you Americanscience buffs.