Space Shuttle Design Process - Shuttle Design Debate

Shuttle Design Debate

During the early shuttle studies, there was a debate over the optimal shuttle design that best balanced capability, development cost, and operational cost. Initially a fully reusable design was preferred. This involved a very large winged manned booster which would carry a smaller winged manned orbiter. The booster vehicle would lift the orbiter to a certain altitude and speed, then separate. The booster would return and land horizontally, while the orbiter continued into low earth orbit. After completing its mission, the winged orbiter would reenter and land horizontally on a runway. The idea was that full reusability would promote lower operating costs.

However further studies showed a huge booster was needed to lift an orbiter with the desired payload capability. In space and aviation systems, cost is closely related to weight, so this meant the overall vehicle cost would be very high. Both booster and orbiter would have rocket engines plus jet engines for use within the atmosphere, plus separate fuel and control systems for each propulsion mode. In addition there were concurrent discussions about how much funding would be available to develop the program.

Another competing approach was maintaining the Saturn V production line and using its large payload capacity to launch a space station in a few payloads rather than many smaller shuttle payloads. A related concept was servicing the space station using the Air Force Titan II-M to launch a larger Gemini capsule, called "Big Gemini", rather than using the shuttle.

The shuttle supporters answered that given enough launches, a reusable system would have lower overall costs than disposable rockets. If dividing total program costs over a given number of launches, a high shuttle launch rate would result in lower per-launch costs. This in turn would make the shuttle cost competitive with or superior to expendable launchers. Some theoretical studies mentioned 55 shuttle launches per year, however the final design chosen would not support that launch rate. In particular the maximum external tank production rate was limited to 24 tanks per year at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility.

The combined space station and Air Force payload requirements weren't sufficient to reach desired shuttle launch rates. Therefore the plan was for all future U.S. space launches—space station, Air Force, commercial satellites, and scientific research—to use only the space shuttle. Most other expendable boosters would be phased out.

The reusable booster was eventually abandoned due to a several factors: high price (combined with limited funding), technical complexity, and development risk. Instead, a partially (not fully) reusable design was selected, where an external propellent tank was discarded for each launch, and the booster rockets and shuttle orbiter were refurbished for reuse.

Initially the orbiter was to carry its own liquid propellant. However studies showed carrying the propellant in an external tank allowed a larger payload bay in an otherwise much smaller craft. It also meant throwing away the tank after each launch, but this was a relatively small portion of operating costs.

Earlier designs assumed the winged orbiter would also have jet engines to assist maneuvering in the atmosphere after reentering. However NASA ultimately chose a gliding orbiter, based partially on experience from previous rocket-then-glide vehicles such as the X-15 and lifting bodies. Omitting the jet engines and their fuel would reduce complexity and increase payload.

The last remaining debate was over the nature of the boosters. NASA examined four solutions to this problem: development of the existing Saturn lower stage, simple pressure-fed liquid-fuel engines of a new design, a large single solid rocket, or two (or more) smaller ones. Engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (where the Saturn V development was managed) were particularly concerned about solid rocket reliability for manned missions.

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