In race to space, NASA changes course

This is the second in a four-part series on the construction of America’s first space shuttle in 1979 and its impact on human space flight.

It stands like a sculpture of a gull, blazing brighter than the concrete runway in the heat of April 1979. NASA tour buses pull up to the yellow ropes. Tourists scramble for a quick picture of a bird that will never fly by itself.

Enterprise, or Orbiter 101, gained notoriety in 1977 when it flew piggyback atop a NASA 747 eight times in captive flight and underwent five drop tests of its structure. After subjecting the craft to a year of vibration tests at Huntsville, Alabama, NASA flew Enterprise to the Kennedy Space Center during the second week in April 1979. Orbiter 102, Columbia, was ferried into the spaceport on March 24.

Enterprise 300Enterprise won’t make it into space because it weighs too much. All those tests enabled engineers to trim the orbiter’s weight, allowing for heavier cargo. In a state rich with tourism, it is an attraction that helps to draw more than 1.2 million visitors a year to the Kennedy Space Center. And it is a symbol of the new era into which NASA has entered, an era of cutting costs and boosting support. While NASA’s budget for fiscal 1979 is $4.5 billion, NASA’s George Diller says the space program is a good investment, returning $7 for every $1 spent.

The price of a shuttle launch will be a quarter of ordinary launches, he says. Placing a satellite into orbit using an expendable Atlas Centaur rocket costs $24 million (in 1979 dollars). Launching the same payload into orbit using the space shuttle will cost $6 million. (In today’s dollars, NASA estimates it costs $450 million for each shuttle launch.)

NASA plans to cut costs by reusing the orbiter up to 100 times, retrieving the solid rocket boosters and even washing and repacking the parachutes. Computers have trimmed the number of people needed to launch a mission. Part of the cost savings will come from the use of standardized parts.

“This [space shuttle program] was a logical development to give us routine access to space, to make it usable,” Diller says as we drive from the orbiter’s runway. “It’s kind of hard to keep going to Congress and asking for more money.”

NASA has high hopes for its new fleet. The shuttle will place into orbit satellites that will warn of crop disease and potential forest fires, scan the oceans for the best fishing areas and search for geologic formations associated with untapped oil and mineral reserves. The craft will launch satellites that enable more accurate weather forecasting and better communications, repair damaged satellites in space or bring them back to Earth for maintenance. It will launch several classified projects for the U.S. Department of Defense, although NASA doesn’t advertise that fact.

The shuttle program has also stabilized the workforce at the Kennedy Space Center. In 1975, during the last manned launch, the spaceport employed 26,500 people. By 1979 that number has dropped to 7,700. Diller expects the workforce to climb and hold at 10,500 once the shuttle gets off the ground. That stability, he says, saves talent and boosts morale.

Orbiter Columbia in VAB 72The inner sanctum
Inside the Orbiter Processing Facility—a sophisticated aircraft hanger near the shuttle runway—Columbia is buried in scaffolding as technicians install the remaining 7,800 heat-dispersing tiles. Each measures six inches by six inches, costs $500 and is made to survive temperatures of up to 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit. NASA believes that reentry should not damage the tiles but rain drops can, so Columbia will take off on clear mornings.

While the heat-dissipating tiles are sensitive, the technicians installing them are touchier: they will not allow people to distract them by taking pictures of their work. We have to take photos from a distance.

Columbia itself costs $500 million. It’s about the size of a DC-9 jetliner and weighs seventy-five tons. The cargo compartment is fifteen feet in diameter, sixty feet long and can carry payloads of up to 65,000 pounds. The orbiter can carry a maximum of seven passengers, although NASA plans to launch Columbia with only two crew members for the first four missions. The first non-pilots to ride the space shuttles will be scientists.

What about journalists, photographers, poets?

“It’ll cost you a million dollars per ride,” Diller says as we leave the Orbiter Processing Facility. “You want to buy a ticket?”

Firing Room No 2 72On the firing line
NASA’s cost-cutting moves have trimmed the number of people needed to launch a spacecraft from 450 for Apollo missions to forty-five for space shuttle flights. But more and larger equipment needed to pull off that feat will still fill two firing rooms, as in the days of the moon shots. Countdown time is shorter. With Apollo it was 28 hours; with the shuttle, it will drop to 2.5 hours.

In Firing Room 1 technicians are running tests of the computers that will monitor every electrical circuit, fuel system and heartbeat onboard Columbia. During testing this day in 1979, the onboard information scrolls across video consoles throughout the room: blue for normal mode, green for all systems “go” and red for trouble.

The screens are awash in blue. Then they begin pushing out lines of red type. “That would have stopped the countdown,” Diller says.

Tomorrow: fire in the hole.