Planetary Radio • Dec 01, 2023

Space Policy Edition: Was the Space Shuttle a policy failure?

Please accept marketing-cookies to listen to this podcast.

Download MP3

On This Episode

Jack kiraly portrait 2023

Jack Kiraly

Director of Government Relations for The Planetary Society

Casey dreier tps mars

Casey Dreier

Chief of Space Policy for The Planetary Society

Was the Space Shuttle a successful program? In many ways, yes: it endured for 30 years, launched hundreds of astronauts into space, and built the International Space Station. But, according to the goals of lower costs, rapid reusability, and reliability NASA stated at its conception, the Space Shuttle program was a failure. In this new recurring feature on SPE, Jack and Casey read through a classic paper in space policy and discuss its arguments, its conclusions, and whether the paper stands up to this day.

Read along with us and suggest future episodes in our Planetary Society online member community.

Space Shuttle Columbia makes its first trip to launchpad 39A
Space Shuttle Columbia makes its first trip to launchpad 39A The crawler-transporter carries the first Space Shuttle from the VAB to its launch site.Image: NASA


Casey Dreier: Welcome to the Space Policy Edition, another month, another episode. I am Casey Dreier, the chief of Space Policy here at The Planetary Society. Today, I'm joined by my colleague, Jack Kiraly, who, is among other things, the head of our Washington operations and government relations here at The Planetary Society as well. Hey, Jack.

Jack Kiraly: Hey, Casey. How are you doing?

Casey Dreier: Doing good. Enjoying myself and looking forward to a whole new year of Space Policy episodes coming up after this one. This is the last of 2024. However, that does not matter, because we have a slightly different take on the show today. Instead of having an external guest, we, Jack, you and I, are going to read I was going to say a famous paper of Space Policy. I don't know if Space Policy papers tend to be famous, but an infamous one, and it's going to be part of a series we do on the show for visiting or revisiting really influential and important pieces of space policy, academic analysis, and journal writing and articles and analysis. This episode, we're going to be actually starting with a paper written by our board member John Logsdon, who I think literally... Would you say he literally founded the field of space history and policy?

Jack Kiraly: I would say that he wrote the book, but in fact, he probably wrote five.

Casey Dreier: We're going to be reading his paper called The Space Shuttle Program: A Policy Failure? Including in the title, published in 1986. I think a really important and insightful piece of commentary on how the difference evolves between the intent behind a program and the reality behind a program as epitomized by the space shuttle. I think we'll revisit this question now, 10 years after the space shuttle ended, about whether it was a policy failure or not. That paper, we will link to it in the show notes online. You can read it yourself. It's only, I think, 10 pages, or you can read John's entire book on the space shuttle decision, which is his book on the Nixon Space Policy era if you have a little bit more time. But before that, Jack, we have to pitch... This is a great time of year to become a member of The Planetary Society, which you can do, which I hear by good authority. You can join at, all sorts of levels of membership starting at four bucks a month. By being a member of The Planetary Society, obviously, you're not just enabling this show to occur if you like space policy. You're enabling all the great work that Jack is doing on behalf of our members in Washington, D.C. All of our educational work, our outreach, our work to get kids involved in space, and of course the amazing education excitement and community building that we do online at The Planetary Society. Jack, do you have any... You're a member, right?

Jack Kiraly: I am a member, card carrying.

Casey Dreier: Both of us card carrying members. Anything you'd like to add about why folks should join and become a part of Planetary Society?

Jack Kiraly: It truly is the one way, the surefire way that you can have an impact on space exploration, on space science, and be part of this future we all see for humanity in space.

Casey Dreier: I'm sold. That sounds great to me. Let's do it.

Jack Kiraly: $4 a month.

Casey Dreier: Four bucks a month, that's actually quite reasonable these days. I hope you consider that if you like the show, if you want to support the work we're doing or if you know someone who needs a good gift this year, so they can become also like us, a card carrying member of The Planetary Society. That's at All right, Jack, let's talk about this paper, the Space Shuttle Program: A Policy Failure, released as a peer reviewed article in science in 1986 in May. This is not long after the challenger disaster, so a very fresh and moment of reconsideration of the space shuttle program in what would be a very early part of its history would continue the space shuttle program for another 25 years after this point. But Jack, how should we approach this? Maybe we can outline John's argument here about what does this mean to be a policy failure? So, start with what stands out to you. What arguments does John make here about the Space Shuttle Program?

Jack Kiraly: I mean, I think the core argument that John's making in this article is that the space shuttle was designed almost by committee to meet all of these exceptional anticipated needs that maybe were not substantiated by other policy decisions or requests of the scientific community or the human space flight community, but that met at the crux of all these different interests, and tried to answer a question that didn't quite exist at that point.

Casey Dreier: Right. They were assembling a coalition of support by solving problems that didn't necessarily exist, but seemed nice to have, right? So, they said, "Oh, the space shuttle, here's what it's going to do for you. It's going to lower the cost of space flight." That was the big one. It's going to address a bunch of national security needs for the Department of Defense and the Air Force. You could launch it very quickly into space if you need to. You can scramble, or you can snag a malfunctioning satellite or an important national security asset, fix it and launch it, bring it back into space. You can build a space station, which is what NASA would mention on the sly.

Jack Kiraly: Ultimately wanted to use it for, but didn't lead with that we'll say.

Casey Dreier: I think John's point is that this... I think he summarizes it at the very end of the paper, where he calls the fundamental problem came from not just the execution of the program, but the decision itself, the motivations itself, which was that ultimately, NASA made the case to the stakeholders primarily in this case, the White House. It's what's called the OMB, the Office of Management and Budget, the budgeteers that approve expenditures by the federal government. NASA made the case to them, and then they walked away from... They never really followed through at a high level. It was never a huge important priority for them. So, they won the argument, but then never really captured the attention going forward. Then all of these promises that NASA had made about the value of doing something like a space shuttle were left to be done with little oversight or attention, and as soon as the program got into trouble, started becoming very difficult to do all of these things that they claim they could do.

Jack Kiraly: It did not solve that existential threat that Apollo did, as a point of geopolitical feat, as a geopolitical victory.

Casey Dreier: Well, Apollo was an exogenous event.

Jack Kiraly: Right.

Casey Dreier: Apollo was created to address, particularly at the core of it at its genesis, an epical event that was happening outside of the U.S. literally itself. In the Soviet Union with the first human into space in this perceived loss, and then within the context of the Cold War, Apollo solved a clear problem, whereas the shuttle, to put in your words here, was creating a program to fit perceived problems or non-existent problems, and then trying to get it across the goal in that case. It's interesting. In a way, this paper is an argument for the original sin that the space shuttle carried forth with it that was unable to shake that by the process of how a program was created is actually carried through the program itself into the future for decades in this case. Ultimately, I mean, arguably, it was the core of some of the disasters that befall the program. So just to jump out here a little bit, so in addition to this complicated and belabored effort to sell the space shuttle to the White House and to various stakeholders within the government, the design of the space shuttle was constantly changing at this point. This is John writing in 1986 about events that happened in 1970, '71 and '72, and '72 is when Nixon approved formally the space shuttle development with the first flight not then until 1981. The design originally was for a fully reusable space plane, and rapidly reusable. These are all things that we're used to hearing now through what SpaceX is doing, but this is this first wild concept at the time. But the design kept changing in this early period not because of what... This is, I think, the concept again of this original political sin or policy sin that John's identifying not because of the needs of the program itself, but because of the cost limits being imposed on it, in the sense an arbitrary cost limit by the Office of Management and Budget. Then there's a couple... I mean, you can add what else was driving shuttle design decisions at this point according to this paper?

Jack Kiraly: Well, I mean, I think what's really clear here too is the political implications. 1970, 1971, 1972, President Nixon is going into a reelection year. There's a whole outlining in this paper of the political considerations of federal programs in policymaking at the time in 1970 to 1972. I think in there, it even says that NASA has such an outsized impact based on its proportion of the federal budget, its impact on the politics in the regions that they operate. So, there's the political considerations. There's the industry considerations as well at a time of trying to revitalize the aerospace industry late 1960, following on after Apollo had ended. Then there's the thing that's happening in the background with the military considerations, and that this is still the height of the Cold War. One of conclusions of the paper being that the thing that convinced Nixon wasn't the size of the payload bay or the capabilities of what things it could get into orbit, it was that this would put humans in space for longer, which is the ultimate goal of, at that time, both of the major superpowers, and that this continues the U.S. on that trend following Apollo, following the victory of planting the flag on the moon that the United States could continue to lead in man spaceflight, crewed spaceflight.

Casey Dreier: But also, I think that the National Security, so the symbolism aspect, but then this perceived national security value, again, that was, I think, what drove the size of this shuttle payload bay, or the shape of the shuttle itself as this delta wing is that it had to have this high cross-sectional ability to rapidly take off, turn around and come back. These considerations in this paper were presented as, "Oh, the DOD would say, "Oh yeah, that sounds nice to have. Sure, that that sounds useful," but then never really seriously considered it or needed it beyond just a few people. So, the design of the shuttle, in addition to the points that you raised has a political value, political tool for Nixon's reelection as a means to continue human spaceflight in an affordable way, was also being designed for this perception of national security without the full endorsement. Again, I think that's where this idea of nice to have, but it's solving a problem that they don't really face. The paper says here, "The military was happy with what is the Titan three booster that it was using at the time." I believe the rocket that launched Voyagers and Viking into space was Viking at the Titan four booster. Titan three is certainly for Voyagers. They didn't reach out to NASA needing a shuttle. NASA came to them saying, "Hey, would this be useful for you?" But then NASA never reevaluated that commitment. But then ironically, at the very end, that was one of those deciding factors for Nixon is that these perceived national security benefits could also be a value to the United States. So, it's this interesting argument too, where such an epical decision for something that then ultimately ran the 10 years-ish development time plus 30 years, 40 years, basically came down to convincing Nixon on this broad hard to define quality of, "We can't pull back from human spaceflight," and this national security benefit that never fully appeared in the long run.

Jack Kiraly: Materialized. Well, what I find really interesting too is at no point is Congress considered.

Casey Dreier: That's true.

Jack Kiraly: Outside of maybe some of the politics of, "Well, we want to make sure there's jobs in districts," there's not a... Seriously, the shuttle came down to the decision of Richard M. Nixon, right? It came down to him saying, "Yes, I want to do this," and not even getting into the specifications of what the shuttle would look like, what it would be capable of, what the development time should be, what the cost cap is per year. It really is just Nixon gave it the thumbs up, and it was then off to NASA to try to answer for all of these-

Casey Dreier: Promises that they made.

Jack Kiraly: ... things that had all these promises, that it had made to the Department of Defense and to the scientific-

Casey Dreier: From, the office of Management and Budget.

Jack Kiraly: To OMB as well.

Casey Dreier: That's a good point, and I think it really highlights maybe just a different era of American politics too. I mean, because this is Richard Nixon, Republican president, with a overwhelmingly, I think, democratic House and Senate at this time, and generally more functional process wise kind of a politics, less polarized time of American politics. I think epitomized by this idea, one of the highlights that you mentioned earlier in terms of jobs were in Southern California then and now a major aerospace center, but of California being a swing state for the Republican president, which now is almost unimaginable in terms of the local politics there. Exactly. That's interesting too. I had never really thought about that. Congress just didn't seem super interested. I wonder if that was this... Nixon again is portrayed in this as almost seeing this space shuttle as, again, feeding into the symbolism of human space flight. Not only is it valuable for this external U.S. projection of power, but Nixon saw astronauts as being your So-called right stuff about this ideal of American citizenry mixed with this technological futurist look down the line. They note here that the supersonic transport was this big concept that had been canceled by Congress early in the 1970s, and was this heartbreaking, could have been project because it was too expensive, and this general attitude of retrenchment on technological development, and the space shuttle is seen as the symbol pushing back against that. But again, interesting though that Congress does not really seem all that interested beyond this. I wonder if that's a reflection of that malaise that was developing at the time towards technological progress.

Jack Kiraly: I think so, and it's mentioned in here that some of the concern was of the pushing back of technological progress from the general public. That's maybe in part why they saw this. NASA saw the space shuttle as, "Well, we need to get this done now, because if we lose the momentum post Apollo that we are not going to be able to maintain crewed space flight." I mean, looking to the '60s and then the 1970s, an explosion in robotics space exploration. Obviously, we have the Apollo missions, but then Apollo saw used in 1975 really high profile events that have downstream implications both when it comes to technology spinoffs and jobs in districts, but also in terms of shaping the view of the United States in space. But then at the same time, this decision all came down to one person at the end of the day.

Casey Dreier: That's a classic space in the myth of presidential leadership. There's a whole book on this idea. It really carried through with John F. Kennedy that space things, and I'd say maybe infected is too strong of a word, but has embedded itself in the psyche of space advocates for decades that if only the president stood up and made this Kennedy commitment to some space effort going back to the moon, going to Mars, going to Titan, you name it, then we would see the results, the benefits of it. It almost then became the singular goal is, "We just need to convince that one person," but I think what John's paper is showing here is that you can win that argument with that one person, but you're still going to fail in your goals, because you haven't gotten the full buy-in, or at the end of the day, you're just not capable of addressing a true national need. Again, this idea that the end of the paper that the shuttle for all the things that has done well, and I think that's worth mentioning here, is that this is a separation between the space shuttle as an amazing piece of engineering, that did a lot of amazing things from the actual goals lined out at the beginning. But that John says it, "Even though they won the president's approval, the program did not get a national commitment." I want to focus on that a little bit, because what does a national commitment means? There you go. There's your lack of Congress maybe playing into this willing to fund it, but also national commitment. You had people in Nixon's own White House at the OMB, the Office of Management and Budget. They're the ones driving down the cost of the space shuttle. They were skeptics the entire time saying, "You got to make this cheaper. You got to make..." I should say, "You got to make the development cost cheaper." So as a consequence, NASA started shifting and changing. It's all development from a fully reusable two-stage rocket to this strange assembly of reusable rubber-

Jack Kiraly: Slightly reusable.

Casey Dreier: ... with dispensable fuel tank and recoverable side boosters, but the fundamental design being driven by this cost caps at this lower level of White House bureaucracy, completely independent of Nixon, and examples of Jim Fletcher, the NASA administrator, being turned away and not being allowed to talk to Nixon, and Nixon not knowing what his own staff were doing, this whole fundamental comical veep-like breakdown of communication happening within the house itself indicative of this lack of national commitment. So, this idea then... I think then we saw, as a consequence, this idea that you win the president's support, you then get what you want. We saw this then continue to play out like this in the future. You got Reagan to call out a space station in the 1984 State of the Union, and then it's the same story with the station after that. You had George H. W. Bush do a whole push around space exploration initiative in 1989, and he gave a great speech about how great this is, and the money did not show up. George W. Bush did something similar in 2004. Obama even got nudged into doing something along those lines in 2009 after the end of Constellation. Every time this happens, you can get the... The president ultimately is just going to be distracted by all the immediate insane things you have to deal with as being president, and NASA isn't a problem they want to ever have to solve. NASA should be a good thing that helps them look good, but it takes this bigger solution. So, there seems to be this fundamental contradiction though then to me at the end, where it's like, "How do you get this national commitment?" Well, you need to solve a lot of problems for a lot of people, but then by doing so, you've compromised your vision and ability to deliver on that so much that you will never succeed in them at the end. So, is there this inherent contradiction can absent some massive external shock? Can a representative democracy create efficient engineering for major space projects? I don't know. Do we have good examples of that?

Jack Kiraly: I mean, it clearly shows that there needs to be a maybe better management of those stakeholder groups, right? This paper clearly shows you can't go forward and expect a policy success despite the ultimate success of shuttle, of individual shuttle missions that you can't go on without input from the public. But then at the same time, you can't solely be based on... You can't be basing engineering decisions on rule by committee, by decisions that are made by people who are not experts in engineering. Ultimately, at the end of the day, the thing solving a political problem doesn't also solve an engineering one. Those two things-

Casey Dreier: It almost creates them.

Jack Kiraly: It creates them, absolutely, and creates budgetary hurdles later on. I mean, this paper was written May 1986, or was published in May of 1986, and a time when the future of shuttle was uncertain, the future of, at the time, Space Station Freedom was completely in limbo, and the future of human space flight was completely unclear. It was complete uncertainty, not to mention also happening at the same time, similar track on the robotics space exploration. Something that we at The Planetary Society care a lot about had also taken a nosed. I mean, since 1980, there were two planetary science missions that launched on shuttle, but in the latter part of the-

Casey Dreier: That was even after this paper was published. Those were both in '89. That was Magellan and... What was the-

Jack Kiraly: Galileo?

Casey Dreier: Galileo, of course. They had the big fallow period.

Jack Kiraly: STS-30 and 34.

Casey Dreier: Well, and that was another item brought up in this paper was that the science community itself was very much against the shuttle. I don't know about you, Jack, but I feel like the first real introduction to maybe a mature view of space was when I first read about that people hated the space shuttle in the space community. I was this naive, young... Not young, I was like 28 or something at the time, but I was getting into this for the first time, and I read Bruce Murray's, founder of The Planetary Society, book Journey Into Space. He just rips into the space shuttle as being expensive, slow, taking money away from science, back logging, all of launch, because we haven't really touched on it yet, but space shuttle for a while was mandated as the single launch vehicle for the entire U.S. National Security and Civilian Space programs, which clearly had a hard time keeping up with that demand. So, you had things like Galileo wait years, and suffer serious consequences as a result, but reading that, when I was a kid... You're younger than me, but as a kid of the '80s, I guess as a kid of the '90s, you watch space shuttle launches. It's the space shuttle-

Jack Kiraly: Right. That was just the thing, [inaudible 00:26:28] thing.

Casey Dreier: The Lego sets around space shuttle, it's just what it was. So, I was like, "Oh yeah, how cool is this space shuttle? That's neat." To see that people really... I mean, Bruce Murray, maybe he had a white, hot, passionate dislike for the program was seriously eyeopening for me. I think reading this history about how this was cobbled together, and for what reasons, and again, you see the price that science did pay. However, then you get this whole flip side that I think is really interesting too. This paper, again, written in '86 prior to the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, Hubble Space Telescope is launched by the shuttle designed to fit into that big, old payload bay that NASA really did not need. That was the more expensive, and as a consequence, there's all those design decisions, but-

Jack Kiraly: The Cadillac options.

Casey Dreier: Yeah, that then had to trade off all these reusability and cost and benefits of Operation four, but then you get the Hubble Space Telescope out of it. Anything smaller, you just don't have as... Literally, you just can't have as big of a primary mirror. You don't get as much of a visibility. You don't get as much of an access to the early cosmos from it. This is where the story complicates for me, where by whose policy do we say something is a failure? When they were making the decisions, we're really establishing the goals at the end of the day. So, I was thinking about this. NASA wanted to build a space station right after Apollo. They wanted to have a space shuttle to build a space station. They got the space shuttle, and then it took them another 30 years, and they built a space station out of it. Now, we have a space station. In that sense, if we didn't have a shuttle, I don't think we'd have a space station right now. So in some ways, in this really extreme long view, building the capability ultimately got you a lot of stuff. How seriously do we take those arguments at the beginning that are made, and for what reasons? I think that's an open question to me from reading this paper.

Jack Kiraly: Well, I think too, and you touched on a thought that I've been having is in the long view, maybe the answer to that question was the space shuttle a policy failure? The answer might be partly no, right? I think if you read this article, it reads as the answer is a resounding yes. It is an absolute policy failure based on the expectations set by NASA to OMB, to the Congress, to the Department of Defense that this program does not pass muster. But looking at that long view, we have a station. We had shuttle until 2010. It was generally partially reusable, and maybe part of it runs into that problem that I think we run into a lot of times speaking as a space advocate. Speaking with space advocates is I have a vision for my space program, and I want it now. It says, "Well, by the..." I think the original plan was between 1980 and 1990, there was going to be 600 launches of space shuttle, and that never happened. We got over 130.

Casey Dreier: 135.

Jack Kiraly: By that metric, it was a failure, but it also achieved these major milestones as well, and so trying to have the answer be maybe, it's kind of a failure, kind of not a failure. It got us things. It did inspire you, and inspired me seeing shuttle launches to become space advocates. So in a way, it did succeed in building a national program that promoted American values, that promoted American excellence in space, and is notable that the Soviet Union after the U.S. started investing in a space shuttle, the Soviet Union also started investing in the space shuttle.

Casey Dreier: The Buran.

Jack Kiraly: Never flew. It flew once. Did you see that?

Casey Dreier: Without people on it. It flew with automated. We'll be right back with the rest of our space policy edition of Planetary Radio after this short break.

Bill Nye: Greetings, Bill Nye here. What a year it's been at The Planetary Society from advocating for missions that matter to funding new technology to grants for planetary research and biology and space, to sharing the wonder of space exploration with the world. You made it all happen. Many of the great scientific missions we've dreamed of are happening, and it's thanks to your support, but we can't stop now because tomorrow's discoveries must begin today. With your help, we can keep our work going strong into 2024, and continue to explore worlds, find life, and defend Earth. Plus, when you make a gift today, your gift will be matched up to $100,000, thanks to a special matching gift challenge from a generous planetary society member. Your year-end contribution, especially when doubled, will go far to help launch us into all the exciting opportunities tomorrow will bring. Visit Thank you.

Casey Dreier: So, is it fair? Maybe we're giving a lot of generous interpretations, because we like space, because I mean, part of it is what you're saying is sure, they... I mean, I was saying this to you. Sure, they had their reasons at the beginning, and sure they didn't pan out and probably weren't even realistic in the first place, but look at all this other cool stuff it did. It's like, "Well, sure." I mean, that's great. I'm glad it did a lot of cool stuff, but why not say the cool stuff at the beginning, and why make all these other promises? That's where I think it's almost like the people you have to convince, and this is what's so strange in a way about government programs once they start rolling, particularly big ones like shuttle, is that it became clear pretty early on that the shuttle was not going to fly 50 times a year. I mean, we're talking way before the shuttle launch. They ran into all this-

Jack Kiraly: I mean, we're talking mid 1972. They were thinking it wasn't going to fly 50 times a year.

Casey Dreier: This isn't going to happen. This is not going to be the cost-effective. It was all those challenges that ultimately faced started to become clear pretty early on, but they didn't stop it. All these non tangibles about human access to space, maybe national security stuff, something, something, and the variety of opportunities that it provided in terms of big telescopes or space stations ultimately carried it through. So, it was never really held to these standards during development, right?

Jack Kiraly: Right.

Casey Dreier: So, that's where it becomes... But then is that a healthy way to run multi-billion dollar programs? I don't know. Well, it's because the group of people you have to convince aren't the ones who have to deal with it. I think that's the other point that this paper makes is that the people who made this decision knew this won't be operational until the 1980s, and you're making these broad commitments. So, how can you have a national commitment even? How do you have that as an expectation if you're talking 10, 20, 30 years down the line? That seems like a really high bar to cross it the same.

Jack Kiraly: Well, I mean, you're talking about multiple presidential administrations, entire arrangements of Congress later. Making that same national commitment is very hard. We don't live in a system that handles long-term planning very well. We've seen that since the beginning of the space program. I think back to your earlier point, a lot of space advocates might default to saying, "Well, we just need a Kennedy moment. We just need the Rice University speech for Mars exploration or for the return to the moon." That's just not how that can happen. It's not even really how it happened-

Casey Dreier: That's true.

Jack Kiraly: ... because Kennedy was not president for much longer after that, and it became the whole... I mean, we can delve into the history of Apollo too-

Casey Dreier: [inaudible 00:35:35].

Jack Kiraly: ... of how do major space programs like this space systems, it's not just one mission. This was supposed to be between 130 and 600 missions. How do you get to that point where you are also solving problems that are legitimate problems. I'll call them legitimate problems posed by the scientific community, or proposed by the national security community, or proposed by the human space flight community, the exploration community, whichever community you're trying to represent. Something I've been thinking about is what was NASA's job in 1971? Was NASA's job to solve problems to take input from the outside, and solve problems, or was it their job to sell the president on a new vision for human space flight? It clearly was the latter. At least what they perceived their job being was the latter, because there was nothing pushing them in another direction.

Casey Dreier: Well, because they were created to solve a problem that they then solved. Then they're like, "Okay, now what?" We've landed on. Then it's not fair to hold them to... It's of course, "Okay, we have this giant system and bureaucracy now." Bureaucracies are really good at sustaining themselves, and it's not necessarily a pejorative description of a bureaucracy. It's just of all the people in it. They're self-interested in continuing their rules and existence and capabilities. It is an interesting question about what was NASA's job? That's what I was thinking about, again, reading this paper in terms of whose policies failed, because NASA... Again, the through line through to this, and you mentioned this post Apollo era that this original pitch to the Nixon White House through... Was it Spiro Agnew who was the vice president on the space council, was this massive Apollo-like expenditure, continued Apollo-like expenditure to do a space shuttle station lunar base in Mars by 1986 or something, this wild, insane, totally awesome, I guess now fictionalized and for all mankind TV show, but this idea that they would keep this up and running. John's whole book on Nixon era and the Nixon's space doctrine that basically defines modern space flight is that, "No, NASA, you're not special. You no longer get special consideration. Your job is to continue to exist among this milieu of other government agencies fighting for your share of the pie." In that sense, it's their responsibility to make the arguments they can within the bounds of decency and not outright lies, but, I mean, just how do we pitch ourselves as being relevant? There was, I think, a crisis of identity at NASA after Apollo about, "What do we do?" I think for a while, they were like, "Does NASA solve the energy crisis that was happening? Does NASA solve..." We have all these smart people. It's like, "Do they solve whatever crisis that's befalling the world at the time?" But at the end of the day, it's probably fair to let them say, "Okay, we can try to create something that is broadly useful in order to secure funding for this bigger thing that we hold that we think is valuable that doesn't have the same..." This is the classic I get. Every discussion of mine always now digs down to the foundation of real and acceptable reasons for space flight. At the end of the day, the real reason for the shuttle was to continue this human presence in space, and great national symbolism and so forth, but they had to find all these so-called acceptable reasons of cost savings and national security utility and so forth and so on that then they could never execute on. So, I tend to give NASA a break. At the same time, I acknowledge I'm a very sympathetic person to this outcome. The question is, "What would the alternative be? What would have..." I do think it's important to emphasize here in this paper that whatever promises NASA made, they did with this idea that they then would have presidential support to commit to this big ambitious project of a reusable shuttle. What happened was after making these promises, after getting the buy-in, they just get chipped away at by the Office of Management and Budget saying, "You have to go below this total cost. You must not spend more than this. For no reason beyond, that was what was convenient for the administration."

Jack Kiraly: This is what we're allotting you.

Casey Dreier: Yeah. It's like, "You get this much, and you can do it cheaper. How? Well, it's your job to figure that out. I know you can do it cheaper." It's like, "Okay, then you make all these sacrifices among which is ironically increasing the total cost of the lifetime of the mission, because the operational costs tend to be super, super high instead of spending the money early on. Howard McCurdy dives into this in a later paper on a similar topic that I found really interesting, but this trade-off between not wanting to give the resources to do it right, and then being upset that it didn't happen right is it really then NASA's fault? You look for... In a sense, how do you endure in a system that is designed to be somewhat maddening like this, as you said, not great at making these long-term commitments in the first place?

Jack Kiraly: When NASA itself is facing an existential crisis of why are we here to solve the crises, other crises, a crisis about crises, part of it is, well, we have NASA today, right? Do we have NASA today as 0.48% of the federal budget? Is that a high watermark compared to the direction it could have gone post Apollo without convincing President Nixon that they needed to move forward with shuttle? If without shuttle, was there a path forward for NASA to maintain its brand, its direction, and I think its independence too? Could we have seen... I love alternate histories. Could we have seen a situation where NASA then falls into or gets separated out into, well, the national security components, or get absorbed into Department of Defense, and the national prestige components get lumped in with Department of State, and then the scientific components gets put into NSF or some new agency? Then you have a disparate space program that's split between five agencies, and you have no central authority, and maybe it's governed by a space council. Maybe that's an alternative at the time. But looking post Apollo, it was, well, they needed to not just prove what they should be doing next, but prove their existence as a national good, taking the Nixon doctrine to its fullest extent. It's not just the congressional justification for keeping the budget the same as the previous fiscal year, but it's keeping the agency in and of itself. Especially in those formative years of NASA, is it worth keeping it as an agency? I think, I mean, as a space advocate, I'm a little biased. I think the answer is yes. I think having a centralized space agency like NASA is a positive thing. But at the time, 1972, 1971, OMB clearly was not a fan of the men's expenditures that had proceeded in the preceding decade for Apollo. I think that opposition to a concerted national effort could have ended NASA as we think about it today, and could have changed the course of U.S. presence in space if Richard Nixon didn't think it was a positive thing to continue to have humans in space.

Casey Dreier: I mean, that's the interesting question. What do you lose by not having humans in space? On some level, very little in a practical sense. You learn less about what it's like to have humans in spaces essentially, but it does carry... I do feel, and I think it'd be an interesting argument to make in detail at some point, that it is your loss-leader into all this other space activities that you then have to find these backfill justifications of scientific exploration and other aspects of it that make it, again, the so-called acceptable reasons that help keep it this high profile politically interesting supported activity. Losing that, I think it definitely would've fit into that '70s era malaise attitude of retrenchment and regression, particularly in technology and symbolic that we would just stop doing that, or maybe do it so infrequently. We just keep making, I don't know, Saturn 1, V boosters or something like that. Maybe the Russian space program is an interesting core. Maybe that's what it would've looked like, where it was the shell of its former glory obsessed with its past minimally active, what its core things that it does, but not an innovator, and basically only sends humans into space every now and then. You have this whole military. I said this is a separate kind of military component, which is much more active [inaudible 00:46:00].

Jack Kiraly: Well, I'll also say the military component is huge in convincing Nixon, and even the laundry list of capabilities that shuttle would have to promote, or I guess military capabilities for shuttle. One of them is capture containment and disarmament of unfriendly spacecraft, right? Shuttle, I mean, we live in a world today where even anti-satellite testing is generally frowned upon. But in 1972, it was reasonable to think, "Well, maybe if the Cold War went hot, it's going to include combat in space." That was a reasonable expectation, because it was so completely wide open what that future state might look like in space.

Casey Dreier: Have you ever seen the Russian movie Salyut 7 about the... It's their equivalent of Apollo 13 movie. It's an adventure movie to save that space station in I think it's in the mid early '80s. There's a subplot that is entirely made up. I'll just emphasize entirely made up. One of the tensions in the movie is that if the Russians don't save the Space Station Salyut 7, that the U.S. is going to launch a shuttle, and steal it and pluck it. That's the tension of the movie is like, "We got to do this now, or else the U.S. is going to steal this with their space shuttle," to your example.

Jack Kiraly: I think they pulled that plot point entirely out of this OMB report.

Casey Dreier: Probably.

Jack Kiraly: That is a reference.

Casey Dreier: No. No. Who doesn't love reading these OMB reports about this? Any other aspects of this paper that really stood out to you in terms of... I mean, at the end of the day, maybe we should say do you buy the argument that John is making here?

Jack Kiraly: I buy the argument. I mean, one, John's a very persuasive writer, and I think well sourced, well researched, and I buy that in 1986. In May of 1986, you could have deemed the shuttle a policy failure. However, to an earlier point, I think the fact that we still have a space agency and the shuttle lasted as long as it did, is a policy success, because I think you can discount the arguments that NASA had to make to OMB in order to prove its own existence, and the continued use of outer space and continued advancement of capabilities in outer space at the cost of, I think, as we discussed, there being a dearth of planetary science space science missions in the 1980s as a result of shuttle being the sole platform launch vehicle for NASA, which coincidentally wouldn't have... If we didn't have the shuttle, and we stuck with the Titan three, potentially, we would've had more planetary science missions, and we wouldn't have had The Planetary Society in this alternate history, but would we also still have NASA? So, I think in that long view, I mean, I think we still have a space program, and the shuttle continued to run for almost three decades or a little over two decades after this paper was published. I think that is a success. Regardless of what points or arguments that NASA had to make in 1971, in early 1972 to convince Richard Nixon that we should move forward with the shuttle, I think ultimately, the shuttle helped be... It's sort of a case study in why we need a space program to remain competitive, to be innovative, to be pushing the boundaries of what humanity's capable of. We would not have the world that we have today if it weren't for shuttle, despite these early policy failings.

Casey Dreier: An interesting take. I like that. If I had to summarize this, I think I'll emphasize John is a great and clear writer, and it is a pleasure to read papers like this versus the really, really dry ones, which can't exist. I think, again, it just comes down to whose policies apply here. I think we'll take at face value that NASA was not doing this maliciously, was not misrepresenting. It had all the best intentions to say it could be a cost-effective single launch vehicle for the whole U.S. needs, and it was going to be this transformative thing. I think that was the intent. NASA also had the policy goal of building a space station, and doing all this other stuff in space. In that sense, I think, we'll give this... It was 1986, so that hadn't happened yet. It, again, depends what policies you're applying here, and which ones have value, or which ones are the most important to you. In the end of the day, it was not a cost-effective machine to operate, but it didn't matter, because we ran it for 30 years. It didn't stop it from happening, right? It's expensive. Was there an opportunity cost? Probably. But as you know, and we've talked about before, sometimes that money, if it doesn't go to that one program, it just doesn't come to NASA at all. It doesn't, by definition, take money from some other NASA project. Hard to say. That's a really hard one to say exactly where that money would've gone somewhere else, but it's not a guarantee, and we've seen that with other projects. But the paper does make an interesting pivot in the middle. I think that's what to me is the point that I dwell on a bit is that I buy, and I think John makes a great argument that these policy goals that he selects, it did not fulfill, and ended up never fulfilling, particularly the really ill-advised idea to make it the single launch vehicle of the entire nation. It's a military and civilian needs, but pivoting to this idea of national commitment, I think, is harder to defend. I think it isn't as well defended in the scope of this paper, this idea that you need to have this national commitment to make it a policy success, and that's why it did not happen. I think national commitments are really... I mean, I think you've heard us discussing this. They're somewhat ill-defined. They're hard to endure by definition, by just the design of our system. It's not even clear exactly what they mean. I think you can see it with Apollo. It had this national... The base maybe just comes out at the end of the day, it's just money. It's the difference between rhetoric and dollars, because rhetoric is free, and dollars, you only get to spend once. But at the same time, you can't just summon a national commitment, national commitments. This would be an interesting. A historian can email me and yell at me if this is completely wrong. Jack, you have a degree in political science. You can yell at me if this is wrong, but national commitments to me occur because of external events and not internal ones necessarily, because something has to happen that then a national commitments in response to. It's hard to just create a national commitment, and absent, in a sense, some massive thing that is unpredictable. NASA couldn't just summon one of those to create the space shuttle. So, I think it's a standard... I mean, I get it. It's certainly nice to have a national commitment, but I think maybe you're lucky to get one of those a century, which seems to be what our running pace is at the moment with Apollo. So, that would be the area-

Jack Kiraly: Despite multiple attempts to create one, right? Not just in space, but I mean, you have the cancer moonshot. It's this national commitment that has its funding, but it's not this Apollo... I mean, it's called the Cancer Moonshot after Apollo, but not the same level of commitment.

Casey Dreier: If you want to see a national commitment, look at the early days of COVID, and see how quickly the US spent $2 trillion when it wanted to. That's a national commitment. Whatever people's politics and COVID ended up being at the beginning, they couldn't pass that fast enough. Everyone got $1,000 or whatever, and they just suddenly spent trillions of dollars. That's what... I mean, you can't just... Same arguments for why we should support investments in vaccines for massive diseases were the same before and after COVID existed, but only after it came could that kind of money be spent, and that national commitment exists. That's why I wonder you really... It's a high standard to hold to something, and learning, and then the sausage being made in a democratic system becomes less. I'm more sympathetic to that than not having that follow through exist.

Jack Kiraly: Well, I mean, even I think a national commitment also is supposed to, I guess in its vague definition, is something that one person or one group of people decides is the national commitment, and there is a sustained unfettered access to funding to meet that commitment. As with COVID, spare no expense. With Apollo, whatever it costs, it's going to cost, but we're going to get this done. You see that even with Nixon announcing that this is a national commitment on January the 5th, 1972, three months later, OMB is already telling NASA how little of the next federal budget they're going to get. Clearly not a national commitment if you can't spare no [inaudible 00:56:46].

Casey Dreier: Right. I think John has a great line in this paper. Unrealistic expectations obviously lead to later policy failure. I think that's an important part of this too.

Jack Kiraly: That is circled and underlined in my copy of this.

Casey Dreier: Jack, I think the question of this, "Is space shuttle program a policy failure?" Kind of. Is that [inaudible 00:57:11]?

Jack Kiraly: Kind of question mark as in the title.

Casey Dreier: Kind of. It's like emoticon, the shrug emoticon. Yes. In some ways, yes. In some ways, no, which I guess is the most satisfying answer for a policy discussion about as concrete as one gets. Jack, anything else you want to add about this paper that we read today?

Jack Kiraly: No, I think this was a fantastic exercise. I think getting an opportunity to read, I think, a famous space policy article is a fair assessment for something that John wrote. This has been a great exercise, and the lessons learned in this will help inform what we're working on today and the next decade and the next national commitment that we have from the space.

Casey Dreier: God help us when that happens. Jack, thanks for being here. Jack Kiraly is our director of Government Relations in Washington, D.C.. If you, the listener, have an idea for a paper that you want us to talk about or are particularly excited about, please shoot either Jack or I an email, or drop us a note in The Planetary Society's online community. We have that. If you're a member, remember Until then, our next episode will be the first Friday of January 2024. You can subscribe to this podcast on all major podcast networks. If you like the show, please give us a review, a positive one only I request if you have positive things to say, or you can sign up to our free monthly newsletter on space policy and politics, the space advocate at Jack, until next time. Until next paper, ad astra.

Jack Kiraly: Until next time. Ad astra.