May 22nd, 2013

Meandering From the Moon to the Shuttle

LBJ  probably didn’t care much about the space program. What he did care about was industrializing the south, and he saw the space program as a way to do it. He stopped production of the Saturn 5 in 1967, but that was supposed to be a temporary measure to make the budget numbers look better, with production to resume after the 1968 election.

When he didn’t get reelected, NASA used existing boosters for the moonshots, and figured that the huge wave of public support after the first landing would force open the budget spigots for more rockets. A second production run, with some major improvements, was tentatively planned, along with an Apollo applications program.

Unfortunately, there was no huge wave of public support. The public attitude was overwhelmingly "We did it. We're bored now." There were already plenty of boosters for the missions NASA could get funded. At first the Space Shuttle was supposed to be a supplement to the Saturn 5, but with money short Saturn production didn’t restart, and the longer they didn’t make more Saturns, the more difficult and expensive it got to restart production. The Apollo program had been forced to bring machinist back out of retirement in the first place because there weren’t enough working age machinists to do the very close tolerance parts. Those guys retired again without passing their skills along. No point in training people for a shut-down assembly line.

That’s something I’ve probably mentioned before, but a surprising number of people don’t understand it. If you stop making something for long enough, you stop being able to make it without spending a lot of extra money to figure out how to do it again and retrain the necessary people. A lot of the practical knowledge on how to build things resides in oral tradition on the shop floor, often the shop floor of subcontractors. Once the workforce disperses, good luck on restarting production. Restarting is rarely impossible, but if often prohibitively expensive.

The military discovered the difficulty of restarting production to their chagrin in the early Bush II administration. Bush I and Clinton inherited a military prepared to fight the Soviets, and basically lived off the wealth of munitions and spare parts, without ordering much in the way of new stuff. By the Bush II administration, those stocks had been used up, but a lot of the manufacturing base hadn’t had orders for twelve years, so it went away. We had to rebuild that base after 9/11, at a huge premium. That's true of design teams too, by the way, as the British found out to their sorrow in World War II. Their battleship design teams from pre-World War I didn't get a chance to properly hand off battleship design knowledge to the next generation due to the battleship moratorium of the 1920s and early 30's, and the once world-leading British produced mediocre designs for World War II (in my opinion--saying that in some circles is a good way to start a flame-war).

Which is a round-about way of saying that to some extent we drifted into making the shuttle with little technology carryover from Apollo, rather than making a definite decision to do it that way.

I supported the Shuttle at first, but became more and more disillusioned as it became obvious that in many ways it was a major step backwards. It still had some cool technology, and might have worked better if some of the related systems like an orbital transfer vehicle (space tug) and a shuttle-derived cargo vehicle had been built.

Part of NASA’s problem after the moonshot was that the infusion of money for the Apollo program attracted a lot of political/management types to what had been an engineering-dominated culture, and the management types pushed out the best of the engineers eventually. NASA's best days were already gone by the time of the moonshots.