On January 5, 1972, President Richard Nixon signed legislation and announced the development of the United States Space Shuttle Program.
Though this was the first time this program had been announced, curiosity about building space ships started in the 1930s. The 1950s saw the building of rocket planes which flew test flights and eventually made it into outer space. In the late 1950s, the United States was challenged by the Soviet Union who had put the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into orbit and sent the first man to outer space in the early ’60s. President John F. Kennedy then put together a plan to put the first man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. The Apollo program was then started and Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969. Further space explorations and goals were then set into motion.
President Nixon spearheaded the development of the Space Task Group, whose main objective was to evaluate previous shuttle studies, and suggest a space exploration strategy that would include building a reusable space shuttle. NASA expressed its goal to Congress, presenting them with a less expensive way for them to travel to space.
In 1972, when Nixon signed the $5.5 million legislation for the development on the space shuttle, he focused on the practical benefits of building reusable spaceships, and how it would mean more trips to space for a lower overall cost. This could allow for further developments in space research for the U.S.
“…in moving out from our present beach-head in the sky to achieve a real working presence in space – because the Space Shuttle will give us routine access to space by sharply reducing costs in dollars and preparation time. The new system will differ radically from all existing booster systems, in that most of this new system will be recovered and used again and again – up to 100 times. The resulting economies may bring operating costs down as low as one-tenth of those present launch vehicles.”
Although these thoughts were lofty and seemed attainable, President Nixon was not completely right. Expressed in a 2011 Time commentary on the last shuttle launch, Jeffrey Kluger stated that the cost of the last launch totaled up to $500 million dollars, and several months of maintenance were required between flights to keep ships running. Discovery was the shuttle out of the five built to make the most flights with 38 flights in 28 years, while two of the shuttles, the Challenger and the Columbia both perished along with their crews. Although shuttles were not as reusable as Nixon had originally envisioned, there were several leaps and bounds were made in space exploration and discovery. Kluger referenced these in his article,
“These shuttles built the International Space Station, carried the Magellan, Ulysses and Galileo probes aloft and sent them on their ways to Venus, the sun and Jupiter respectively. They lofted the Hubble Space telescope too — easily the most productive scientific instrument ever built — and made occasional servicing runs to it, with astronauts conducting surgically precise repair work on the $1.5 billion instrument in the impossibly challenging environment of space.”
The Space Shuttle Program was extended many times beyond its preconceived lifespan, mostly due to the intention to finish the International Space Station. The ISS is funded until 2020, and may operate until 2028. The final Space Shuttle launch was of the Atlantis on July 8, 2011.