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Space system “Shuttle,” part of USA’s nuclear attack arsenal?


The story of a white elephant colloquially known as the Space Shuttle is familiar to most students of the history of technology. The shuttle was originally touted as a cheap way to access space: being mostly reusable, it would have done for space travel the same what DC-3 did for air travel, i.e. open up the space for large-scale exploration and exploitation.


Of course, we all known how that promise fared the test of reality. Instead of envisioned 50 or so annual launches (which may actually have covered the program’s staggering cost), shuttles went up perhaps six times a year. There simply were not enough payloads looking for space access, and refurbishing the shuttle always took longer than early analysis had assumed. However, the shuttle had been sold to the Congress on a launch schedule that even its ardent supporters believed unrealistic. Therefore, the shuttle remained in the agenda for largely political reasons, possibly because of fears that if it was cancelled, there would be nothing else to loft NASA’s astronauts into orbit. In the end, the “cheap” and reusable space access turned out to be (probably) less safe and far more expensive than using expendable, throwaway boosters would have been.


However, the Shuttle provoked interesting reactions back in the day. Since the name of the game on both sides of the Cold War was paranoia about adversary’s intentions, every pronouncement and every program was pored over with a looking glass by unsmiling men in drab offices. When the U.S. announced the Space Shuttle, the Soviet analysts naturally went to work. However, it soon became apparent to them that the launch schedule NASA had advertised – over 50 launches per year – was hopelessly optimistic. The Soviets, being no slouches in the rocketry department, could not fathom why NASA wanted to build a complex, reusable spaceplane instead of simply using more tried and reliable expendable launch vehicles (Garber, 2002:16).


But there seemed to be one customer for the shuttle that would not mind the cost or the complexity.


Eager to sell the shuttle as the only space access the United States would need, NASA had teamed up with the U.S. Air Force. The Air Force was responsible for launching all U.S. defense and intelligence satellites, and if NASA could say to the Congress that Air Force, too, could use the shuttle, then NASA had extra political leverage to extract funds to build one. It was immaterial that the military did not really have a requirement for a shuttle: what was apparently far more important was that NASA could therefore insulate the shuttle from the political charge that it was just a step towards human exploration of Mars, or a permanent space station. Both of these were exactly what some people at NASA wanted it to be, but they also happened to be directions that President Nixon had rejected as too expensive in 1971 (Garber, 2002:9-13).

Therefore, the shuttle design requirements expanded to include political shielding. This took the form of payload bay size (designed to accommodate spy satellites of the time) and, more importantly, “cross-range capability.” The Air Force wanted to have an option of sending the shuttle on an orbit around the Earth’s poles; scientifically, this was a relatively uninteresting orbit, but for reconnaissance satellites that sweep the Earth’s surface, it’s ideal. The military also wanted to have an option of even capturing an enemy satellite and returning after just one orbit, quick enough to escape detection (Garber, 2002:12).

However, this requirement caused a major problem. Because the Earth rotates under the spacecraft, after one orbit the launch site would have moved approximately 1800 kilometers to the East. If the craft is to return to base after one orbit, instead of waiting in orbit until the base again rotates underneath it, it would have to be able to fly this “cross-range” distance “sideways” after re-entering the atmosphere (Garber, 2002:12).


In the end, NASA designed a spacecraft with required cross-range capability. This meant large wings, which added weight and complexity, which in turn decreased the payload, which in turn required more powerful engines, which in turn made everything more complicated… (In all fairness, for various good reasons, NASA might have designed a relatively similar shuttle even without the Air Force requirements. However, it seems that the requirement had at least some effect to the cost and complexity of the shuttle.)



Because all this was public knowledge, the analysts in the Soviet Union rejoiced. A spacecraft that could launch from the Vandenberg Air Force Base,do a single polar orbit, and then return stealthily to its base could be nothing else than a weapon in disguise. It was immaterial that few if any analysts could figure out why such an expensive craft was being built: obviously, the capitalist aggressor must have had discovered something that justified the huge expense. An analysis by Mstislav Keldysh, head of the Soviet National Academy of Sciences, suggested that the Space Shuttle existed in order to lob huge, 25-megaton nuclear bombs from space directly to Moscow and other key centers (Garber, 2002:17). The real danger was that the shuttle could do this by surprise. There would be little to no warning from early warning radars, and no defense…..

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November 18, 2013 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Guess there were paranoids in the Kremlin if this story has one iota of truth in it – far as the Space Shuttle being a “white elephant”, if there were no Space Shuttle, the Hubble Telescope would not have been in orbit or have been fixed and the International Space Station would not exist. Nothing else had the capabilities of the shuttle which always was purely NASA. The Manned Orbiting Laboratory was the last military space mission. The Soviets had a manned observer platform themselves and it was in orbit much longer than the MOL. I know this is the “hate America” site hosted by Word Press, but is there not a limit to the innanity of Sean and Christina. They are perfect examples of why there really is no internet censorship in US, UK, Europe, etc, but they constantly claim the contrary.

    Comment by Roger | November 19, 2013 | Reply

  2. For any of you who were bitten by the space bug early on and delight in reading good material, there is an excellent reference, the Master’s Thesis by Stephen Garber who personally interviewed the former Secretary of the Air Force as part of his studies – this is linked to the article, but here is the direct link.

    Birds of a Feather? How Politics and Culture Affected the Designs of the U.S. Space Shuttle and the Soviet Buran by Stephen J. Garber Candidate for master’s degree in Science and Technology Studies Virginia Tech – Northern Virginia campus

    Click to access birdsfinalcomplete4.pdf

    Comment by Roger | November 19, 2013 | Reply

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