3 June 2020

Space Shuttle Concept Art of the 1960s and 1970s

The idea of a spacecraft returning from space to a horizontal landing had been around for decades before the first operational space shuttle flight in 1982. A proposal had been submitted to NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA’s predecessor) in 1954, just eight years after the Second World War. That proposal would ultimately become the X-15 aircraft but classified studies in to the next generation of space transportation systems continued.

An important part of these studies was the production of concept art which could help senior military and political figures (as well as, later, the general public) to visualize the potential shape of things to come. Some of the concept art is remarkably prescient while others are more than a little off the mark. Now historical documents, the drawings for the space shuttle, created before the age of computer aided design, offer a fascinating insight in to how things may have been – as well as how they actually turned out.

There was a great debate, initially, about whether or not the shuttle could be fully reusable.  The preferred optimization, initially, was that it would be.  This involved a huge, winged booster which would carry the orbiter to specific speed and altitude before separation.  The plan was that the booster would then return and land horizontally, as would the orbiter after I had completed its mission.  It was thought that this full reusability would enable the enormous operating costs to be lowered.

While re-usability was an admirable aim, additional research showed that the booster would have to be huge in order to take the anticipated payloads in to space.  The booster and the shuttle would need rocket engines as well as jet engines which would be used when they returned inside the Earth’s atmosphere. This would further involve separate control and fuel systems for each mode. As anything to do with weight in space travel is closely related to cost the plan for complete re-usability was eventually abandoned.

The shuttle was unpopular in some quarters because of the limits on its payload. Another idea that competed with an orbiter was to use the Saturn V expendable rocket instead.  To this day it holds the record for the heaviest payload launched and heaviest payload volume to Low Earth orbit.  Instead of sending up lots of shuttles with small payloads the idea would be to send the Saturn V up much fewer times but with considerably larger payloads.

Given the ambitions for the amount of hardware set to float above our heads, this idea had credence and for a time it looked as if it would supersede the shuttle concept. Imagine how many trips would be needed to facilitate the construction of the station imagined below.

The supporters of the shuttle came back with figures.  They argued that a reusable system would have lower costs by dividing the total cost of the entire program by the number of shuttle launches per year.  All satellites, commercial, scientific and Air Force would use the shuttle and 55 launches per year would make it cheaper than expendable launchers. This tipped the situation in favour of the shuttle but, in truth, the final design would not support anything near that launch rate.  Furthermore only 24 external tanks could be produced each year.  Nevertheless, the shuttle was given the go ahead.  In some of the concept art it was beginning to become more recognizable.

The reusable booster idea would go soon after.  An external propellant tank would be used and discarded after each launch (relatively not a huge cost) and the booster rockets, together with the orbiter itself would be continually overhauled, repaired and used again and again.  Another design element would soon be eliminated – the jet engines which were to manoeuvre the orbiter after re-entry.  A gliding orbiter was decided upon which would reduce technical complexity as well as enable the orbiter to carry a larger payload.

By 1972 a number of manufacturing conglomerates were able to submit proposals and the competition was on to see who would build the shuttle.

Fast forward to 1981 and experimental flights took place culminating in the first operational space shuttle flight in 1982. The jury is still out on the final lessons the shuttle may have taught us. Yet these examples of concept art, which mirror in some ways the development of the shuttle itself, are a fascinating insight in to a time so very different to our own.

Kuriositas would like to thank San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives for making these amazing concept designs available. Please visit their Flickr Photostream.