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.
To date, there is no evidence whatsoever that such mission was even seriously considered. The reason why the Space Shuttle was built was politics; there was no hidden agenda (at least, not one envisioned by the Soviets). But this paranoid line of thinking did leave a legacy, or two.
One of the legacies was the Soviet “Buran” shuttle program. Apparently, Buran got built and largely resembled the U.S. shuttle simply because the Soviets could not understand why the United States was wasting so much money on the Space Shuttle; however, Buran really was a weapon, with a planned capability to drop up to 20 nuclear bombs from orbit.
Another legacy is the image above. Taken from a Soviet 1986 civil defense booklet, it illustrates the “nuclear attack arsenal of the USA.” Prominently portrayed alongside MX missile is the “space system ‘Shuttle.’” In other words, the Soviets were so certain that the white elephant was simply a weapon in disguise that they printed it to a recognition guide!
Many thanks to NAJ Taylor and Alex Wellerstein for bringing this to my attention, and to whoever so kindly provided the scans of this booklet in the first place.
http://www.buran.su/ – info about Buran’s combat role. See also Astronautix entry on Buran: http://www.astronautix.com/craft/buran.htm
Garber, S. J. (2002). Birds of a Feather? How Politics and Culture Affected the Designs of the U.S. Space Shuttle and the Soviet Buran. Master’s thesis, Virginia Tech. Retrieved from http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/available/etd-01282002-104138/unrestricted/birdsfinalcomplete4.pdf
http://bunker-datacenter.com/plakat.go/ – Hi-res scan of a Soviet 1986 civil defense booklet