Updated Sunday 15 May, 2011 12:18 PM

   Headlines  |  Alternate Histories  |  International Edition

Home Page


Alternate Histories

International Edition

List of Updates

Want to join?

Join Writer Development Section

Writer Development Member Section

Join Club ChangerS


Chris Comments

Book Reviews


Letters To The Editor


Links Page

Terms and Conditions



Alternate Histories

International Edition

Alison Brooks



Other Stuff


If Baseball Integrated Early


Today in Alternate History

This Day in Alternate History Blog








Toward an Alternate History of the Space Age II:

An Alternate Shuttle?



By Nader Elhefnawy



In the 1970s, writers like G. Harry Stine and Gerard K. O'Neill anticipated a dazzling spaceborne future for humanity, complete with orbital manufacturing, large-scale space-based solar power production, and ambitious colonization efforts--all in place by that distant year 2000.

These visions were in large part based on the expectations regarding the cost and performance of NASA's space shuttle current at the time. The original vision for them called for a vehicle that could safely manage 25-60 flights a year, while hauling cargo up to orbit at the rate of $500 a pound or less--a sharp improvement over earlier rates. It was also expected to be extremely safe, with a mission failure rate guessed to be something on the order of 1/1000th of 1 percent.

The reality proved to be considerably different. As it turned out, the shuttle could fly only three missions or so a year, and when the costs of the total shuttle program are averaged out over the number of flights achieved, the per-pound price comes to $10,000, representing no improvement over earlier rates. Of the first 113 missions, two ended up failures--the 1986 Challenger disaster, and the 2003 Columbia disaster--implying a failure rate two thousand times as high as originally expected.

Under these circumstances, the financing and logistics of the ambitious schemes were simply unworkable. Yet the question remains. Was the disappointment inevitable, the expectations simply unrealistic given the technological state of the art in the 1970s, when the program was conceived and initially executed? Or was a more successful developmental path conceivable, as critics of NASA often argue?

The debate is an intrinsically counterfactual one, and it raises the plausibility of all those visions. Was a more boldly, grandly spacefaring civilization a possibility in the early twenty-first century?

This question is one we may actually see answered in the coming years, amid all the talk of a return to the moon, not only by NASA, but an assortment of newer actors which have had lower profiles in orbit, from private corporations to the newly ambitious national programs of increasingly affluent Asian states. Whether they will answer the question in the affirmative or the negative, however, remains to be seen.


Hit Counter