Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Early Space Shuttle concept art

Even before the Apollo program landed astronauts on the moon, NASA began firm plans for a re-usable spacecraft that would make regular trips into low-earth orbit. The original purpose for such a vehicle was to service a space station that would support further human spaceflight endeavours. These plans included establishing a permanent human presence on the moon, and landing a crew on Mars by the early 1980s.

On 29 January 1969, NASA awarded a first round of contracts to American aerospace manufacturers to define what form this re-usable spacecraft—initially designated the integral launch and reentry vehicle (ILRV)—might take. Over the next three years, NASA evaluated multiple designs as the agency refined the Space Shuttle concept. Some prints in my collection illustrate but a few of those proposals:

This design was one of the earliest; the work of Max Faget at NASA, who called it the DC-3 as an homage to the legendary airliner that revolutionised air travel in the 1930s. The design was similar in general layout to a conventional transport aircraft and much simpler than the exotic spaceplanes that the aerospace industry was proposing for the ILRV. The North American Rockwell Corporation (today, part of Boeing) took up Faget’s approach and earned a development contract for the design in December 1969.

The basic Space Shuttle concept is evident here: a winged spaceplane that lands on an ordinary runway instead of parachuting down like all previous spacecraft had. Note the large payload bay doors in the spine: a feature defined at the very beginning that would persist right through the design process.

The DC-3 was eventually doomed when NASA and the US Air Force were constrained to merge their disparate requirements for a re-usable spacecraft. The DC-3 (by now, redesignated the NAR A-2) could not meet Air Force requirements: specifically, the need for extended atmospheric range after re-entry from polar orbits.

The McDonnell Douglas Corporation (today, also absorbed into Boeing) attempted to reconcile competing requirements with a variable-geometry approach nicknamed the “drawbridge”. Both these slightly different 1970 designs feature a wing that could fold upwards to shorten the re-entry path of a vehicle returning from equatorial orbit or be braced downwards (as in these illustrations) for extended flight after returning from polar orbit.

Slightly pudgier in its lines, this next McDonnell Douglas design from later that year displays the fixed delta-wing and tail-less approach that would eventually prevail. Note the robot arm—another essential shuttle feature—making an early appearance.

This is one of Boeing’s early proposals, also dating from 1970. Like the DC-3, this was not a contender for the ILRV project itself, but was an alternate design strategy that the firm offered NASA instead. It illustrates the philosophy common to all these early designs: unlike conventional launch systems where the lower stages of the vehicle are simply discarded and destroyed when their fuel is exhausted, the shuttle was to use a winged lower stage that would be piloted back to Earth for re-use. In this illustration, the lower stage is launching a conventional rocket stage (Saturn S-IVB) instead of a shuttle.

This next design was a 1971 combined proposal from two firms more traditionally in competition with each other, and shows how a winged orbiter and winged lower stage would launch together.  The Boeing lower stage proposed here was a winged version of the Saturn S-IC stage (the first stage of the Saturn V moon rocket), designated the RS-IC. It was to boost the Grumman (today, Northrop Grumman) H-33 spaceplane into orbit. Note the delta wings and externally carried fuel of the orbiter.

This 1971 design was another joint submission along similar lines. In this case, the winged booster falling away in the first picture was a Convair (then part of  General Dynamics, today part of Boeing) project, designated the B8G.  The futuristic-for-its-day orbiter, the NAR-134-B, was another North American Rockwell design.

Almost there! During 1971, shrinking budgets forced NASA to abandon its insistence on a fully re-usable design and instead consider an only partially re-usable approach. This Rockwell International proposal is already recognisable as the shuttle that NASA would eventually buy. Note that the main engines are part of the booster; the orbiter only carries manœuvering engines, which are not fired during launch. This differs from the eventual direction of the NASA shuttle, but is the approach that the Soviet space program chose for its Бура́н (Buran) shuttle in the 1980s.

Finally, this is the Rockwell design at the point where NASA awarded the final contract for the system, on 26 July 1972. All the elements of the shuttle that would fly nearly a decade later are in place at last—quite a different bird from Faget’s design, but similar in general principle.

As for the space station, the Space Shuttle program continued long after budget cuts forced the cancellation of the station and the shuttle’s main mission. However, by the mid 1990s, shuttles were flying regular missions to the Russian Мир (Mir) space station and then to the International Space Station, neither of which were conceivable in the early 1970s. The program had come almost full circle.

Copyright information: All the prints in my collection are from news archives and appear to have been circulated to the media without copyright notices. As works published in the United States prior to 1978 without such notices, these images would be in the public domain. Apart from Grumman, every one of the various aerospace companies that produced these images between 1969 and 1972 have since been absorbed into Boeing, and any images not actually in the public domain would now belong to them. If copyright still exists in any of these images, use here is claimed to be fair use for the purpose of education and commentary in a non-commercial setting as permitted by 17 U.S.C. § 107.

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