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The final space shuttle launch: An end to Nixon's big folly?
TIME's Jeffrey Kluger bids a not-so-fond farewell to Richard Nixon's half-baked plan for an expensive fleet of 'low-orbit space trucks'
The space shuttle Atlantis crew arrives at NASA Kennedy Space facility in preparation for Friday's final liftoff, and the (temporary) end to the 30-year shuttle program.
The space shuttle Atlantis crew arrives at NASA Kennedy Space facility in preparation for Friday's final liftoff, and the (temporary) end to the 30-year shuttle program.
NASA/Kim Shiflett
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dd the space shuttle to the long list of things we can blame Richard Nixon for, says Jeffrey Kluger at TIME. In 1972, when America was basking in "the triumphant afterglow of the Apollo program," Nixon ignored the ambitious, Mars-by-1986 recommendations of his own space task force, scrapped the remaining planned moonshots, and saddled us instead with an uninspiring, expensive, disaster-prone, "reusable, low-orbit space truck." As we prepare to bid farewell to the creaky, "cursed vehicles" — Friday's launch of the Shuttle Atlantis will be the program's last — it's worth remembering that we could have done better. Here, an excerpt: 

A reusable orbital vehicle, Nixon promised in his 1972 statement, "will revolutionize transportation into near space, by routinizing it... [The trip to and from space will be] safer and less demanding for the passengers, so that men and women with work to do in space can 'commute' aloft."

So how'd all that work out?... To hear the shuttle's most enthusiastic supporters tell it, turning the vehicle around between flights would mean little more than hosing it down, gassing it up and putting a little air in the tires — and if the reality had been anything like that, the economies of scale might have brought the price-per-pound of payload down to the one-tenth level Nixon promised.... Nixon might have foreseen a spacecraft that could fly to space 100 times, but the most well-traveled of the five shuttles was Discovery, which made only 38 trips in 28 years. Challenger, the least flown, managed just 10 before its destruction in 1986. The greatest number of missions ever flown in a single year was nine, in 1985.

Read the entire article in TIME.

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