Add 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.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why all drugs should be legal. (Yes, even heroin.)
- How to trim $500 from your monthly spending
- Comic-Con 2014: Everything we learned about Avengers 2, Batman v. Superman, and more
- 7 ideas from ancient thinkers that will improve your modern life
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- The big, gaping hole in the liberal policy arsenal
- Face it, ladies: We can't all be beautiful
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- A gay Mormon's complicated journey
- Don't hate the 'poor door'
Subscribe to the Week