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What if NASA had used as much existing Apollo hardware as possible for the Space Shuttle?

By Allen W. McDonnell and Jeff Provine

This article was originally posted on Today in Alternate History (twitter)and the original article can be found there. Please check that blog for more like this.

Original design of fully-reusable shuttle of North American Rockwell (1969) as drawn by NASA

The Space Shuttle is an iconic vehicle but one not particularly popular among space enthusiasts on the basis that it was a machine with a tortured design process (as covered in another article on this blog) and a lot of flaws. The use of ceramic tiles, completely new engines with external tank and Solid Rocket Boosters were particularly controversial. NASA and international partners required 136 launches with seven different launch vehicles to build the International Space Station. Using the old two stage Saturn V configuration it could have all been placed in orbit in 10 to 12 launches. The below scenario posits a less ambitious Shuttle programme.


A joint study conducted by NASA and the U.S. Air Force concluded that a reusable orbiter was the most cost-effective way of satisfying their future demands for a new space vehicle. With the moon landing three years away, it was major milestone that went largely unrecognized at the time.

The proven technology of the two-stage Saturn V rocket was the logical choice of heavy launch vehicle, saving both cost and accelerating development time. Re-purposing Apollo hardware proved to be more than expedient. Most significant of all, a new "means to an end" approach would emerge. This was at a critical juncture when public interest was fading fast and even the U.S. Air Force was losing enthusiasm in the space program.

The stunning success of the Space Shuttle sharpened the focus, turning attention to Skylab, the very first U.S. space station. Occupied by American crews for up to twenty-four weeks at a time, Skylab made permanent (or at least long-term) living in space possible. But this was only made possible by affordable space flights from a reusable orbiter.

The next major breakthrough was the centrifuge segment that enabled astronauts to sleep and exercise, maintaining bone health that made living in space long term much healthier for the crew. Less than a decade after the moon-landing, the Space program had gone off-world - it was a truly remarkable achievement.

A NASA-only program would likely have focused on non-military applications such as science but the continued involvement of the U.S. Air Force near-guaranteed weaponization. By the time that the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, Washington was ready to abandon the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which prohibited nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons from being placed in or used from Earth's orbit. The result was the so-called "rod from the Gods", a bundle of telephone-pole-size tungsten projectiles that could hit a city with the explosive power of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Project Thor was successfully used in Grenada, and the Falklands, but most decisively to repel the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991. This weaponized space platform became of increasing importance after September 11th, enabling the United States to quickly win the war on terror by eliminating Osama Bin Laden and his al-qaeda terrorists in the caves of Tora Bora. The next phase was a mini-rod that could intercept another September 11 attack.

With orbital weapons considered a new level expected of national defense, a new chapter of the Space Race began to fill orbit with "floating fortresses". The Outer Space Treaty had been challenged in 1976 with the Bogota Declaration in which eight equatorial nations called for sovereignty over the portions of geostationary orbit that lie continuously over their territories. Although it initially did not gain much traction, US backing through the 1980s effectively broke up Earth's low orbit into a series of "islands" and "international waters" where artificial satellites could travel.

An offshoot of the rapid production of standardized Saturn V rockets was the declining cost for private satellites for weather and communications. Satellite television and later internet access drove companies to invest in their own long-term living facilities for repairs and updates. Space tourism flourished with ever-growing populations in orbit for customer support and care. The Moon became the next obvious destination, which offered not only real estate but mineral wealth such as earth-common gold more prevalent in upper regions due to the lower gravity and minerals unique to the moon. With the Outer Space Treaty effectively in the world's recycling bins, the Moon would also serve as the next step to commercially colonizing the rest of the solar system.


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