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V. Conclusions

Overall, did NASA fully consider all the options for Shuttle configurations? This is a rather subjective question since myriad options were conceivable and NASA did formally consider quite a number of configurations. Yet there were some knowledgeable people who felt that NASA failed to focus on the Shuttle’s overall mission requirements amid examining so many technical alternatives and so much political maneuvering to save the Agency’s future. Donald Rice, then a key OMB staffer with responsibility for NASA oversight, later remarked on the difficulty of getting NASA to pay attention to “alternative designs . . . [not] in the technical detail sense but alternative in terms of mission requirements and why that mattered” (Launius 1996, p. 53). The four goals of reusability/low cost, cross range capability, payload capability, and human rating seemed to eliminate most lifting body and ballistic capsule designs, the two other main options. But as Truax might suggest, NASA’s own culture of innovation paradoxically limited its analysis of opportunities.

In addition, other actors placed significant constraints on what NASA could do. NASA leaned heavily on Air Force support, and the Air Force essentially dictated the cross range capability. The military also desired a large payload capability, and NASA did not want to disappoint. While virtually everybody in the aerospace community agreed that the cost of access to space was a critical issue that a reusable space transportation system needed to address, OMB put additional pressure on NASA to limit the total cost of the system and the total NASA budget. It is certainly possible that by spending more funds on initial research and development, the per-flight or per-pound cost of going into orbit could have been reduced. The issue of whether the Shuttle needed to carry humans into orbit is debatable, but since the Mercury program, the space community has largely agreed that human exploration of space is what excites and motivates the public, and hence Congress, to support NASA. Thus there are strong social reasons behind the four goals that technologically determined the Shuttle’s winged configuration. In other words, the Shuttle is a clear product of heterogeneous engineering, as the technological issues were really also organizational, economic, political, and social (Launius, 1994, p. 34, citing Law and MacKenzie in Bijker, Hughes, and Pinch, passim).

At another level of analysis, other kinds of possible social constructs are useful to consider, but less definitive in their influence. It is highly plausible that the aeronautical training of many, if not most, aerospace engineers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, combined with the relatively long tradition of spaceplane concepts, led the Shuttle designers to favor winged vehicles, but this argument is difficult to prove. Similarly, the arguments that the U.S. generally, and NASA specifically, have cultures favoring innovation over incremental modification are largely accurate. Because there is little tangible evidence to cite the importance of these arguments in this case, their influence remains circumstantial. Nevertheless, I would contend that these all had influence in determining the Shuttle’s winged configuration.

More broadly, what do the specific historical circumstances of the Shuttle case tell us about SCOT? By looking at technological development in the aerospace field, we can see, especially in a field traditionally viewed as very high technology, how the notion that engineers create solutions that are based solely on “objective” technical merit is fallacious. Engineers and scientists, as well as government administrators and politicians, are all human beings and, as such, act in social ways in defining technical problems.

Thus we choose technological goals for specific, although not always readily identifiable, social or political reasons. Vincenti’s analysis is on target when he points out that retractable landing gear has not always been the best overall option for all airplanes. It is the best, however, when customers want airplanes that can fly at relatively high speeds. Similarly, Schatzberg points out that metal has not always been a superior material for airplane construction—it depends on what kind of airplane is needed. The fact that aeronautics researchers worked hard to solve certain problems that metal posed while neglecting comparable research on wood is a good illustration of how the bias towards metal was socially constructed, for whatever broader reasons. In the case of the Shuttle, this paper has identified the four main guidelines for technical configuration options and attempted to explore some possible reasons behind these social constructions.

As both Schatzberg and Vincenti explicitly point out, it is a mistake to view past choices that resulted in successful technologies as unquestionably the right decisions. Such views “are classic exercises in Whig history, judging the past in terms of its contribution to the present” (Schatzberg, p. 35 and also Vincenti, pp. 32–33). In contrast, digging more deeply into why people made the conscious or subconscious technical choices that they did is a worthy attempt at understanding the tight interactions between the social relations of people and the development of technology.

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