Futuribles Journal n° 320

Recherche, sciences, techniques

The American Space Shuttle. Analysis of a Strategic Error


It was against the background of the technological rivalry between East and West during the Cold War that the United States launched a programme in the early 1970s to build a space shuttle. In addition to affirming America's technological superiority, the aims of the space shuttle were to put commercial satellites into orbit and, in the longer term, to build and use an orbiting space station (which became in time an international venture).
Several incidents occurred in the course of the Shuttle programme, two of them sadly resulting in the death of the whole crew: Challenger (in 1986) and Columbia (in 2003). André Lebeau looks back on the various strategic errors in the design of the Shuttle and in the launch operations that led to these disasters and to the fact that the programme is now more or less bogged down.
After a discussion of the technical reasons for these setbacks, he highlights the unfortunate interplay of financial constraints and pressures to perform that led to dangerous decisions being taken (linked in part to the growth of real international competition). Lastly, he stresses the way that the running of such a programme encounters technical, economic and political obstacles and delays that make any change of direction both slow and complicated.

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