I’m still not trying to claim omniscience by saying that had NASA taken this alternative route (building a set of very small RLV demonstrators/X-Vehicles first instead of Shuttle) that everything would have been perfect. But I figured it would be worth thinking a bit about some of the potential implications.
What if the public’s first impression of the difficulty of reusing rocket engines was the RL-10 instead of the SSME? Instead of hundreds of engineers tearing the engine down after each and every flight (as was the case at first with the SSME), there’d have been a little bit of post flight inspection (with the engine still fully assembled), with overhauls only once every 20-50 flights.
What if the public’s first impression of TPS wasn’t the brittle ceramic tiles on our high cross-range, high ballistic coefficient shuttle, but was a more robust metallic TPS or ceramic cloth TPS on a low ballistic coefficient vehicle?
What if the public’s first impression of an orbital RLV was a vehicle that could be launched from any airport in the world that could handle a 747, instead of something that required thousands of workers, massive crawlers and launch towers, and was only considered safe to launch over the open ocean?
What if the public’s first impression of an RLV being serviced between flights was in a standard aircraft hangar, and if their first impression of RLV stages being stacked was a simple overhead gantry crane in said hangar, instead of the massive Vertical Assembly Building?
What if the public’s first impression of the manufacturing of an orbital RLVs was that they cost about the same as a medium sized passenger jet, and were expected to fly hundreds of times before being retired, instead of costing an order of magnitude more, and only flying just barely over once per year per airframe?
What if the public’s first impression of the economics of an RLV was that they were cheap enough that private firms like FedEx and PanAm could buy and operate multiple tail numbers for intercontinental package and personnel delivery, instead of being so expensive that only NASA could afford to own and operate them?
What if rocket vehicles were actually flying enough that maintenance costs, and hardware lifetime started becoming as important as the same for early jet engines? What improvements to robustness and reusability would we have seen over the past 30 years?
What if a smaller, simpler vehicle had been ready in time to refuel Skylab so it wouldn’t have been allowed to deorbit? What if people’s first experience with a space station were based on vehicles that could fly once per day per vehicle, instead of once per year per vehicle? A station where new crew or scientists or tourists could visit every day, with new experiments coming up and down just like on a ground based lab?
What would have happened to the orbital launch market if all of the sudden Boeing or McDonnell Douglas, or whoever was selling launch vehicles as fast as they could make them? How much money and how many competing designs would’ve sprung up in short order? Especially if developing an orbital RLV was seen as being not vastly more difficult than designing a commercial passenger jet?
It’s an interesting thought, isn’t it?
The other interesting thought is the realization that such small RLVs are still doable today, and in fact can probably be developed for less thanks to all the advances over a lifetime. Just a thought.