With yet another episode of “let’s-just-quote-Jorge-Frank-because-he-puts-it-so-much-better-than-I-could”. In response to a comment about how the problem with Shuttle was that it tried to be everything to everyone, Jorge said:
That was an effect, not a cause. The cause was the decision to make the shuttle an operational, rather than an experimental vehicle. This was key. An experimental vehicle would have been much smaller and would have had a cockpit and an instrument bay rather than a crew cabin and a payload bay.
The decision to concentrate on existing governmental (civilian and military) and commercial customer requirements was subsequent to that. At the time, the entire US launch market was around 50 per year. So in order to be economical, the shuttle had to be capable of meeting the requirements of all those customers. That led to the “too many cooks” problem you mention. But note that the problem could have been averted at *two* prior points: the decision for an operational vehicle (rather than experimental) and the decision to target existing markets (rather than postulate that the presence of an ultra-low-cost launcher on the market, even if that launcher could only carry small payloads, might drive the market toward smaller payloads).
Monte Davis, and several others, have made the first point–that the shuttle should’ve been an experimental vehicle, not an operational one. But I think Jorge’s second point is even more interesting–that even though they made that first mistake, that they didn’t have to compound it by going for something at the first try that could meet all the nation’s *existing* launch needs. Even if that would’ve meant a lot less political support (and hence money for development), if they had gone with something small, and focused on trying to enable new markets instead of trying to replace existing ones, I think things could’ve turned out a lot differently. If they had only had 1/4 the development budget, but build a vehicle 1/10th as big, I think they could’ve actually delivered a fully reusable vehicle. And even if it was a crappy, first generation reusable vehicle, that had lots of flaws, there’s still a good chance it would have been good enough to make a huge difference.
The DC-3 was revolutionary for its time even though it is far inferior to modern jet liners. Even a Falcon-1 class RLV that could only fly twice a month per airframe would revolutionize the industry.
Just a thought.