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Fall from Grace: Defining the Decline of NASA

Updated on June 19, 2013
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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA, is today an organization in decline, both in the eyes of the American public and Washington policy makers. The decline of this once great organization has often been marked by historians as beginning after the destruction of the Space ShuttleChallenger, but the decline actually began over fifteen years prior, after the euphoria over the first manned moon landing of Apollo 11 had worn off. Prior to this decline, however, NASA was at the forefront of American scientific advancement and was romanticized in the eyes of the America public. America’s first tentative steps into space were front page news, and the successful landing of Apollo 11 carrying the first men to set foot on the surface of the moon was an event so momentous that historians still write about it over forty years later. These early years of the “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union still manage to capture the imagination of the public today, with Hollywood putting out movies such as Apollo 13, and television shows like From the Earth to the Moon that dramatize these already dramatic events.

So what exactly happened? Despite a slight rebound in the 1990’s to the early 2000’s,[1] American public opinion of NASA has been low since the early 1970’s. However, many historians, such as Claus Jensen and Tony Reichhardt, argue that public opinion did not turn against NASA and the American space program until after the destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.It is easy to understand why; the Challenger disaster was a major event in the history of the American space program, of that there can be no doubt. But was the destruction of the Challenger the event of that caused NASA’s decline? No. The decline actually began over a decade prior to the loss of Challenger, after the successful moon landing of Apollo 11. This decline, at least in economic terms, can be traced through the continuously slashed budgets NASA throughout the 1970’s and early 1980’s. The decline of NASA in public opinion is more difficult to trace, but it is no less important. A look at the indifference of the public at large shows that American enthusiasm over the space program saw a sharp plummet in the wake of Apollo 11 and remained low until the late 1990’s.[2]

The decline of NASA in throughout the 1970’s is often overlooked by historians due to the Challenger disaster, a tragic event in both the U.S. space program and history in general. On January 28, 1986, the space shuttleChallenger lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center on its tenth mission. Onboard were six astronauts and one teacher, Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher in space. McAuliffe’s presence onboard meant that an unusually large number of people were watching the event live. For those watching, it would be an event they would never forget. Seventy-three seconds after liftoff, a technical malfunction resulted in the total destruction of the spacecraft and the loss of all seven crew members. The disaster shocked both the American public and the world, and led to a thirty-two month hiatus in the U.S. space program. Challenger became one of the biggest disasters of the Twentieth Century, and is considered by many— both NASA historians and the general American public— to be the main event that led to the decline of the U.S. space program, which in their eyes had had nowhere to go but up prior to the disaster.[3]

Many historians of both America’s space program and the Challenger disaster, such as Claus Jensen and Tony Reichhardt, mark this incident as the event that began NASA’s decline in the public’s eye. Reichhardt makes the claim that “space shuttle history can be divided into two eras‑ before Challenger and after.”[4] He also argues that the Space Shuttle program was “The Next Big Thing” in NASA’s history, designed to keep the American public interested in the organization, but only in the way Apple might release a flashy new iPad, not because the organization was in decline. In fact, Reichhardt never mentions a NASA decline prior to Challenger, but instead marks the decline as occurring only after the disaster.[5]

Historian Claus Jensen argues that the Challenger disaster shed light on some of the underling technical difficulties that plagued the space shuttle and which caused the accident in the first place.[6] These technical difficulties, in turn, caused the American public to lose faith in the safety of space travel and called into question whether the American manned space program was worth the exorbitant cost. Jensen paints the pre-Challengerperiod of NASA as time of optimism and growth for the organization. These two arguments are the common consensus of most historians, both of NASA and general history.

What these historians fail to account for is the fact that NASA’s popularity was already in decline before theChallenger disaster, and that this incident only hastened that decline in the minds of the American public, although Reichhardt does hint at it in his introduction.[7] He is the only one, however, and even Reichhardt only scratches the surface. They fail to explain why they believe Challenger was the disaster that caused a decline in the space program and NASA, when there had been other, equally tragic disasters prior, such asApollo 1, which put the manned space program on hold for over a year. Historians also fail to address the rise of private space companies competing with NASA, as these companies have proved to be a cheaper alternative to the organization. And finally, these historians either downplay or completely disregard how the role of other events in the world at large influenced both public opinion and Washington policy towards NASA and the space program.

Looking at the entire history of NASA, its budgets, and its public perception makes it easier to understand where historians have erred in their marking of the organizations decline. Understanding NASA’s history will also show that other events, both internal and external, had a far greater influence on public perceptions of the organization than has so far been realized by historians.

This paper argues the declining popularity of NASA started over a decade before the loss of the Challenger, right after the thrill of Apollo 11’s success had worn off,as well as outlines the causes of this decline. It will also examine how changing political and world events have shaped the course of the space program and what the potential consequences of emerging private companies may have on the future of NASA and the United States in space. The paper also follows the American space program, plotting its highs and lows in the minds of the American public, and shows that there has never truly been one single event that turned the minds of the people, but instead an entire host of events, the biggest of these being the Vietnam War. These historical events pushed NASA out of the public eye and also resulted in the stripping down of NASA’s budgets as money was appropriated to the war effort and national defense.

The Early Years: Sputnik, Project Mercury, and the First Steps

The Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik I on October 4, 1957, took the world by storm. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had been experimenting with rockets since before the Second World War, but it was not until Nazi Germany’s use of the V-1 and V-2 rockets during that war that the U.S. and Russia really took note of this remarkable new technology. Helped by German scientists captured during Operation Paperclip, U.S. post-war rocket experiments proved that not only were rockets a viable weapon, but also that they had the potential of achieving the great human dream of sending objects, and possibly even men, into space. This dream was now within human reach.[8] The question was which nation would achieve the dream first?

By the late 1950’s, the Cold War between the United States and the U.S.S.R. had peaked. The two superpowers had been engaged in an ever increasing competition, both politically and technologically. The launch of Sputnik I struck a resonant chord with the American people and American allies, both of whom demanded that the U.S. government do something to catch up with, and surpass, the Soviet Union in this new “space race.”[9] Only a month later, the Soviets added salt to the American wound by launching Sputnik II,which this time carried a living creature: a dog named Laika. Although the dog did not survive the mission, the step forward technologically left the Americans feeling even further behind. Soviet domination of the skies could not be allowed to continue.

The American government responded quickly to the threat of the Soviets in space. Spurred by both the fear of a communist dominated sky and the demands of American voters, the United States House Select Committee on Aeronautics and Space Exploration created the National Aeronautics and Space Act. Signed by President Eisenhower on July 29, 1958, the act created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known by the acronym NASA.[10] NASA’s first goal was simple: get a man into space, preferably before the Soviets. To this end, NASA initiated Project Mercury. Running from 1959 to 1963, Project Mercury met with partial success: it managed to get a man, Alan Shepard, into space on May 5, 1961.[11] Unfortunately, Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet cosmonaut, had gotten there first, on April 12, 1961, a month before Shepard’s flight.[12] Undaunted, the Americans plowed ahead. The next mission success was the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission, which made John Glenn the first American to orbit the Earth,[13] although the Soviets had also already achieved this feat.

Although still lagging behind the Soviets in the space race, the Mercury program had proven to the American people that the dream of Americans in space was possible, causing an upswing in optimism for NASA, as the American public wished to beat the Soviets. The one man Mercury spacecraft gave way to the two man Geminiproject, which began in 1965 and ran to 1966, with a total of ten manned missions.[14] Gemini was a stepping stone towards the eventual Apollo program. The Gemini spacecraft preformed maneuvers in space, docked two vehicles, one manned and one unmanned, in space, and conducted extravehicular activities.[15] All of these objectives were performed successfully, but like the Mercury program before it, Project Gemini simply followed in the footsteps of the Soviets, who had performed all of the same things first.[16] The Gemini missions also surveyed the moon from low Earth orbit, looking for potential landing sites for the forth-coming Apollo program.[17] Although conducted from a spacecraft orbiting Earth instead of the moon, these surveys would eventually help the Americans achieve one of the greatest feats in human history: landing a man on the surface of another planet. The early years of NASA had proved to the Americans that space travel was possible, and both public perception and NASA’s budgets continued to climb.

Chariots of Fire: The Apollo 1 fire and the Early Apollo Missions

The public perception of NASA had continued to rise throughout the late 1950’s into the 1960’s, and optimism ran high in the organization. NASA now began its next great program, Apollo. In Greek mythology, Apollo is the god light and the sun, which makes his name especially appropriate for the most historic and monumental program ever undertaken by NASA. The Apollo program began in 1960 with one goal in mind: landing a man on the moon.[18] Through the early and mid-1960’s, the project incorporated lessons learned and new technologies introduced by the Mercury and Gemini programs. After seven long years, the first mission of Project Apollo was ready.

The first Apollo mission would put the faith the Americans had invested in NASA and the Apollo program to the test. Apollo 1 was to be a simple test mission: a manned test flight of the Apollo Command and Service Module in Earth orbit. Successful completion of this flight would lead to, it was hoped, a moon landing sometime in 1968. Unfortunately, the first mission of the Apollo program was a tragic failure. On January 27, 1967, the three astronauts of Apollo 1, Virgil“Gus” Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee were conducting a test on the launch pad when a fire broke out in the Command Module. Unable to escape, all three astronauts were killed in the first human fatalities of America’s manned space program.[19] The accident shocked the nation, but it did not negatively affect the American public’s opinion on space exploration or the Apollo program. Potential political ramifications blew over due to the strong influence President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was a supporter of NASA from its inception, had over the U.S. Congress. Apollo 2 and Apollo 3 were scrapped following the accident, as investigators attempted to discover the cause of the fire and engineers worked to fix it.[20]

Apollo 1 is an interesting contrast to the Challenger disaster in that American public perception of this accident had no negative effect on American views of manned space flight.[21] The reason for this lies in the fact that public opinion of NASA was still high, and the hopes of the American people still rested soundly on NASA’s shoulders. The same cannot be said of Challenger. By 1986, the public no longer held the space program in the same esteem it had in 1967, when the Apollo 1 accident occurred. This is the first incident that historians get wrong: while agreeing that optimism in NASA was too high for the Apollo 1 fire to dampen the spirit of the American public, they fail to point out why, if NASA was still going strong in the minds of the public in 1986,Challenger had such a negative impact and began the organizations decline.

The effect of Apollo 1 on the public perception of NASA was negligible, but it had a much greater impact on the technical aspects of the organization. During the downtime caused by the investigation and reengineering of the Apollo Command Module, NASA decided to change the rocket used for launching the command module into space from the Saturn IB rocket to the new Saturn V. Due to the fact that the Saturn V was a new launch system, the next three Apollo missions, Apollo 4, Apollo 5, and Apollo 6, were all unmanned, and were used to test the Saturn V’s viability and the safety of the newly redesigned Command Module. The next manned mission was Apollo 7, which lifted off on October 11, 1968 and successfully returned to Earth eleven days later, after completing the first manned Apollo orbit of the planet. Although Apollo 7’s mission was a repeat of the successfulMercury missions, it was important because it showed that the newly redesigned Command Module was safe for human use.

The feelings of the American public towards NASA continued to climb. The success of Apollo 7 meant NASA could move forward with the more ambitious Apollo 8 mission, which had the objective of orbiting the moon.Apollo 8 was a resounding success; it was the first manned spaceflight to leave Earth orbit, the first to orbit another planet, and it studied the surface of the moon more in depth than any previous mission had, including the highly successful Gemini missions. The Apollo 8 mission was not just a technological triumph, but a propaganda one as well. For the first time since the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had begun, the United States had finally beaten the Soviets at something; in this case, being the first to orbit the moon. Now the race was on to put a man on the lunar surface itself. The success of Apollo 8 also proved to be a morale boost to the American public. After suffering through the violent and quite demoralizing year of 1968,Apollo 8’s mission in December lifted public confidence so much that it can be summed up in the words of one woman who sent a telegram to the Apollo 8 astronauts: “Thank you for saving 1968.”[22]

Boosted by the amazing successes of Apollo 7 and Apollo 8, NASA began planning even more ambitious missions. Apollo 9, launched in March of 1969, continued the Americans winning streak. This mission saw the first successful docking of two manned space vehicles. Apollo 10 completed another low orbit pass around the moon, and while this mission only served as a build up to Apollo 11, it is famous for achieving the fastest speed ever attained for a manned vehicle, 24,791 M.P.H., while returning from the moon.[23] The time was ripe for another, even bigger triumph. Riding the high wave of public opinion, NASA finally green lit the mission that would forever change history: Apollo 11 was going to the moon.

For All Mankind: Apollo 11 and the Apex of NASA Popularity

The next Apollo mission would be the high point of NASA popularity, the highest point it would ever achieve. The anticipation and build up to this moment had been growing since the Soviets had launched Sputnik twelve years earlier. All the hopes and dreams of the American space program had just been blasted into space on top 362,000 pounds of rocket fuel. Four days later, the Command Module known as Columbia orbited above the moon. At the controls was Michael Collins, who watched threw a viewport as the Lunar Module Eagle began its descent to the surface. Collins had stayed behind to make sure Eagle had not been damaged while it detached from Columbia. But the Lunar Module was not empty. On board were the two astronauts who would go down in history as the first men to walk on another planet.

The Lunar Module landed near the location known as the Sea of Tranquility. Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11commander, sent back a simple message to Houston Control: “The Eagle has landed.”[24] Two and a half hours later, Armstrong, dressed in an EVA suit, descended the ladder from the Eagle and became the first man on the moon. Armstrong was not the only man to walk on the moon that day. Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the second man on the moon when he followed Armstrong out of the Eagle. The two men spent forty-nine minutes on the moon. They raised the American flag, took a call from President Richard Nixon,[25] and took pictures of the lunar surface and samples of lunar rocks.[26] Finally, Armstrong and Aldrin returned to the Eagle. They then took the Eagle back to Columbia on July 21st. On the 24th, the three astronauts returned safely to Earth.

Apollo 11 made worldwide headlines. It was considered the greatest achievement of the Twentieth Century, and was hailed as the hallmark of the American space program. It was NASA’s moment of glory, the height of the organizations popularity in the minds of the American public. But then, things began to turn. NASA had achieved its overall mission objective. It had successfully pulled ahead of the Soviet Union in the space race, and fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s call to put a man on the moon before the 1960’s were over. The mission had been accomplished, and now the public was looking beyond NASA. Concerns on planet Earth were pushing NASA and the dream of stars into the background. As the war in Vietnam continued and the turbulent sixties ended, the American public began to think that there were more important things to concern themselves with than space. Apollo 11 was the apex of the American dream of space and NASA’s popularity. By the time Apollo 12 was launched four months after Apollo 11, NASA was already beginning its decline.

Mission Accomplished: The Last Missions of the Apollo Program and the Birth of Skylab

Apollo 12 was the next mission to the moon, launched on November 14, 1969.[27] The mission lasted ten days, and was completed successfully. Although Apollo 12 still made headlines, the excitement that had surrounded Apollo 11 was gone. It had already been done; 12 was simply a retread.[28] Despite this fact, Apollo 12 was still a big win for NASA. It kept the organization in the papers and thus relevant amid the turmoil of the Vietnam War. The next Apollo mission would also make front page news, but not in the way NASA had anticipated.

Apollo 13 was supposed to be the third U.S. lunar mission. It left Kennedy Space Center on April 11, 1970.[29] Although space travel is dangerous, the fear of failure that had plagued Apollo 11 had diminished. There had been two successful moon landings with a total of four men walking on its surface. It was becoming routine, and concerns over a possible malfunction were nil. As so often happens when humans begin to get complacent, fate threw NASA a curve ball. On April 13, an explosion crippled the support module that contained the oxygen supply for the Command Module. The three astronauts, James Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise, were forced to use the lunar module as a sort of lifeboat as they turned around and headed back to Earth. After four days spent in a cabin with no heat, limited portable water, and a jury-rigged carbon dioxide removal system, theApollo 13 astronauts returned safely home.

A review board put together by NASA itself determined that the explosion had been caused by excessive pressure buildup in one of the oxygen tanks.[30] The board issued a new set of procedures for astronauts to follow to keep an incident like the one that had occurred on Apollo 13 from happening again,[31] and the space program resumed nine months later. NASA called the Apollo 13 accident a “successful failure.” NASA held this view due to the fact that none of the astronauts had been killed, and that they had been able to return to Earth safely. Although the incident made headlines, it did not tarnish NASA’s reputation, and indeed helped NASA get back in the papers and the public consciousness.[32] Indeed, Apollo 13 may have halted NASA’s decline had there not been a nine month gap between it and Apollo 14. Nine months is a long time to try to keep people’s attention, and unfortunately, NASA was unable to do so.

Apollo 14, launched January 31, 1971,[33] is most famous for Commander Alan Shepard hitting two golf balls on the moon with a makeshift putter.[34] This is indicative of the lack of attention the American public was giving to NASA at this point, as the Apollo 14 astronautsstayed on the moon far longer than those of the previous two moon mission. However, Apollo 14 received little media attention as compared to the previous three Apollo missions. And Apollo 15, Apollo 16, and Apollo 17 received successively less attention than the mission before.[35] Indeed, Apollo 17 is only really famous for being the last manned mission to the moon, by the U.S. or anyone else.[36] Seeing the slipping interest in the space program, NASA decided it needed to repurpose itself for the changing world. The first step in this new restructuring was scrapping the Apolloprogram.[37]

Leftover rockets that had originally been destined to carry men to moon were used by NASA in 1973 to launchSkylab, the first U.S. space station.[38] The first mission of this new program was unmanned, as it simply shotSkylab into orbit.[39] Three manned missions followed throughout the rest of 1973 and into 1974, with the purpose of conducting experiments in space and study the effects long-term time spent in space had on the human body.[40] When the manned space program was scrapped by NASA in 1975, Skylab was left in orbit.[41] The reusable space shuttle that were still on the drawing boards were intended to return to Skylab and add to the space station throughout the eighties.[42] Unfortunately, Skylab’s orbit degraded faster than NASA scientists had planned, and it re-enter the atmosphere in 1979, burning up during its descent.[43] Despite the scientific advances and discoveries made by Skylab, many in Washington and the public at large saw it as a colossal waste of money.

The last mission conducted by Project Apollo involved the vehicle that would have been Apollo 18. 18 was reassigned from its original lunar mission to a joint U.S.-Soviet space program, known as the Apollo-Soyuzmission. Apollo-Soyuz was a great political success for both the United States and the Soviet Union. Unfortunately for NASA, the irony of the last spacecraft of a program that had been specifically designed to beat the Soviets to the moon being docked with a Soviet spacecraft was not lost on the American public. The mission simply drove home the point that many Americans had already started to grasp: the whole point of theApollo program and perhaps the entire organization of NASA had been rendered obsolete. NASA needed to do something to keep itself relevant in the ever-changing world. But what was the solution? What could NASA do to defray the costs of manned space flight while at the same time still keeping a manned space flight program? The solution seemed simple, but the engineering feat that would be required to build NASA’s “Next Big Thing” would take the rest of the decade to complete, causing NASA’s popularity to slide even further in the hearts and minds of the American people.

Backslide: The Late 1970’s and the Birth of the Space Shuttle

After 1975, NASA was like a tumbleweed blowing in the wind. The organization had done what it had been created to do. It had scrapped its most successful and popular program. The biggest issue facing NASA in the late 1970’s was plummeting popularity and it knew the longer manned missions remained on the ground, the harder it would be for NASA to rebound. The lack of manned space flight was keeping NASA out of the media and thus out of the public eye. What was needed was a new spacecraft, one that could be reused, a kind of airplane in space that would theoretically cut the costs of manned space flight. Creating this new spacecraft would last the rest of the decade and would eventually lead to the space shuttles.

The slipping popularity of NASA should not be construed as meaning that the organization was idle during the late seventies. In fact, several important scientific and technological advances were made during this time. But as far as the word at large was concerned, NASA might not have existed. Unfortunately, NASA did not go unnoticed by the Washington politicians. NASA saw its budget cut every year from 1970 to 1986. Here again is where historians have erred in their argument that Challenger began the decline of NASA. In fact, the budget rebounded in 1987 and continued increasing until 1993, where it hit 1.01% of the Federal budget, before going back into a tailspin that it has yet to come out of.[44]

Despite these budget cutbacks, NASA forged ahead with their plans for a reusable spacecraft. After a decade of designs submitted by several national organizations, NASA gave the contract for the future space shuttles to Rocketdyne Division of North America.[45] Rocketdyne had designed a vehicle which was essentially an airplane for space.[46] This “plane” could take off on solid boosters— necessary for the shuttle to escape Earth gravity— orbit the planet, and land like an airplane on a runway, ready to be used again.[47] Now that the design had been approved, it needed to be tested. The age of the space shuttles was about to begin. The hope of NASA was that these new shuttles would help bring the organization out of its popularity tailspin.

The Final Frontier: Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger, and the Rise of the Space Shuttle

The first space shuttle never actually left Earth’s atmosphere. This shuttle was designed to act as a test vehicle/ flight simulator for future astronauts, as well as test whether the modified 747’s NASA had purchased to ferry the shuttles from their landing strips in Houston back to the lunch facility at Cape Kennedy.[48] Originally to be named Constitution, a legion of Star Trek fans from conducting a letter writing campaign to have the shuttle named after their favorite starship. The campaign was a resounding success and President Gerald Ford overrode NASA officials and named the space shuttle Enterprise.[49]This was the most attention the public would give the space shuttles until the Challenger exploded, with the exception of Columbia’s maiden flight. Enterprise was not capable of space flight, but it was to be reengineered after Columbia was launched to be the second space capable shuttle.[50] Problems with the design discovered Enterprise’s test trails put that hope to rest.[51]Columbia, still under construction, was able to incorporate fixes to the design, but it would have been too difficult to do the same for the already completed Enterprise. As such, the Space Shuttle Columbia would become the first shuttle in space.[52]

Columbia’s first mission was supposed to take off on April 10, 1981, but it was scrubbed when the backup computers malfunctioned.[53] The problem was quickly resolved and Columbia took off two days later. The mission began a numbering system that would continue to the present day, known as the Space Transportation System or STS numbering system. Columbia’s first mission, therefore, was STS-1.[54] STS-1 was a huge success for the space shuttle program, as Columbia met and surpassed all expectations. But it did not ignite the excitement that the early Apollo missions had, and so in the public relations sector, Columbia was a failure. Columbia flew five missions before it was joined by its first fleet mate, the Space Shuttle Challengerwhich flew its first mission as STS-6 on April 4, 1983.[55]

Challenger was the workhorse of the NASA fleet, flying twice as many missions as Columbia and its other two fleet mates, Discovery and Atlantis, which were deliveredin 1984 and 1985, respectively.[56] The four shuttle fleet meant that NASA could put a vehicle into space several times a year. The shuttles were utilized in a number of ways. They were used to deliver components for the International Space Station, and assemble them as need be. They were also used to conduct zero-g experiments in Earth orbit and deliver satellites.[57] The missions began to become routine, with a shuttle taking off and landing every couple of months, and media attention of these events was nowhere near that of the early space race. The space shuttles were living up to their nickname of “space planes,” as their regular take offs and landings were seen as being as safe as taking off and landing in an airplane.[58] And for five years, there was never any reason for NASA or anyone else to believe anything else. For all intents and purposes, the space shuttle was a resounding success, technologically, at least. In the eye of the public, however, the space shuttles were not the attention grabbers that NASA had hoped for. In fact, NASA would not become the top news story until the loss of the Challenger.

No Downlink: The Challenger Disaster and its Aftermath

The Challenger, workhorse of NASA’s space shuttle fleet, was to be the first shuttle in space for the year 1986. This was its tenth mission, STS-51-L, and it was a relatively routine one at that. Onboard were six astronauts and one teacher, Christa McAuliffe, who would was to be the first teacher in space. McAuliffe’s presence onboard meant that an unusually large number of people were watching the event live. This media attention was one of the reasons NASA had initiated the Teacher in Space in the first place. The organization knew that it was still losing public support, which resulted in continued budget cuts. And so the Teacher in Space was created as a publicity stunt.

Unfortunately for NASA, the publicity stunt would have an unintended consequence. At 4:38 p.m. EDT on 28 January, 1986, Challenger lifted off from launch pad 39-B.[59] For the first seventy-three seconds after the launch, everything seemed to be going perfectly. Then, quite suddenly, the shuttle vanished in plume of smoke. Onlookers on the ground were at first uncertain as to what they were looking at, but as the minutes passed by and the shuttle did not reappear, the horrible truth finally sunk in.[60] At launch control, similar confusion ensued. The public relations officer in the launch control room, Steve Nesbitt, was recorded saying “Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation… Obviously a major malfunction. We have no downlink… We have a report from the Flight Dynamics Officer that the vehicle has exploded.”[61]

The world was stunned. The routine of space travel was shattered, vanishing in the plume of smoke that was once the Challenger. The disaster made headlines around the world: The New York Times ran an understated headline that simply read “The Shuttle Explodes.”[62]It was also the top news story and captured the attention of the entire world. President Ronald Reagan gave a speech in which he said “The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God.””[63]

Reagan moved swiftly to find out the cause of the disaster. He ordered a Presidential Commission led by former Secretary of State William Rogers to investigate every facet of the Challenger disaster. The commission also had as its members Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, Sally Ride, the first woman in space, and Richard Feynman, the winner of 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics.[64] The commission found that the cause of the disaster was a design flaw in the O-rings that sealed a joint on the right solid rocket booster, causing a “flame out” that caused structural failure.[65]The commission urged NASA to ground the rest of the space shuttle fleet and fix the O-rings on the remaining shuttles. NASA immediately complied with the commission’s recommendation, and scrubbed the next several missions and grounded the space shuttle fleet, and began to repair the O-ring problem. The shuttle fleet would remain grounded for thirty-two months.

After Challenger: Public Perceptions, Budgets, and Competition of NASA from the ‘90’s to the Present

The space shuttle program restarted with the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery in October of 1988. Throughout the next two decades, the space shuttles would be instrumental in the construction of the International Space Station, shuttling of crews to and from the station, and the fixing of the Hubble Telescope. A second disaster struck the program on February 1, 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry. As of April 2011, there were only two space shuttles still in service. Both are scheduled for retirement at the end of 2011, with a total of 135 completed missions, the most of any program in the history of the U.S. space program.

So the question: did public perception to NASA decline in the wake of the Challenger disaster? Yes. Interestingly enough, the same cannot be said for NASA’s budgets: the 1987 budget for NASA saw its first increase since 1966, and those budgets continued to climb until 1993, after which they began to be cut again.[66] The American public questioned whether NASA’s space program was safe. If it was, why had the O-ring design flaw not been caught before it caused such a tragic accident? Unlike in 1967, when Apollo 1 caught fire, also due to technical difficulty, the public in 1986 no longer had any real stock in the space program. There was no spark, no excitement, and no urgency fueling the NASA of the 1980’s as there had been for the NASA of the 1960’s. The good feelings of the ‘60’s had been something NASA has long coveted a return to, but it has failed to happen. There was a slight upward swing in public opinion of NASA in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, despite the loss of Columbia on February 1, 2003.[67] Even this couldn’t survive the recession which began in 2007. As of 2011, the American public seems to have neutral feelings towards NASA, as concerns of unemployment and economic stability remain in the forefront of the people’s minds.

Part of the decline of NASA can be traced to something over which the organization has no control: the rise of private space companies and the corporations which fund them. The rise of these private companies were allowed when President Ronald Reagan deregulated the space industry in the wake of the Challenger disaster, allowing non-governmental companies to create their own space fleets, with the hope that they may be able to take up some of the slack left by the grounding of NASA’s fleet. In 1997, commercial launches outnumbered government ones at Eastern Test Range.[68] One example of these private space companies is Virgin Galactic, founded in 2004, which plans to offer suborbital space flights to a paying public—something NASA has never offered and probably never will— as well as scientific flights and satellite launches, and plans to offer these services from its own spaceport.[69] The company will be conducting test flights throughout 2011 of its first spacecraft VSS Enterprise. Many in the American public see these companies as viable alternatives to NASA. The reasons are understandable: private companies do not have to rely on taxpayer money to keep in operation, and the rapid research and development of these companies means they can outstrip NASA.

At the same time, the interest these private companies have generated may end up being NASA’s saving grace. Public perception of NASA, and thus NASA’s decline, came as a result of a loss of interest in space and space travel. New private corporations are reigniting this interest, and as interest increases, so does NASA’s chances of survival. Other factors that could lead to a new interest in space include dwindling natural resources on our planet, thus necessitating a need to seek resources elsewhere. Overpopulation and global warming could also spur a need to travel to new worlds and perhaps establish colonies there. All of this is in a potential future, but it is a future that could see a new rise in NASA.


Historians have pointed out that the negative public feeling directed towards NASA in the wake of Challengerwas the cause of NASA’s decline. They fail to understand, however, that the decline of NASA had begun over a decade prior. They fail to take into account the increasingly smaller budgets in the twenty years that lead up toChallenger, and because they do, the fail to see how that might have had an influence on NASA and its declining popularity. And finally, many of these historians have a bias towards their subject. It is perhaps easier to blame NASA’s decline on a freak accident instead of on a populace who simply no longer care.

In the end, it is this attitude of not caring that sent NASA into its decline. Quite simply, the decline started the second the American people became disillusioned with space. The fault can be lain at NASA’s feet for not managing to keep interest in their organization. But placing the entire blame on NASA is neither fair nor true. Slashed budgets beginning in the 1970’s left NASA with increasingly less money with which to work. And the deregulation of space has left the field wide open for private companies who see dollar signs in the stars; companies that can undersell and undercut a massive government organization like NASA.

It is important to remember that NASA has not always been viewed in a negative light. Once, this organization was at the forefront of American scientific advancement and was romanticized in the eyes of the America public. The early years of the “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union still manage to capture the imagination of the public today, with Hollywood putting out movies such as Apollo 13, and television shows likeFrom the Earth to the Moon that dramatize these already dramatic events. Looking at the popularity of these shows and movies leaves one with hope that perhaps NASA can rebound and become an important organization in the twenty-first century.

[1] "Americans Express Confidence in NASA," Gallup Corporation, accessed April 18, 2011,

[2] "Americans Express Confidence in NASA," Gallup Corporation, accessed April 18, 2011,

[3] Reichhardt, Tony,"Introduction," in Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years. (New York: DK Pub., 2002), 11.

[4] Reichhardt, Tony,"Introduction," in Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years. (New York: DK Pub., 2002), 12.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jensen, Claus, No Downlink: a Dramatic Narrative about the Challenger Accident and Our Time. (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1996).

[7] Reichhardt, "Introduction,” 11.

[8] Walker, Andrew. "Project Paperclip: Dark Side of the Moon," BBC News,, accessed April 17, 2011.

[9] The Eisenhower Presidential Library. "Reaction to the Soviet Satellite,",.pdf accessed April 17, 2011.

[10] "NASA - The National Aeronautics and Space Act." NASA - Home. (accessed April 17, 2011).

[11] Yenne, Bill, and Victor Seigel. "Manned Space Flight," in The Pictorial history of NASA. (New York: Gallery Books; 1989),108.

[12] Hurt, Harry. "The Space Race: U.S. vs. U.S.S.R.: 1957-1967," in For All Mankind, (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988), 51.

[13] Hurt, "The Space Race: U.S. vs. U.S.S.R.: 1957-1967," 53.

[14] Yenne and Seigel, "Manned Space Flight,"110.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Hurt, "The Space Race: U.S. vs. U.S.S.R.: 1957-1967." 49-51.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Hurt, "The Space Race: U.S. vs. U.S.S.R.: 1957-1967," 51.

[19] Hurt, "Chariots of Fire: Project Apollo: 1967-1969," 79-82.

[20] Hurt, "Chariots of Fire: Project Apollo: 1967-1969,” 83.

[21] Yenne and Seigel, "The Apollo Program," 126.

[22] Butler, Carol, and Kevin Rusnak.. "ch9." History Home. April 18, 2011).

[23] Guinness world records 2002 . England: Guinness World Records, Ltd., 2002.

[24] Hurt, "A Giant Leap: Man's First Moon Landing Apollo 11: July 20-21, 1969," 168.

[25] "President Nixon's Phone Call to the Moon." Welcome to (accessed April 18, 2011).

[26] Hurt, "A Giant Leap: Man's First Moon Landing Apollo 11: July 20-21, 1969," 178.

[27] Hurt, “Snoopy and the Surveyor: Man's Second Moon Landing Apollo 12: November 18-20, 1969," 190.

[28] Hurt, "Snoopy and the Surveyor: Man's Second Moon Landing Apollo 12: November 18-20, 1969," 186.

[29] Hurt, "Unlucky Thirteen: Explosions in Cislunar Space Apollo 13: April 11-17, 1970," 201.

[30] Drushel, Dr. Rich. "Report of Apollo 13 Review Board PDF File (NASA) Restoration by Dr. Rich Drushel." (accessed April 18, 2011).

[31] Ibid.

[32] Hurt, "Unlucky Thirteen: Explosions in Cislunar Space Apollo 13: April 11-17, 1970," 231.

[33] Hurt, "The Moon Shot Never to Be Forgot: Man's Third Landing Apollo 14: February 5-6, 1971," 218.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Hurt, "The Moon Rovers: Man's Last Three Lunar Landings Apollo 15, 16, and 17: 1971-1972." 232-252.


[37] Hurt, "The Moon Rovers: Man's Last Three Lunar Landings Apollo 15, 16, and 17: 1971-1972." 252.

[38] National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "NASA Technical Memorandum: Skylab." (accessed April 18, 2011).

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "NASA Technical Memorandum: Skylab Reactivation Mission Report." (accessed April 18, 2011).

[42] Jenkins, Dennis R.,"An Important Mission: Resuce Skylab," in The History of Developing the National Space Transportation System: The Beginning through STS-75. 2nd ed. (Indian Harbour Beach, Fla.: D.R. Jenkins, 1996,) 176-178.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Rogers, Simon, "Nasa Budgets: US Spending on Space Travel since 1958.", accessed April 18, 2011.

[45] Jenkins, "Contract Award,"132.

[46] Reichhardt, "Half Rocket, Half Airplane," 22.

[47] Jenkins, "Contract Award," 132.

[48] Jenkins, "Space, The Final Frontier...," 150-165.

[49] Jenkins, "Space, The Final Frontier...," 150.

[50] Jenkins, "Space, The Final Frontier...," 158-165.

[51] Jenkins, "Space, The Final Frontier...," 165.

[52] Reichhardt, "Half Rocket, Half Airplane," 25-29.

[53] Reichhardt, "Half Rocket, Half Airplane," 25.

[54] Jenkins, "The Flights," 268.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Jenkins, "The Flights," 272-275.

[58] Reichhardt, "Introduction," 11.

[59] Jenkins, "The Accident." 277-278.

[60] Reichhardt, Tony, and Bill Nelson, "Why was I Spared?," in Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years, (New York: DK Pub., 2002,) 58.

[61] Broad, William J.. "The Shuttle Explodes." The New York Times, January 28, 1986, sec. Front Page. (accessed April 18, 2011).

[62] Ibid.

[63] "American Rhetoric: Ronald Reagan -- Address to the Nation on The Space Shuttle "Challenger" Disaster." American Rhetoric: The Power of Oratory in the United States. (accessed April 18, 2011).

[64] President Ronald Reagan. "genindex.htm." Report of the PRESIDENTIAL COMMISSION on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. (accessed April 18, 2011).

[65] Ibid.

[66] Rogers, "Nasa Budgets: US Spending on Space Travel since 1958, accessed April 18, 2011.

[67] "Americans Express Confidence in NASA," Gallup Corporation, accessed April 18, 2011,

[68] "Streamlining Space Launch Range Safety." The National Academies Press. (accessed April 19, 2011).

[69] "Welcome | Virgin Galactic." Welcome | Virgin Galactic. (accessed April 19, 2011).


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