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12 Space Shuttle Missions That Weren't

A look at some of the gutsier (and goofier) proposed space shuttle missions

3 min read
12 Space Shuttle Missions That Weren't

The U.S. space shuttle fleet is set for retirement following the launch of Atlantis, scheduled for mid-July. In all, the fleet will have flown 135 missions, the first in 1981, but there were many more on the drawing board. With scrubbed missions that included daring rescues, in-orbit satellite snatches, and dangerous explosives, you can see why some of these didn't make the cut. But just imagine if they had.

All illustrations by Colin Hayes.



As America's first space station (1973–4) slipped steadily from orbit, NASA built a small booster rocket to be attached to it by a two-man crew (Fred Haise and Jack Lousma) on an urgent early flight. But launch schedules slipped, and Skylab fell on Australia.


A key scenario among the planned missions that drove the shuttle's design was the Pentagon's need for a superfast, single-orbit mission that would deploy or retrieve a military satellite. Strictly speaking, the retrieved satellite need not have been the property of the United States. The shuttle was built to enable this, but the idea was soon abandoned.


In the event of engine problems during launch, one emergency procedure involved flipping over in midascent and thrusting back to Florida for a runway landing. It worked in the simulator, but it was so dangerous that astronauts considered it barely preferable to crashing into the ocean.



Following a series of breakdowns on the Soviet Salyut 7 space station, NASA wondered if its upcoming mission, carrying the Spacelab module, could be diverted to perform an emergency rendezvous so that the cosmonauts could be evacuated via space walks. The answer was yes, but Moscow never asked for help.


For fast planetary probes, a Centaur rocket stage was modified to be carried on the shuttle, and two launches were planned in one week in May 1986. The explosion hazard from leaking gas later led to theircancellation, but only after Challenger was lost in January.



NASA discovered that if there had been an emergency landing at an overseas airfield, the shuttle would have been too heavy for the 747 carrier aircraft to transport it across an ocean. So the agency developed a kludge plan to lift the shuttle onto the deck of an aircraft carrier, thereby limiting emergency landings to coastal airfields.


The U.S. military had planned polar-orbit spy-satellite launches from California. A launchpad at Vandenberg Air Force Base was ready, spy satellite payloads had been picked, an emergency landing site on Easter Island built, and a crew trained. But the needed upgrades to engines were deemed too risky after Challenger was lost, so the mission was canceled and the pad mothballed.



During research for a space-based ballistic-missile shield (the Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as "Star Wars"), the Pentagon wanted to test astronauts' ability to track objects and aim weapons in space, and Moscow accused NASA of doing so. But in truth, the test was canceled.



The shuttle's digital autopilot has an "autoland" option, although it does require one throw of a manual switch to lower the landing gear. NASA actually scheduled a mission to test the system all the way to "wheels stop," but the agency lost its nerve before launch and left the astronaut in control for the landing.


A combination of astronaut selection, mission training, and flight assignments offered the option to juggle the crew manifest and put seven experienced female astronauts onto an otherwise routine shuttle mission. The selection was meant to demonstrate the level of responsibility women had earned in space, but concerns about exploitation for electoral politicking scuttled the suggestion.


Although Columbia had been mortally wounded by launch damage and was too crippled to safely return, controllers failed to realize it in time to mount a rescue flight by the next-in-line shuttle. After the disaster, analysts examined whether that flight might have been launched in time. The answer: maybe.



NASA figured that if a shuttle was too damaged to safely land, the crew could hang out at the International Space Station until the next shuttle could retrieve them. The agency also developed a system to remotely pilot a crippled shuttle into the South Pacific.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.


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