How the Shuttle got its name
By Helen T. Wells, Susan H. Whiteley, and Carrie E. Karegeannes of NASA
The name "Space Shuttle" evolved
from descriptive references in the press, aerospace industry, and
government and gradually came into use as concepts of reusable space
transportation developed. As early NASA advanced studies grew into a full
program, the name came into official use.
In January 1975, NASA's Project Designation Committee was considering
suggestions for a new name for the Space Shuttle, submitted by
Headquarters and Center personnel and others at the request of Dr. George
M. Low, NASA Deputy Administrator. Rockwell International Corporation,
Shuttle prime contractor, was reported as referring to it as
"Spaceplane." (Bernice M. Taylor, Administrative Assistant to
Administrator for Public Affairs, NASA, telephone interview, 12 Feb 1975;
and AVIATION WEEK & SPACE TECHNOLOGY, 102 [20 Jan 1975], 10)
From its establishment in 1958, NASA studied aspects of reusable launch
vehicles and spacecraft that could return to the Earth. The predecessor
National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and then NASA
cooperated with the Air Force in the X-15 rocket research aircraft program
in the 1950s and 1960s and in the 1958-1963 Dyna-Soar
("Dynamic-Soaring") hypersonic boost-glide vehicle program.
Beginning in 1963, NASA joined the USAF in research toward the
Aerospaceplane, a manned vehicle to go into orbit and return, taking off
and landing horizontally. Joint flight tests in the 1950s and 1960s of
wingless lifting bodies--the M2 series, HL-10, and eventually the
X-24--tested principles for future spacecraft reentering the atmosphere.
Marshall Space Flight Center sponsored studies of recovery and reuse of
the Saturn V launch vehicle. MSFC Director of Future Projects Heinz H.
Koelle in 1962 projected a "commercial space line to Earth orbit and
the Moon," for cargo transportation by 1980 or 1990. Leonard M.
Tinnan of MSFC published a 1963 description of a winged, flyback Saturn V.
Other studies of "logistics spacecraft systems," "orbital
carrier vehicles," and "reusable orbital transports"
followed throughout the 1960s in NASA, the Department of Defense, and
As the Apollo program neared its goal, NASA's space program objectives
widened and the need for a fully reusable, economical space transportation
system for both manned and unmanned missions became more urgent. In 1966
the NASA budget briefing outlined an FY 1967 program including advanced
studies of "ferry and logistics vehicles." The President's
Science Advisory Committee in February 1967 recommended studies of more
economical ferry systems with total recovery and rescue possibilities.
Industry studies under NASA contracts 1969-1971 led to definition of a
reusable Space Shuttle system and to a 1972 decision to develop the
The term "shuttle" crept into forecasts of space
transportation at least as early as 1952. In a Colliers's
article, Dr. Wernher von Braun, then Director of the U.S. Army Ordnance
Guided Missiles Development Group, Huntsville AL, envisioned space
stations supplied by rockets ships that would enter orbit and return to
Earth to land "like a normal airplane," with small,
rocket-powered "shuttle-craft," or "space taxis," to
ferry men and materials between rocket ship and space station.
In October 1959 Lockheed
Aircraft Corporation and Hughes Aircraft Company reported plans for
space ferry or "commuter express," for "shuttling" men
and materials between Earth and outer space.
The term reappeared occasionally in studies through the early 1960s. A
1963 NASA contract to Douglas Aircraft Company was to produce a conceptual
design for Philip Bono's "Reusable Orbital Module Booster and Utility
Shuttle (ROMBUS)," to orbit and return to touch down with legs like
the lunar landing module's. Jettison of eight strap-on hydrogen tanks for
recovery and reuse was part of the concept. The press--in accounts of
European discussions of Space Transporter proposals and in articles on the
Aerospaceplane, NASA contract studies, USAF START reentry studies, and the
joint lifting-body flights--referred to "shuttle" service,
"reusable orbital shuttle transport." and "space
The Defense/Space Business Daily newsletter was persistent in
referring to USAF and NASA reentry and lifting-body tests as "Space
Shuttle" tests. Editor-in-Chief Norman L. Baker said the newsletter
had first tried to reduce the name "Aerospaceplane" to
"Spaceplane" for that project and had moved from that to
"Space Shuttle" for reusable, back-and-forth space transport
concepts as early as 1963. The name was suggested to him by the Washington
DC to New York airline shuttle flights. (Telephone interview, 22 April
Application of the word "shuttle" to anything that moved
quickly back and forth (from shuttlecock to shuttle train and the verb
"to shuttle") had arisen in the English language from the name
of the weaving instruments that passed or "shot" the thread of
the woof from one edge of the cloth to the other. The English word came
from the Anglo-Saxon "scytel" for missile, related to the Danish
"skyttel" for shuttle, the Old Norwegian "skutill" for
harpoon, and the English "shoot." (Webster's International
Dictionary, ed 2, unabridged.)
In 1965 Dr. Walter R. Dorberger, Vice President for Research of Textron
Corporation's Bell Aerosystems Company, published "Space Shuttle of
the Future: The Aerospaceplane" in Bell's periodical Rendezvous.
In July Dr. Dornberger gave the main address in a University of Tennessee
Space Institute short course: "The Recoverable, Reusable Space
NASA used the term "shuttle" for its reusable transportation
concept officially in 1968. Associate Administrator for Manned Space
Flight George E. Mueller briefed the British Interplanetary Society in
London in August with charts and drawings of "space shuttle"
operations and concepts. In November, addressing the National Space Club
in Washington DC, Dr. Mueller declared the next major thrust in space
should be the space shuttle.
By 1969 "Space Shuttle" was the standard NASA designation,
although some efforts were made to find another name as studies were
pursued. The "Space Shuttle" was given an agency-wide code
number; the Space Shuttle Steering Group and Space Shuttle Task Group
appointed by President Nixon to help define post-Apollo space objectives
recommended the U.S. develop a reusable, economic space transportation
system including a shuttle. And in October feasibility study results were
presented at a Space Shuttle Conference in Washington. Intensive design,
technology, and cost studies followed in 1970 and 1971.
On 5 January 1972 President Nixon announced that the United States
would develop the Space Shuttle.
The Space Shuttle would be a delta-winged aircraftlike orbiter about
the size of a DC-9
aircraft, mounted at launch on a large, expendable liquid-propellant tank
and two recoverable and reusable solid-propellant rocket boosters (SRBs)
that would drop away in flight. The Shuttle's cargo bay eventually would
carry most of the Nation's civilian and military payloads. Each Shuttle
was to have a lifetime of 100 space missions, carrying up to 29,500
kilograms at a time. Sixty or seventy flights a year were expected in the
Flown by a three-man crew, the Shuttle would carry satellites to orbit,
repair them in orbit, and later return them to Earth for refurbishment and
reuse. It would also carry up to four scientists and engineers to work in
a pressurized laboratory or technicians to service satellites. After a 7-
to 30-day mission, the orbiter would return to Earth and land like an
aircraft, for preparation for the next flight.
At the end of 1974, parts were being fabricated, assembled, and tested
for flight vehicles. Horizontal tests were to begin in 1977 and orbital
tests in 1979. The first manned orbital flight was scheduled for March
1979 and the complete vehicle was to be operational in 1980.
Source: From Origins of NASA Names, Helen T. Wells, Susan H.
Whiteley, and Carrie E. Karegeannes, The NASA History Series, 1976,
Washington DC, NASA SP-4402..