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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 industry.

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 Shuttle.

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 shuttle" forerunners.

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 1975.)

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 Shuttle."

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.

  Facts and Figures
Space Shuttle Names
Courtesy of NASA

Enterprise: (Test only, 1977-85)

Columbia: 1981-2003

Challenger: 1982-86

Discovery: 1983-

Atlantis: 1985-

Endeavour: 1991-

NASA image

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 1980s.

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..

Space References (Books):
Dickinson, Terence. Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe. Firefly Books, 1998.
Greene, Brian. Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. Vintage, 2000.
Hawking, Stephen. Illustrated Brief History of Time, Updated and Expanded Edition. Bantam, 1996.
Hawking, Stephen. Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe. New Millenium, 2002.
Hawking, Stephen. The Universe in a Nutshell. Bantam, 2001.
Kaku, Michio. Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps and the Tenth Dimension.
Kranz, Gene. Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. Berkley Pub Group, 2001.
Sagan, Carl; Druyan, Ann. Comet, Revised Edition. Ballantine, 1997
Sagan, Carl. Cosmos, Reissue Edition. Ballantine, 1993
Sagan, Carl. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Ballantine, 1997

Space References (Videos):
Cosmos. PBS, 2000.
Stephen Hawking's Universe. PBS, 1997.
Hyperspace. BBC, 2002.
Life Beyond Earth PBS, 1999.
The Planets
. BBC, 1999.
Understanding The Universe. A&E, 1996.



Columbia takes off on the first mission, April 12, 1981.

Courtesy of NASA

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