Did the Challenger disaster affect Reagan's Star Wars at all?
August 28, 2017 1:32 AM   Subscribe

Did the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster in any way hasten the downfall of the Strategic Defense Initiative?

I just read Richard Cook's "Challenger Revealed," which talked in part about the possibility that the pressure to launch was linked to Star Wars/SDI and the increasing militarization of the payloads being carried by the shuttles. (There was even an SDI planning center with a lab and Clean Room set up beside a shuttle launch platform at Canaveral, according to the book.)

The book intimates that the shuttle would have needed to run on cold days as well as warm and have a super fast turnaround in order for there to be any hope of getting the orbital infrastructure in place on Reagan's timeline - hence the added pressure. (I understand there were a lot of different sources of pressure to launch, both economic and political, but this was a new one I hadn't heard before.)

My question is, did the multi-year moratorium on shuttles following Challenger effectively act as the nail in the coffin for SDI (which yes, was already a failing technology built on half-truths)? If the Challenger hadn't malfunctioned, how likely would it be that SDI would have continued to be seen as a viable prospect (by Reagan's kitchen cabinet, etc) for a while longer?
posted by egeanin to Science & Nature (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to read back issues of the Risks Digest which act as primary sources. For example, this piece from 1986 :

From The New York Times, Sunday, 15 June 1986:

New York - The ''Star Wars'' anti-missile plan has been seriously and
extensively damaged by the Challenger disaster and other setbacks in
the American space program, aerospace analysts say. Officials of the
anti-missile defense program, formally called the Strategic Defense
Initiative, deny any serious damage to the program, but aerospace
experts say the problems within the space program have sent shock waves
through research programs. ...

So... certainly these questions were being raised at the time, and to me it's entirely logical that there was a definite link.
posted by plep at 4:21 AM on August 28, 2017

Yes and no ...
How the Star Wars Program Didn't Work

The firestorm of criticism for Reagan's plan kept burning. European allies were concerned about how the program would affect the precarious balance of power between them and the Soviet Union. U.S. lawmakers worried that the technology needed to shoot ICBMs down midflight was simply out of reach and not worth pursuing. These fears from home and abroad introduced some serious tension into negotiations among all parties involved. Still, despite serious pressure to put SDI on the bargaining table in an effort to get the Soviet Union to reduce its nuclear armament, Reagan refused to compromise the program.

I think after the fact it seems SDI was more fiction than fact. So if it had been more real it would have hampered the timeline.
posted by tilde at 5:07 AM on August 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think there are three elements to SDI. 1) shooting down missiles with impossible technology, 2) a funding vehicle for existing and proposed space / spook programs, and 3) a funding vehicle for Department of Energy, ARPA, and other defense related research.

The shuttle was designed to carry military payloads into orbit, so a lot of (2) became unviable with the shuttle shut down. If I were looking for a definitive answer on why SDI went away, I'd focus on (2) and whether the rationale for funding classified satellites under the SDI umbrella, the need for satellites of shuttle cargo bay size, and the ability to carry out these launches changed when the shuttle was grounded.
posted by zippy at 9:46 AM on August 28, 2017

I think SDI was so far from being a feasible system in the 1980s that it's impact on the Shuttle program was minimal.

I've heard the primary purpose of SDI was to bankrupt the Soviet Union by forcing them to try fund their own SDI program to maintain operational equality for MAD. This article suggests SDI was successful in that purpose.
posted by LoveHam at 10:13 AM on August 28, 2017

I read Cook's book many moons ago and of all the Challenger related books I have read over the last 30+ years, this one is my least favorite, mainly because it takes an overtly political tone and overlooks a lot.

From early in the program, around 1973, STS was a military+civilian project primarily because NASA could not otherwise wrangle the dollars needed for the program. The original STS program envisioned a much smaller, specific vehicle. The problem was that it did not receive much in the way of support from Congresscritters.

Cue the Air Force, who had recently given up on its MOL space station program (which was actually pretty advanced when the rug was pulled out). The Air Force gave its blessing, but added some significant requirements for cross-range and payload (notably the 60x15 payload bay), which led to the delta wing design and need for the vastly more powerful SSMEs. Rinse, wash, repeat: each program requirement change added complexity, weight, cost and exponentially greater engineering challenges.

While virtually nobody believed a word of it, NASA was promising weekly launches and sub $1,000 per pound rates from the mid-70s onward. This was all well before SDI.

As both Congress and the Air Force lost confidence with each schedule slip, NASA kept ratcheting up the promises and capabilities of the vehicle: you'll be able to launch from Vandenberg into Polar Orbits; The Centaur liquid fuel booster will allow STS to rival the Saturn V's lift capacity, etc. 1981's launch became a do or die situation, and John Young, Commander of STS-1, knew just how dangerous this flight was going to be. He gave them a 50/50 shot, and post-mission debrief showed just host close they came to disaster - from SRB ignition overwaves potentially damaging the elevator to tile losses, there was *a lot* we didn't know.

So NASA downplayed the risks and played up the potential to keep the dollars flowing and declared that by STS-4, the program was "operational".

Between 1981-1986 there were more near misses than NASA would ever admit, and famously they would "normalize deviance" in order to keep flying. This worked....until it didn't.

So the long answer is: SDI surely played a part, as did the entire government complex. Short answers like, "Reagan just wanted to be able to talk about Christa McAuliffe during the State of the Union" or "military pressures" are far too Fisher-Price. The reality is that Challenger was the culmination of years of hubris, bad decision making processes, political interference, lack of adequate funding, the "go flight" drive from the '60s and more.
posted by tgrundke at 10:24 AM on August 28, 2017 [7 favorites]

This was a really helpful article: http://www.nytimes.com/1986/06/15/world/reverberations-of-the-space-crisis-a-troubled-future-for-star-wars.html. Thanks Plep for pointing the way!
posted by egeanin at 11:32 AM on August 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

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