Space in the Seventies: Envisioning the Space Shuttle, 1970 – 1980

This Space Available, by Emily Carney. A sweep of 1970s NASA images reveals treasures chronicling the early development of the Space Shuttle program, which required the agency’s centers and workforce to devise new approaches in testing a vehicle that functioned as part rocket, part cargo ship, part science lab, and part airplane.

This Space Available

By Emily Carney

Columbia didn’t fly until April 1981, but NASA began envisioning the Space Shuttle as early as 1969, while its astronauts and engineers were still busy perfecting landing on the Moon. A sweep of 1970s NASA images reveals treasures chronicling the early development of the program, which required the agency’s centers and workforce to devise new approaches in testing a vehicle that functioned as part rocket, part cargo ship, part science lab, and part airplane.

Here is a small selection of NASA images that capture these heady times; two of the photos are from the author’s collection, and are from a recent visit to Space Center Houston.

NASA Lewis (now Glenn) photo, February 13, 1973; before Skylab even launched, NASA was already thinking about designs for its Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs). “Test Stand A, seen in this photograph, was designed to fire vertically mounted rocket engines downward. The exhaust passed through an exhaust gas scrubber and muffler before being vented into the atmosphere. Lewis researchers in the early 1970s used the Rocket Engine Test Facility to perform basic research that could be utilized by designers of the Space Shuttle Main Engines.”
NASA photo, labeled December 3, 1975: “Seen left to right is Art Arrow, Owen Morris, and John Kiker. This is an image in a series of photographs documenting a mini Approach and Landing Test conducted on the Bldg. 14 Antenna Test Range, using a 1/40th-scale model Orbiter and a model airplane. The test was flown to study Orbiter control characteristics and separation dynamics. Simulated Orbiter being dropped from 747. JSC, HOUSTON.”
NASA JSC photo, labeled December 3, 1975: “The test was flown to study Orbiter control characteristics and separation dynamics.”
Space Shuttle Wind Tunnel 5% model. “Between November 1976 and May 1978, this model was tested in six wind tunnels. It made 1,951 runs and accumulated 1,336 hours of research time. The model was known to the engineers and aerodynamicists as ‘the 5%,’ because it is identical in shape and handling qualities to Space Shuttle Columbia, except that it is only 5% the size of the actual orbiter.” Author’s photo from Space Center Houston, Houston, Texas
Shuttle Carrier Aircraft and Space Shuttle Radio-Controlled Test Models, 1/40 scale. This is currently exhibited inside NASA 905 in Space Center Houston’s Independence Plaza. For more information about this model, read the linked article. Author’s photo

NASA Ames image, dated January 4, 1975: “Space Shuttle Plume Test-97-044-1 in 9x7ft [wind tunnel].”
NASA Ames photo, labeled June 3, 1975: “Space Shuttle SSV orbiter model OA100 (0.36 scale): 40x80ft [wind tunnel].”

NASA Marshall photo, dated March 14, 1978: “The Shuttle Orbiter Enterprise is off-loaded at Redstone Arsenal Airfield for later Mated Vertical Ground Vibration tests (MVGVT) at Marshall Space Flight Center’s Dynamic Test Stand. The tests marked the first time ever that the entire shuttle complement (including orbiter, external tank, and solid rocket boosters) were mated vertically.”
NASA Marshall photo, dated April 21, 1978. “Shown here is the Shuttle Orbiter Enterprise being erected, just prior to installation into the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) Dynamic Test Stand, for a Mated Vertical Ground Vibration Test (MVGVT).”
NASA Dryden (now Armstrong) photo, dated 1980. “Space Shuttle simulator.” No further information was supplied about this photo.


Featured Photo Credit: An early iteration of the Space Shuttle cockpit. “Pilot Kenneth C. White in chair. Space Shuttle Vehicle Simulation. SSV cockpit in the moving-cab transport simulator (S.16)” NASA Ames photo, labeled December 1, 1970


Emily Carney is a writer, space enthusiast, and creator of the This Space Available space blog, published since 2010. In January 2019, Emily’s This Space Available blog was incorporated into the National Space Society’s blog. The content of Emily’s blog can be accessed via the This Space Available blog category.

Note: The views expressed in This Space Available are those of the author and should not be considered as representing the positions or views of the National Space Society.


Picture of Emily Carney

Emily Carney

2 thoughts on “Space in the Seventies: Envisioning the Space Shuttle, 1970 – 1980”

  1. Good start Ladies and Gentlemen: Now upgrade this to a “People Mover” and make thousands of them, because “We need to leave, now… The planet is no longer hospitable.”

  2. VERY INTERESTING! I didn’t realize that research was being done in this regard as early as 1969.

    Personally, I wonder why Space Shuttles weren’t retrofitted with newer and more reliable computer technology and maybe new ones built. Especially during the early years of the Space Shuttle program, computers still had a lot of hardware failures. In the latter 1980’s, much of this was changing, and in the 1990’s, things got MUCH BETTER. I am a local computer technician, and nowadays, hardware failures are on the rare side. I see more issues with malware and other software related problems as opposed to actual hardware problems. I have personally witnessed a lot of the computer evolution from 1982 (age 15) to the present (now age 54).


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