First designed as an orbital "freighter" that glides back to earth like an airplane for re-use -- mainly by private industry and scientists -- the space shuttle has taken on a new urgency among US defense officials.
The civilian project, scheduled for its first test flight into space in March of 1981, already has been drawn into the orbit of the nation's military interests. The shuttle offers a cheap way of launching large surveillance satelites and possibly weapons into space.
US Defense Department officials are concerned about the possible advantages the Soviet Union may have gained through its Salyut 6 manned spaced station.
Over one-third of the space shuttle flights scheduled into 1986 have been booked by the Pentagon.
In 1978, Congress began funding a shuttle launch pad and control center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California separate from control operations in Florida and Texas run by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
In early 1980, a new "memo of understanding" was signed by the Department of Defense (DOD) and NASA spelling out the increasingly complex relationship between civilian and military interests in developing the shuttle.
To ensure "maximum national utility," the Air Force will control all "national security missions," according to the memo. It adds: "In the event DOD requirements conflict with other mission activity, the NASA administrator will honor an official request for priority from the Secretary of the Air Force or refer the matter to higher authority."
For a few years, the Air Force shuttle controllers will be trained at NASA's Johnson Control Center in Houston, which has been modified, at a cost of $30 million, to prevent any foreign monitoring of the electronics during secret missions. NASA officials say they squelched the Pentagon's request to surround the Houston center with barbed wire and to not announce launches which have military purposes.
At the military's request, the shuttle design was enlarged to be able to hold a 32,000-pound payload, with a cargo area of up to 60 by 15 feet. But even that was not enough for ever-heavier defense hardware. Dr. Robert A. Frosch, NASA administrator, acknowledges that the Pentagon, unlike other shuttle customers who find their cargo limited by volume, is limited by the amount of weight it can send aloft. To help remedy the problem, NASA is developing an extra rocket to be strapped to the three already designed to launch the shuttle.
Beset early-on with technical problems that required higher budget requests to Congress, NASA's shuttle program has been forced to push back the first launching date almost three years. When these scheduling delays affected military plans for new surveillance satellites, however, NASA began to get more money from Congress.
In each of the last three fiscal years, Congress has granted the agency supplemental budget requests ranging from $185 million to $285 million.
Heightened interest in the shuttle is reflected in the 1980 Republican Party platform. last November, after a Pentagon briefing, President Carter increased his fiscal 1981 budget requests for the shuttle.But the Republicans say that "America's preeminence in the exploration of space is threatened by the failure of the Carter administration to fund fully the space shuttle program (with its acknowledged benefits for both the civil and military applications). . . ."
To accommodate the Pentagon's "crucial needs," says Dr. Frosch, some early shuttle flights scheduled for NASA's use have been delayed.
Frosch says some lower-level Pentagon officials have begun to suggest that the DOD take over the shuttle operations totally, allowing commercial and scientific flights when space is available. But he says no top-level officials are recommending that NASA relinquish shuttle authority.
Although an initial launch date of April 1978 was set when the space shuttle was given authority to go ahead in 1972, NASA officials say that the date was never firm. This August, after a strong effort was made by NASA engineers to work out delaying technical problems in the shuttle's insulation tiles and complex engines, a firm date of March 1981 was set.
Frosch says the military's requirements "did not become a forcing function on the decision." Just the same, the announcement was designed to spur NASA workers to quickly ready the space vehicle for launch."Parkinson's law ['work fills the time allotted to it'] works in these schedules as in anything else," said Frosch.
The first shuttle "orbiter," named Columbia, is expected to be taken to its Cape Canaveral launch pad by Nov. 23. There, it will undergo a four-month series of final tests.