NASA’s space shuttle program gave the United States unmatched access to space, fostered a new era of international cooperation and led to pioneering research of the solar system.
Determining its effect at Langley Research Center in Hampton is more difficult.
“It certainly has been a mixed bag for NASA Langley,” said Douglas Dwoyer, a retired Langley administrator and member of the Hampton Roads Research Partnership, which promotes the region’s research and technology sector.
Langley’s biggest role in the shuttle program, which ends this month after 30 years of spaceflight, came before the first launch in 1981. Hundreds of researchers spent countless hours in Langley’s wind tunnels making sure the orbiter could withstand the rigors of space travel.
“We did an enormous amount of wind tunnel testing,” said Roy Harris, a retired aeronautics chief at Langley.
The center, NASA’s oldest, was called into action following the Challenger and Columbia disasters in 1986 and 2003. Researchers pushed for additional safety measures that helped the shuttle fly again.
But as NASA’s signature — and most expensive — mission during the last 30 years, the shuttle has done little to stop the aerospace industry’s decline in Hampton Roads. Langley’s civil service and contract workforce is 3,600, about an 18 percent drop since 1980.
NASA invested huge amounts of money in the shuttle program and the systems it helped create, such as the International Space Station, the Hubble telescope and dozens of satellites. Few of the programs created jobs at Langley; instead the money supported existing infrastructure at Kennedy and Johnson space centers and at other NASA facilities.
“You have this huge standing army of thousands and thousands of people in Houston, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida to keep the program going,” Dwoyer said.
Langley’s situation was exacerbated by politics and changes in the aerospace industry, according to Del Freeman, who retired from Langley in 2003 as its acting director.
As the Cold War ended, collaboration between NASA and the Defense Department lessened and, as a result, there is less demand for Langley’s wind tunnels. Also, the U.S. aerospace industry, which had been marked by competition among of several companies, is now dominated by one, the Boeing Co.
“How do you support one company?” Freeman said.
Paul Holloway, who worked with the group that created the shuttle, said maintaining the program cost more than what NASA envisioned. A University of Colorado researcher estimated the shuttle program’s price tag at $175 billion through 2010. NASA says each mission costs roughly $450 million.
“It turned out to be extremely expensive,” said Holloway, who also served as Langley’s director.
But it has provided tangible benefits to Langley, he said. For example, the center’s earth science division grew because shuttle carried sensitive satellites into space, Holloway said.
Still, NASA as a whole remains committed to sending astronauts into space, Freeman said. About half the agency’s $19 billion budget is directed toward the space shuttle, the space station and related programs.“The culture of the agency was human spaceflight,” Dwoyer said. “It still is.”