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Why Does the Space Shuttle Have Wings?
A Look at the Social Construction of Technology in Air and Space

by Stephen J. Garber

I. Introduction

From 1969 to early 1972, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) considered a variety of designs for a vehicle that could carry people and cargo into space repeatedly. The numerous designs involved three basic kinds of orbiter vehicles: a winged vehicle, like an airplane; a wingless “lifting body”; and a ballistic capsule such as the Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury programs used. Airplanes usually made powered horizontal landings; lifting bodies generally glided to horizontal landings; and ballistic capsules either splashed down in the ocean or used parachutes to land on terra firma. After many heated political and technical debates, the design that emerged had triangular (delta) wings at the rear of the Space Shuttle.

Why did NASA choose a winged configuration? Were its motivations technological or political? Such a false dichotomy neglects the critical point that the Shuttle, like all technological tools, is designed by humans to meet specific goals. Thus the social-political goals that NASA dictated and accepted for the Shuttle determined its technological design. Specifically, the Shuttle was designed to carry a reasonably large payload, to have significant cross range capability, to be a reusable system that would lower the cost of access to space, and to be safe enough for human crews. These four social-political criteria severely constrained the myriad proposed technical configurations for the Shuttle.

Yet is it possible that there were other social reasons governing the design of the Shuttle? One argument is that the people who were designing spacecraft and launch systems in the 1960s and 1970s were largely trained as aeronautical engineers and thus were conditioned to think about airplanes flying. To such a mindset, spaceflight was simply an extension of flight in the atmosphere, despite all the major differences. Indeed, winged spaceflight has a long theoretical tradition that dates back well before Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, was ever launched in 1957. While it may be tempting to think that the Shuttle has wings because of this aeronautical engineering mindset, it is difficult to gather sufficient historical evidence to warrant this assertion.

Although the technological goals of the Shuttle limited the number of possible configurations, it is still worth considering other cultural factors. As compared with the Soviet Union/Russia, for example, the United States has a tradition of technological innovation and "invention," while the Soviets/Russians tend toward continual modification and improvement. Such an analysis may help explain why NASA essentially discarded proven technologies that it had used in the 1960s, such as the Saturn launch vehicle family and the ballistic reentry capsules used in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, in favor of a totally new space transportation system.

This paper will briefly cover the specific historical circumstances of the Shuttle design decision and examine the trade-offs of the possible wing configurations with respect to the four design goals. As theoretical background, this paper then will briefly review some of the relevant social construction of technology (SCOT) literature by scholars such as Wiebe Bijker and Thomas Hughes. In addition, this paper will examine articles by Walter Vincenti and Eric Schatzberg that address similar issues of technological definitions and solutions in the aeronautics field. Then this paper will combine SCOT theory with the specific circumstances of this Shuttle case study to identify and analyze possible social constructs of technology in the Shuttle case. Finally, this paper will attempt to draw some conclusions about which social factors were most important in giving the Shuttle its delta wings and to draw out some implications for SCOT.

II. Historical Background—What Were the Shuttle’s Goals and Possible Configurations?

III. Theoretical Models

IV. SCOT and the Shuttle’s Wings

V. Conclusions


1If the Shuttle were launched south into a polar orbit of the Earth, by the time the Shuttle made one complete orbit, the Earth would have spun on its axis over 1,000 miles east. If the Shuttle were then to land at its original launch site, it would need to be able to maneuver over 1,000 miles laterally to “meet up with” its launch site on the ground.

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