How the Space Shuttle Killed an American Halley’s Comet Mission

NASA missed the chance to visit Halley’s Comet in 1986 when the famed sentinel swung close to Earth, as it does every 76 years. Luckily for history, the Europeans flew Giotto past it on this day (March 13) in 1986, and some other nations sent their own probes.

The full story of NASA’s withdrawal is in Bruce Murray’s Journey Into Space: The First Three Decades of Space Exploration. Murray, the former director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has chapters upon chapters on Halley, but here are some notable highlights.

First of all, there were at least three initiatives for NASA to send a mission to the famed comet. The missions below are in chronological order, and it appears it was only when the preceding one was killed that the next was envisioned:

– Solar sail. This mission would use the power of the solar wind — bits streaming from the sun — to bring a spacecraft within Halley’s gravitational influence. In fact, the spacecraft would stay with Halley as it whisked out of the solar system and would return (long dead) when Halley came back in 2061.

A rendezvous with Comet Tempel 2. Another idea would see a spacecraft swing close to Comet Tempel 2 but also have a probe that would take a picture of Halley from a distance. NASA also considered splitting the mission in two to meet annual budgetary requirements, but the Comet Science Working Group was cool to the idea. There also was some thought about bringing the Europeans into this mission, but that never worked out.

Galileo-type hardware. A third initiative had the Jet Propulsion Laboratory envisioning a distant flyby of Halley, basically using similar types of parts that flew in a spacecraft (called Galileo) to Jupiter.

All three of these initiatives fell to budget cuts during the 1970s and 1980s. What caused the budget cuts? In large part, the space shuttle program. To be sure, the shuttle was an impressive piece of hardware, and we are not doubting what it contributed to the construction of the International Space Station and to human spaceflight in general. But it was a large project and in those tight times, something had to give.

Perhaps the most interesting cancellation came in 1979, when NASA administrator Robert Frosch and his deputy went to President Jimmy Carter’s office to plead for the case of two projects: a solar electric propulsion system that would eventually power the Halley-Tempel 2 mission, and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (which flew into space, after many delays, in 1991).

Carter, according to Murray, was reading a book on black holes penned by Walter Sullivan of the New York Times. (We’re assuming it’s the 1979 book Black Holes: The Edge of Space, the End of Time.) When presented with the options, Carter said he was “partial to the gamma-ray thing because of this connection with the black-hole problem.”

That signaled the beginning of the end for NASA’s Halley-Tempel 2 mission.

13 Replies to “How the Space Shuttle Killed an American Halley’s Comet Mission”

  1. Shuttle had nearly every kind of unintended consequence. Yet we celebrate, what in a rational world, would be failure. I will never understand.

      1. No, it wasn’t. A good truck is cheap, safe, and reliable. The shuttle was a failure on all counts.

      2. …and the replacement truck (the SLS) while made from very similar parts (engines, tankage, strap-on boosters), costs even more to build and operate and you don’t get to use it as often 🙁

  2. But a very costly truck and not particularly successful given the starting parameters – short turnaround, low cost

  3. Many normally unmanned satellites are able to be maintained and keep operating by astronauts using the shuttle. The satellites were designed with human maintenance in mind. Hubble being the most well-known.

    Yes, the Shuttle never achieved the low costs that were hoped for, and if they were completely candid NASA would never have claimed that the shuttle could be as cheap and reliable as a truck. However, overpromising is endemic to large projects. Roads, bridges, buildings, the military; how often do any large projects come in on time and on budget? Neither is the private sector exempt. Project advocates seemingly have to understate the costs, or the project never gets started. That is a problem with large institutions generally, not just NASA.

    The Shuttle was a good program, and we learned a lot about how to build and maintain a space vehicle. The problem really is that no 2nd generation shuttle was built, with design starting in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

    Other countries did send probes to Halley’s Comet, but no other country was going to build the shuttle for us.

    1. Not “many,” just a very few – and eventually just Hubble. And even then we could have launched a brand new Hubble every year for the cost of the shuttle program.

      And there’s no second-generation shuttle because we learned from the first-generation that the entire concept was fundamentally flawed – it doesn’t make sense to send up a payload half of whose mass is designed to fly it back home.

      1. Not entirely correct. The real problem is that the design evolved from “reusable space taxi” to “resuable space truck”, ultimately meaning that a lot of the shuttle’s size/weight ended up being used to return an empty cargo bay to earth.

        Returning a functional, reusable habitable capsule to earth can make sense. Returning empty space is just idiotic.

  4. I don’t know much space history (paging Teitel), but I could think planetary science has grown in importance since then, both in-system (system formation, climate et cetera) and out-system (exoplanets, habitability). Cosmology too, of course, but at that time I would think these observatories were more seen as “big science” (political clout).

  5. The shuttle itself was not really a failure…if you count failure as killing astronauts. Both disasters were caused by the solid rocket boosters and the large external fuel tank, respectively.

  6. Am I missing something here? Space Shuttle was not designed to leave Earth and flew through open space.

  7. Solar sails do not use the solar wind. As explained in the article you linked to, they use light pressure.

Comments are closed.