NASA had been kicking around the idea of a reusable orbiter spacecraft before it even completed the Apollo project. But it took until January 5, 1972—forty years ago today—for President Richard Nixon to announce the full-scale development of this iconic spacecraft.
The space shuttle grew out of the earlier X-15 and X-20 design concepts from the late fifties. Refinements to those resulted in the Integrated Launch and Re-entry Vehicle (ILRV) that we know today, and which uses a two stage rocket—dual recoverable solid state rockets and a reusable external upper fuel tank.
As President Nixon announced, the shuttle would be built "to help transform the space frontier of the 1970s into familiar territory, easily accessible for human endeavor in the 1980's and '90's." Certainly, in a way, it did just that. Just maybe not quite what President Nixon meant.
He went on to explain,
This system will center on a space vehicle that can shuttle repeatedly from Earth to orbit and back. It will revolutionize transportation into near space, by routinizing it. It will take the astronomical costs out of astronautics. In short, it will go a long way toward delivering the rich benefits of practical space utilization and the valuable spinoffs from space efforts into the daily lives of Americans and all people.
For the record, the Shuttle system flew 135 missions during its thirty year run at an estimated cost of $170 billion through 2008 (so not including the final three flights). That averages out to roughly $1.5 billion per flight in 2008 dollars—a pretty astronomical cost just to throw seven astronauts out of the atmosphere. What's more, NASA initially anticipated a pace of fifty launches per year. We got an average of four and a half.
But what it lacked in expedience or cost controls, the Shuttle program made up for by sparking the imagination of the public. Without the Shuttle program, we wouldn't have had awesome photos like this, an entire generation inspired by images of astronauts floating about the orbiter, taking questions from school-children, things like Space Camp, or even the movie Space Camp. And even in its demise, the Shuttle program helped spurn the private-sector space race with industrial giants like Virgin Galactic stepping in to continue where NASA left off. [Wiki - NASA - DVice]