The People’s Spaceship: NASA, the Shuttle Program, and Public Engagement after Apollo

By | Published: June 7, 2024

The following is an excerpt from The People’s Spaceship: NASA, the Shuttle Program, and Public Engagement after Apollo by Amy Paige Kaminski. The book will be published June 11, 2024, by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

It was a most unusual sight, surreal and sublime all at once. Two space shuttle orbiters faced one another, nose to nose, on a tarmac at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, adjacent to Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia. The vehicle on the left, Enterprise, was bright white against the nearby green foliage and the cloud-dotted, endless blue sky of that warm April day in 2012. After NASA had used the orbiter for atmospheric drop tests in the late 1970s, Enterprise led a sheltered existence as a tourist attraction before retiring into its own wing at the Smithsonian facility. The spacecraft on the right, Discovery, was faded and showed signs of wear, bearing the markings of NASA’s most active orbiter. One year earlier, it had completed the last of its thirty-nine missions to space, just as NASA closed down the shuttle program to free up funds for new human space flight initiatives. For just a few hours, the shuttles stood in this unique configuration. Enterprise had been pulled from the Udvar-Hazy Center, and the orbiter would soon journey, first strapped to the topside of a Boeing-747 and then by barge, to a new home in New York City’s Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. The same 747 had carried Discovery from Kennedy Space Center in Florida two days earlier, and its cargo would retire by day’s end into the hangar Enterprise had once occupied.

NASA and Smithsonian personnel, members of Congress, White House officials, astronauts, aerospace industry representatives, and interested individuals from the general public flocked to witness this rare changing of the guard. It was part of NASA’s plan to find forever homes for its four decommissioned shuttle orbiters. A military band played patriotic tunes and bystanders waved American flags. Before the ceremony began, renowned opera singer Denyce Graves led the crowd in a moving rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Against this backdrop, dignitaries offered fond words about Discovery’s accomplishments. NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, a former shuttle commander, recalled how “the Space Shuttle program gave this country many firsts and many proud moments.” Looking back over the program’s forty-year history, Bolden celebrated the vital role the shuttle played in deploying and repairing the Hubble Space Telescope and constructing the International Space Station. It allowed people to learn to live and work in space, he said, and motivated future generations of space explorers.

Jack Dailey, director of the National Air and Space Museum and once a NASA associate deputy administrator, offered a more curious statement in his brief speech honoring the space shuttle. Like Bolden, he connected the shuttle with the notion of national pride. But Dailey focused momentarily not on the venerable spaceships behind him, but on the enthusiastic crowd in his midst. “For every major milestone in space history,” he said, “Americans have participated in the excitement, pride, and optimism of the occasion.”    


The People’s Spaceship: NASA, the Shuttle Program, and Public Engagement after Apollo‘s book cover

Dailey’s words acknowledged that even those who were not immediately connected with NASA had a place in the storied history of the nation’s human space flight program. But their role, according to this characterization, was a passive and reactive one: to observe these spectacles, celebrate them, and feel inspired by the achievements made on their behalf. Indeed, historians and political scientists have typically recognized NASA officials, large aerospace firms, US presidents and other White House officials, and members of Congress as the architects of the American space program. Those outside this sphere typically only show up in accounts explaining that the agency put its feats on display to project a robust US image to people around the globe during the Space Race with the Soviet Union and to “sell” its Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo human space projects to American citizens who footed the bill.

Yet, just ten years after Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, an article in Parade magazine describing NASA’s plans for its new major human flight initiative, the space shuttle, presented a vastly different relationship between NASA and those outside of the government-industry nexus of space program developers. The article noted that the new space vehicle would provide “the first opportunity the public has had to get involved personally in a NASA project.” NASA associate deputy administrator Ann Bradley echoed that claim in a 1984 memo. The vehicle’s promise of providing routine and reliable access to space to reasonably healthy people with basic training meant that “[n]o development has opened a greater prospect for direct citizen involvement in space flight than the Space Shuttle.” According to Hans Mark, NASA deputy administrator when the first shuttle missions began, “the Shuttle opened the door for a vast broadening of the human experience in space.” Looking back on the vehicle’s legacy, former shuttle manager Wayne Hale elegantly summarized: “If the intent was to transform space and the opening of the frontier to more people, the shuttle accomplished this.…The shuttle truly became the people’s spaceship.”

What a contrasting perspective these statements offer when compared to characterizations of NASA’s public relations activities during the Apollo era! While NASA never abandoned its determination to share the spectacle of human space flight widely, the agency approached public engagement with the shuttle in some new and different ways. Indeed, sustaining the shuttle prompted NASA to rethink how to involve people from across the globe, particularly in an era where other nations were developing capabilities to send humans and cargo to space. But above all, NASA poured tremendous energy into transforming its connections with the American citizenry, whose engagement the agency regarded as paramount to the shuttle’s viability. This book tells the story of why and how the agency aimed to involve them as it transitioned from the Apollo period of the 1960s and early 1970s to the space shuttle era that would span the next four decades. It casts a fresh light on the connections between NASA’s human space flight initiatives and its public engagement activities, showing how Americans beyond the sphere of government and industry space program players figured in the shuttle program.


Amy Paige Kaminski has more than twenty years of experience in federal policy and program development roles, working closely with the academic, nonprofit, and corporate sectors. She has held senior positions at NASA, advising on science policy and building pathways to involve everyday people as contributors to the agency’s science and technology programs. She is editor of the book Space Science and Public Engagement.