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Rockwell Builds the Shuttle

On 26 July 1972, NASA announced that Rockwell International had been selected as the prime contractor for the Space Shuttle (specifically the Shuttle Orbiter) after an intense competition with Lockheed, Grumman and McDonnell Douglas. Each contractor proposal also had to detail management of the complex program as well as its technical aspects. The lengthy proposals then went to a specially convened selection board at NASA which evaluated each submission.

The top two proposals belonged to Rockwell and Grumman and showcased the effect that a good management proposal could have in winning the competition. From a technical standpoint, NASA scored the Grumman proposal the best, with Rockwell’s orbiter design coming in second. Rockwell’s submission, however, impressed the NASA selection board with its management system. With the cost overruns on several military programs like the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy on everyone’s mind, Rockwell’s management proposal stressed cost controls for what was to be the biggest aviation contract in years. With a technical design not much more inferior that the Grumman design, Rockwell was awarded the contract. 

[Photo: U.S. Air Force/Senior Master Sgt. Brad Beyer]

At the time of the industry slump and as Vietnam was winding down, the Orbiter contract was a very big prize for any firm that could clinch the award. In 1975, at the time of the selection, Rockwell had 6,200 employees in their Space Division and with the award, plans were in place to hire as many as 16,000. Priority would be given to anyone who had worked on the Apollo program.

Despite the buoyant mood at Rockwell, things were considerably glummer at the losing contenders Grumman, Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas. Grumman had been a mainstay of the US space program from its early days, best known for its work on the Apollo Lunar Module. Company officials made plans for Grumman to be out of the space business by December 1972 along with the attendant layoffs. 

McDonnell Douglas (via McDonnell) had built the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft and was in the midst of winding down its work as the prime contractor for Skylab. The company was also suffering from a downturn in the world commercial aviation market that was greatly affecting its Douglas DC-9 program. 11,000 layoffs were planned at McDonnell Douglas by 1973.

Texas International Airlines McDonnell Douglas DC-9-15

While Lockheed didn’t have as prominent a role in the US manned spaceflight program in the 1960s as McDonnell Douglas or Grumman, their expertise in high speed flight as well as thermal protection systems was unparalleled in the industry at the time. 

Sharing the Work

Rockwell, however, recognized two realities that came with winning the Shuttle Orbiter contract. The first one was the limitations of its in-house expertise. Quite simply, Rockwell would need other aerospace companies for their skills and expertise to bring the Orbiter to fruition. The second reality was a bit more prosaic but nonetheless vital.

Keep in mind that in the early 1970s there was an atmosphere of budget austerity and at the time, NASA was no less exempt from financial realities than any other government agency. Sub-contracting work on the Orbiter to other companies would, in effect, spread the footprint of the endeavor across the districts of multiple Congressional representatives who would be routinely voting on NASA’s budgetary allocations for the Space Shuttle program.

Subcontracts were also a common way in the industry of building goodwill. By farming out work to competitors and keeping them active and in business, today’s winner might one day become tomorrow’s loser on another program and could hope for subcontract work from a rival. 

Space Shuttle NASA

Rockwell planned to subcontract at least 53% of the work on the Shuttle Orbiter and this had NASA’s blessing as a means of preserving the American industrial base for spaceflight. Just weeks after winning the contract as the prime, Rockwell was already conducting seminars across the nation for potential subcontractors.

By March 1973 Rockwell began selecting subcontractors for the program with NASA’s approval. Grumman would work on the delta wing, McDonnell Douglas got the OMS (Orbital Maneuvering System), Fairchild Republic got the vertical fin, and the Convair Division of General Dynamics got the mid-fuselage/payload bay. Rockwell would be responsible for the nose and crew compartment as well as the aft fuselage that would house the three Rocketdyne SSME (Space Shuttle Main Engine) packages. Lockheed would get the External Tank while Thiokol got the contract for the SRB (Solid Rocket Booster). 

By the summer of 1975, 34,000 workers across 47 states, and a broad host of companies across the American aerospace industry, were working on the Space Shuttle program. The peak would be in 1977 with 47,000 workers.

In the post-Vietnam slump, the Space Shuttle program was very much the crown jewel of the US aviation industry. 

Read More: Find out more about the Space Shuttle here.

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