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Worst of all, Mueller said, was that the plan to make every part of the shuttle fully reusable was dropped. Budget cuts ordered by the Nixon White House meant that the fuel tank would be jettisoned with each flight and the boosters would fall into the ocean after launch and have to be retrieved and refurbished extensively.

Those changes made to save upfront money, while they sound small, meant adding incredible expense to every flight, Mueller said in an interview.

The shuttle will likely go down in history as an anomaly of America’s space program. The spacecraft before it were disposable capsules, like Apollo. And the designs for machines of the near future are also for the most part disposable capsules. That suggests that the 30 years of reusable shuttles that landed like airplanes were a diversion from the natural evolution of rocketry, said McCurdy.

It may be an anomaly, but astronauts call it an engineering marvel in both versatility and complexity. John Glenn, who flew in a Mercury capsule as well as the shuttle, called it “the perfect vehicle for its time.”

He said like any pilot he’d prefer to fly the shuttle and called it a much smoother ride. But he said he understands why the future looks more like his Mercury capsules.

“As far as expense, simplification and cutting costs, the capsule is by far cheaper,” the 89-year-old former senator said in a telephone interview from his Columbus, Ohio, office on Friday.

“The shuttle is an amazing piece of machinery,” astronaut Stan Love said. “It blows away anything that can fly now or in the next 30 years.”

However, when it comes to fulfilling the promise made four decades ago, Love retells a joke heard often around NASA: The space shuttle was supposed to be cheap, safe and turn spaceflight into something so routine it would be boring. One out of three ain’t bad.