That’s pretty much it. The SEI is the poster child for how not to do it.
The fact that they didn’t engage Dick Malow properly, or listen to his feedback whenever it did come along is almost unbelievable - he was known as the “Shadow Administrator of NASA” due to his influence over the budget strings for space.
Truly at the Congressional hearings is incredible. Paraphrased it was something like:
“Do you agree with this report ripping into your study and saying it’s incredibly difficult and amazingly expensive?”
- “ Yes”
“Seriously, will you really need your budget doubled and held there for decades?”
- “Yes. But I think it’s worth it”
“$541 billion. Seriously?”
- “Well, something like that. It’s going to be insanely expensive”.
“ ‘Something like that?’ Pardon?”
- “Yeah, we don’t really know enough about the tech yet to say for sure.”
“When - when will you know enough about the tech to go firm on the numbers?”
- “A few years. Probably. So, can we have the money, please?”
Was seven at the time. Can't remember freakkin' SEI but same summer, Voyager flyby of Neptune was my official entry in space geekdom.
Basically the SEI stood no chance, because Shuttle and because Freedom. And because Apollo before it. the entire "logical" sequence
LEO manned flight (or Shuttle) > station > Moon
... has been thrown into chaos by JFK in '61
Moon first and then... "retreat to LEO, that sucks ! Well Mars is too far." Chaos still lasting to this very day, since we have still not return to the Moon since Apollo come too early, for the wrong reasons, and thus was cut brutally.
Basically the SEI was doomed by
- The Shuttle, already doomed since Challenger but running forward like a duck-without-a-head, until 2011
- Freedom, started in 1984 in the worst possible way, nearly canned in 1993, started for real in 1998, finished in... 2011. Dang.
Crucially, with the Shuttle a very shitty piloted vehicle, and Freedom on the wrong track from day 1 - how can you dare proposing going to the Moon or Mars ?
Both Shuttle and Freedom were completely ILL-SUITED to SEI. There was nothing to do with them in the plan, they were technically unsound, and their huge costs doomed everything else.
What would be needed to make the SEI suceed ? hard to say. Really, the Shuttle and Freedom were so bad, yet so engrained into NASA mind and planning and consciousness, it is pretty much a lost cause.
Also the 1989 SEI was a rethread of the equally bad 1969 IPP / Paine plan / Space Task Group / 1969-push-for-Mars, and the results were equally bad.
The 1969 plan was shot down by Nixon yet it remained engrained into NASA and shot down again in 1990 for the very same reasons.
That's why my TL starts from zero, not in 1989 but in 1972, strangling the Shuttle in infancy, moving Freedom forward and on a much more modest format - to kill the "space station ghost" left by Apollo, for GOOD, before (hopefully) moving back to the Moon in the 90's, and on the cheap.
Basically it is better to let the STG plan die for good in '72 and NEVER come back in the shape of the SEI 20 years later. Clean the mess in 69-72 rather than let it sleep for 20 years and come back with equally devastating results.
I should try writting a piece called "How JFK turned manned spaceflight in the wrong direction up to the present day, and beyond".
The basic, logical progressions as shown by NASA 1959 long range plan should have been
Mercury > Block 1 Apollo => Skylab > Block II Apollo => Apollo 8.
And basta, that's it.
Now compare that with OTL. Geez.
Apollo 11 would be Direct Ascent and Monster Nova, so... much later. "somewhere in the 70's". Yeah. Or never. just like present lunar return.
No Gemini either, because Direct Ascent don't need LOR nor orbital rendezvous.
Then JFK threw that logical sequence by the window, the lunar landing come too fast and too expensive and was canned brutally - and then the Shuttle come out of nowhere, and pushed the space station into Freedom, then ISS, lasting to this day.
Although the SEI (in its overall intent) was doomed as you say, it could have failed differently, and with more achieved (or with more practical failures that could have directed the future).
And, then again, we're in the business of working out what sort of successful failures could have been possible. As it was, it faded away like an unwanted fart in a posh ballroom, achieving nothing other than poisoning the well for other initiatives, sadly.
I understand the point you are making. My main issue with the SEI, indeed, is that it produced only paper ware and vapo ware. At least the 1969 IPP /STG plan had building blocks made of solid metal - NERVA existed, Apollo, Saturn V... by contrast the SEI building blocks were Shuttle and Freedom - meh. Freedom not even existed. And Shuttle technology... oh well.
Shuttle-C was interesting, although a little weird.
What could be done with Shuttle tech ? a good start might be the Aft Cargo Carrier.
Put an OTV inside that thing and fuel it with external tank residual LOX/LH2. You could also turn an ACC into an habitable, pressurized module and start from there to outfit an external tank as a space station - more or less a return to the "wet workshop" AAP era idea. Although foam shredding in orbit would be a giant PITA.
A Shuttle-C with an Aft Cargo Carrier, now that would be even more interesting.
Turn the Shuttle-C into a pressurized module, link it to the ACC presurized module, and use the two to outfit the external tank between them.
Remove the three SSMEs and send them back to Earth onboard a classic Shuttle payload bay.
Yeah, that's how I would proceed to "make the shuttle interesting again". ACC, OTV, Shuttle-C, perhaps better SRBs, too - 5-segments instead of 4-seg, or ASRM.