At one point in Carl Sagan's novel Contact (1985), set c. 1999, the main character hitches a ride into space on a space shuttle:

The President clearly was in favor of her visit [to a private space station], because a place had suddenly been made available on the next shuttle launch, the aging STS Intrepid. ... The aging shuttle fleet was still the workhorse of US government space activities, both military and civilian.

Given that the fleet is said to be "aging", we would assume that the Intrepid had been built in the 1980s in the novel's Universe. Of course, no shuttle with that name was ever built; only one was ever built after Sagan's novel was published, and that was to replace the Challenger.

In 1985, were there still active plans to build more shuttles, beyond the five that existed at the time? Or was this Sagan being optimistic, as was his wont?


1 Answer 1


I think Sagan was being optimistic. The original plan was for a large fleet of shuttles to support a very high mission flight rate, but according to Wikipedia, by 1983, the plan was to hold the fleet at four orbiters (not counting Enterprise, which was not spaceworthy):

On January 5, 1979, NASA commissioned a second orbiter. Later that month, Rockwell began converting STA-099 to OV-099, later named Challenger. On January 29, 1979, NASA ordered two additional orbiters, OV-103 and OV-104, which were named Discovery and Atlantis. Construction of OV-105, later named Endeavour, began in February 1982, but NASA decided to limit the Space Shuttle fleet to four orbiters in 1983. After the loss of Challenger, NASA resumed production of Endeavour in September 1987.

Note that Contact was written before the loss of Challenger.

As far as I know, there was no list of names for unbuilt STS orbiters, but Intrepid is a quite plausible name for an orbiter in an alternate history. The Apollo 12 LM was named Intrepid, and three of the orbiters -- Columbia, Challenger, and Endeavour -- shared names with Apollo CMs or LMs. In addition, the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid was the recovery ship for the Mercury MA-7 and Gemini 3 missions. The all-important Star Trek fandom contingent would have likely approved of the name as well; in one episode of the original series, the USS Intrepid is mentioned as a Vulcan-crewed sister ship of the USS Enterprise.

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    $\begingroup$ Yep, the initial plans were very, very optimistic. $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Commented Jul 16, 2020 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ @SF. The initial plans were just fine -- it was bloody reality which failed us;-). $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 17, 2020 at 10:43
  • $\begingroup$ That seems to settle it. IIRC Sagan & his wife had developed the story as a screenplay several years prior, and only turned it into a novel when development stalled. It seems plausible that this detail was inserted early on and never removed. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 17, 2020 at 11:41
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    $\begingroup$ Endeavour was built from a set of "structural spares" - large Orbiter pieces that were built while the production facilities were still extant. At some point after Endeavour was built, a contract(s) was let to build more structural spares - kind of back-dooring getting ready for another Orbiter - but they were cancelled before much was done. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 8 at 2:43
  • $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble - I wonder if when the spare parts were built they considered the possibility that they might be used for a future orbiter, even if one wasn't planned (or expected) at the time. I say this because from what I understand when structural test article STA-99 was built, when the frame was put through load tests they held back a bit to avoid causing stress that would make it unusable, even though at the time they did not plan for it to be used to build an orbiter. Later when design changes resulted in a need to rebuild Enterprise, STA-99 was instead built out as OV-99 Challenger. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 9 at 18:07

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