Most anybody with a passing familiarity with Utah history is aware of Wendover’s role in Project Silverplate, the U.S. Army Air Force’s project to modify B-29 bombers to enable them to drop atomic weapons on Japan.
But few Utahns know that during the 60’s and early 70’s, the sleepy border town was poised to become a huge NASA hub.
Turns out NASA was seriously looking at basing at least part of its Space Shuttle program in the Wendover area. I learned about this for the first time while conducting background research on the Silver Island Range for my latest TTB article. Exactly which aspects of the shuttle program were to be based in Wendover are in question. Some old newspaper articles claim that Wendover was to house the whole deal– engine production, launch, and landing/recovery. Other sources (like the pictured pamphlet) mention simply a landing/recovery operation.
Wendover was in contention with bases in New Mexico, California, and Florida. Utah was serious enough about winning that it spent many millions of extra dollars to route I-80 through Wendover, something that wasn’t in UDOT’s original plan.
TANGENT: In fact, UDOT’s original plan was to route I-80 up and over the Silver Island Range and into the Pilot Valley. Wendover was to be cut off completely. The plan, according to its lead engineer, Roy Tea, would have saved travelers 6 miles and the state upwards of $50 million.
NESTED TANGENT: This same Roy Tea is the foremost authority on the Hastings Cutoff of the California Trail. This guy is a fountain of knowledge about this piece of Utah history.
The new NASA base would have made Wendover a major Utah city. Multiple other communities were also expected to be built in the area. The Bonneville Salt Flats would have been utilized as a landing area or a closed buffer zone.
Needless to say, Wendover lost out to Cape Canaveral, which modified the existing Apollo infrastructure to house the project. The salt flats went on to star in numerous movies and car commercials, and Wendover continued as an economically challenged border town.
But Utah didn’t give up on its space aspirations. In 1998, several Utah counties bid to base the VentureStar reusable spaceship program. The program failed and was canceled in 2001.
It’s hard to determine from the scant newspaper references I could dig up just how big a deal this was for Utahns at the time. The best source of information on all of this was a 1971 issue of The Salt Flat News, a quirky little pub I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog.
I’m intrigued by all of this and I plan to put together a more conclusive piece for the Transcript Bulletin in the near future. But, like my recent reacquaintance with Spock and Kirk, it got me to thinking about space.