July 09, 2011
Value Of Space Shuttle Questioned

John M. Logsdon, a member of the 2003 Columbia Accident Investigation Board, ays it is doubtful that the US Space Shuttle was worth the money spent on it.

But were these considerable benefits worth the $209.1 billion (in 2010 dollars) that the program cost? I doubt it. The shuttle was much more expensive than anyone anticipated at its inception. Then-NASA administrator James Fletcher told Congress in 1972 that the shuttle would cost $5.15 billion to develop and could be operated at a cost of $10.5 million per flight. NASA only slightly overran development costs, which is normal for a challenging technological effort, but the cost of operating the shuttle turned out to be at least 20 times higher than was projected at the program's start.

The Shuttle came nowhere close to the cheap space bus image used to promote its construction.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) found that the technical goals of the Shuttle made it riskier to operate than a design with more limited objectives.

It is the Board's view that, in retrospect, the increased complexity of a Shuttle designed to be all things to all people created inherently greater risks than if more realistic technical goals had been set at the start. Designing a reusable spacecraft that is also cost-effective is a daunting engineering challenge; doing so on a tightly constrained budget is even more difficult. Nevertheless, the remarkable system we have today is a reflection of the tremendous engineering expertise and dedication of the workforce that designed and built the Space Shuttle within the constraints it was given.

In the end, the greatest compromise NASA made was not so much with any particular element of the technical design, but rather with the premise of the vehicle itself. NASA promised it could develop a Shuttle that would be launched almost on demand and would fly many missions each year. Throughout the history of the program, a gap has persisted between the rhetoric NASA has used to market the Space Shuttle and operational reality, leading to an enduring image of the Shuttle as capable of safely and routinely carrying out missions with little risk.

General rocket failure rates are so high that manned flight needs capsules or small spacecraft for humans that can survive failure of rockets.

But with the end of the Shuttle program we lose some capabilities. James Oberg points to a half dozen capabilities unique to the shuttle.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 July 09 11:41 PM  Space Launch

john personna said at July 10, 2011 2:05 AM:

LOL, the design specifications of the shuttle were clear: to get a lot of money out of congress

By that cynical measure, it was a success.

J Storrs Hall said at July 10, 2011 3:48 AM:

"...in retrospect, the increased complexity of a Shuttle designed to be all things to all people created inherently greater risks than if more realistic technical goals had been set at the start."


PacRim Jim said at July 10, 2011 11:29 AM:

It's better to depend on AI and robotics. If NASA invests billions in both, it will catalyze their development.

Bruce said at July 10, 2011 11:48 AM:

I still think Gerald Bull was right about the best way to get material into space.

Over 40 years ago:

"The team was able to fire a 180 kilogram slug at 3,600 meters per second (13,000 km/h), reaching an altitude of 180 kilometers. The program was canceled shortly after this. The politics of the Vietnam War (then in its fifth year) and soured Canada/U.S. relations played their role in the project's cancellation. The project received just over 10 million dollars during its lifetime."


Randall Parker said at July 10, 2011 5:06 PM:

john personna,

Too true. Tragic really. I would like to see big infrastructure and space projects approached with some rational independent overview mechanism that isn't susceptible to capture.

J Storrs Hall,

Yes, it is important to point out what really could have been seen prospectively.

PacRim Jim,

Suppose NASA only spent on projects to develop enabling technologies. Would technology advance more rapidly? What should NASA's mission be to enable space tech to advance more rapidly?


Wow, one rich guy could fund the development of space bullet technology for fun.

Tom Billings said at July 11, 2011 12:14 AM:

PacRim Jim said at July 10, 2011 11:29 AM:

"It's better to depend on AI and robotics."

Depend on AI and Robotics for what?

To feed data to hoards of grad students whose Professors can then use the narrow results to justify both a higher budget and a higher salary, and incidentally get some science done? Then yes, I can agree. That simply will not sustain support for NASA. Not enough people will even think of participating.

However, if the statements at the start of the Vision for Exploration are still considered definitive, that the ultimate goal of US Spaceflight is to spread humanity throughout the Solar System, then AI and even teleoperated robotics can only prepare the ground for human settlement. If we are to become a multi-planet species, and command the resources of the Solar System, then humans will have to partner with even the best AI and telerobots to make settlements that are places where humans can not only survive, to do a little science, but thrive to live lives as full and varied as long life, and highly advanced augmentation of their own brains will make possible.

"If NASA invests billions in both, it will catalyze their development."

Even here one must be cautious. We have invested billions in Cancer Research, and for our trouble we have a mostly self-serving cancer research community, that its own participants admit too often refuses to fund demonstrated advances that are "not in the main line of research". An excellent example of work shorted in this manner is Dr. Cui's work with selecting neutrophil granulocytes from the people whose immune systems demonstrate an ability to kill cancer cells at a level of 98 percent in 24 hours, instead of 2 percent in 24 hours, and purifying and injecting them into the bodies of people with cancer who have weakened immune systems.

If NASA is not to grind AI and Robotic technology advance to a halt outside some selected set of focused norms and procedures, as it did with LEO spaceflight technology for the last 35 years of the Shuttle program, then we must make sure it does not become the monopsony on AI and Robotics that it did on LEO spaceflight tech. There are strategies to do that, but they are *not* those used by a hierarchy structured in the way NASA presently exists and functions.

philw1776 said at July 11, 2011 5:49 AM:

NASA investing billions in AI & robotics? What billions? NASA has again beclowned itself with the fiasco that is the JWST. Way over budget and worse yet no real handle on how much $ it will take to complete it. JWST has killed all other science at NASA by eating all the budget money. As an astronomy guy I was appalled to hear that JWST would be de-funded until I realized how still open ended expense wise this horribly run program is.

As to robotics, like with many previous wars DOD spending has been a boon to technology, in this case robotics. iRobot makes most of its money selling bots to the DOD. And DARPA creatively sponsored the autonomous car contests which pushed innovative technology.

Bruce said at July 11, 2011 11:37 AM:

Randall: "Wow, one rich guy could fund the development of space bullet technology for fun."

Until the ATF shut him down ...

40 years squandered on the wrong technology is so sad.

Redman said at July 12, 2011 10:58 AM:

Imagine having a gold plated Rolls Royce and only using it to travel back and forth to your mailbox. That is essentially what the shuttle was.

With anything airborne, the two highest risk events are the taking off and landing; the shuttle program maximized those events when compared to the total time spent in flight. An airliner which had a failure rate that high would never survive R & D.

M. Report said at July 12, 2011 11:17 AM:

This event marks the end of the 'False Dawn' of space travel;
The new day of exploitation of the High Frontier for profit
is at hand, now that the US can no longer afford to fund
the roadblock called NASA.

Frank Martin said at July 12, 2011 11:24 AM:

Two articles written Circa 1981 that assess the "soon-to-be" Shuttle program with prophetic accuracy:


Gregg Easterbrook:

What the shuttle did was cost too much, not meet its mission and kill people roughly every 50 flights. Oh, and it pushed manned space programs back 20 years.

Bill said at July 12, 2011 11:32 AM:

The Shuttle itself is meaningless. It's a truck. It's only a vehicle to carry stuff to low earth orbit. It's what's done in space that's important. That's where NASA has failed. They've done nothing for decades.

Doug said at July 12, 2011 11:39 AM:

On one hand, I liked the Shuttle. It was an amazing machine. On the other, the Shuttle was a dead end, like a Brachiosaur. It was big, impressive, and doomed to extinction. It set manned space flight efforts back by drying up government funding and providing government subsidized competition to private sector space efforts.

memomachine said at July 12, 2011 1:21 PM:


I've never understood why we don't simply build a mass driver for LEO and EO with a solid fuel rocket assist. Make it big enough to throw a bus into space and it'll be useful for more things than you can shake a stick at. For one thing it would have massive military applications. Why bother flying half-way around the world using stealth aircraft + crews and back to drop some bombs? Since most bombs dropped by the US military are JDAM why not just pack them into a single package like cluster munitions, throw them into high trajectory and let the bombs do all the work? No muss, no fuss.

Rob said at July 12, 2011 1:32 PM:

As NASA old timers will tell you, the real problem with the Shuttle, both in cost and fragility, was that the military demanded a 65,000 lb payload capacity. This was much larger than NASA planned at the time, but the military wanted to orbit some huge satellites. If NASA had gotten the 30,000 lb they initially wanted, the Shuttle would have been much smaller and safer. You should see the "Return to Launch Site" abort procedure (for main engine out early in launch), it was a nightmare: fly to solid rocket separation, shut down main engines still running, jettison still-full tank, glide back to Florida and land with 65,000 lb payload still on board (some of the more serious planning that went into every launch and thank God they never had to use it). Plus the "glide slope of a set of car keys", of course.

The problem with the Shuttle is that it was a complicated compromise run by a government bureaucracy. Add in a bunch of government contractors with cost-plus contracts and you've got a machine for making things expensive.

Lobo Solo said at July 12, 2011 4:43 PM:

@PacRim Jim ... No Buck Rogers ... No bucks! ... Sorry, I'm not interested in a bunch of rovers on Mars taking years to do what a couple of geologists could have done in a week.

Michael Griffin, a former NASA boss, argued in 2007 that the shuttle had cost so much money and time that it had held back the agency for decades. Had NASA persisted with the much bigger Saturn rockets that powered the moon missions, argued Mr Griffin, launch costs would be lower, the agency would have had more money for science and deep-space exploration, and astronauts might have visited Mars already.

I agree. Between the Shuttle and the ISS we've spent more than $300 billion and have gone no where. We could have had a bigger space station with Skylab-B but that was cancelled to keep the money flowing to the Shuttle development.

NASA had developed the Apollo Extension Systems (AES) as a plan for the beginnings of a lunar base. Development actually started in May, 1966. The initial plan was for a first mission in March, 1970. But budget cutbacks and then the cancellation of further Saturn V production led to the post-Apollo project being cancelled in June, 1968.

The planned evolution was to take the basic Apollo hardware forward to the Apollo Extension Systems. Next would have been the Apollo Logistics Support System and then to the Lunar Exploration System for Apollo. The end result would have been continuously expanding permanent stations on the moon.

There was a plan and Apollo was part of that plan. But Johnson had a war to fight and Nixon wasn’t interested. I don't think Obama is interested either.

So here we are in 2011 … about 40 after years later of a “flexible plan” to nowhere … and not even as close as were were then.

srp said at July 12, 2011 6:11 PM:

The Shuttle was bad, but the real vampire is the ISS. Our entire discussion of space policy is distorted by this question of "how do we get crew and cargo on and off the ISS?" Yet the ISS has not and is unlikely to ever contribute significantly either to science goals or to preparing the way for extended interplanetary travel. The latter deficiency is primarily due to its lack of a closed system or artificial gravity, the only two technologies relevant to human space exploration that it might possibly have advanced.

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