Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Was the Space Shuttle Worth It?

After 134 missions, 5 shuttles, 14 lives lost, and $174 billion dollars, the space shuttle program is scheduled to end on February 27, 2010.  The next generation of launch vehicles is still up in the air but no one is talking about a reusable vehicle like the shuttle.  Meanwhile the Russians are essentially still using the same one-time-use Soyuz system they've been launching since the 70's at much lower costs.  So now that we're approaching the end of an era in space exploration, let's ask the question:  was the shuttle program worth it?

If you ask the American public it was.  A Rassmusen Reports survey showed that 52% of those polled though the shuttles were worth the cost in dollars and lives, while only 28% disagreed.  Encouragingly, even in tough economic times like the present, 78% of Americans think it's important or very important to have an unmanned space exploration program and 72% say the same about a manned space exploration program.

I'm grateful that the US keeps investing in space exploration, however I personally think that the shuttle program was a poor way to do it.  With a fleet of vehicles that can only go into low-earth orbit there was no real destination for the shuttle program until the building of the International Space Station (and even then one has to ask why are we going there?).  Without a destination, the shuttle program fell into a "cause-of-the-year" syndrome where the shuttle became a zero-G research lab, a construction vehicle, a delivery truck, and a service van, to name a few.  Without a focused mission, NASA lost much of the public attention it had with the Apollo program.  Now if you ask people why NASA sends men and women into space you're likely to get responses like "good question".

I'm not trying to pin all of the inefficiencies and short-comings of the American space program on the shuttles, but I have to wonder if we could have done more over the past 30 years without it.


  1. Good comments. I also think the shuttles were a waste of effort. As many have observed, we were ecstatic in 1969 when we landed on the moon. Who would imagine that for almost 40 years we would not return there?
    The space laboratory really has taught us little, except how to develop things in zero gravity. Had we started in 1972 to focus on Mars, it is possible we could have sent manned missions there by now.

  2. rameumptom,
    Even if had started in 1972 we wouldn't be at Mars today simply because at the moment we have no way to shield spacecraft against cosmic rays, which would deliver a lethal dose of radiation over the course of trip to Mars. NASA isn't into one-way missions.

    If we had stuck with Apollo-style programs, we might, however, have an International Moon Base instead of a space station and we might have been able to send a manned mission to an asteroid - or at least be closer to those objectives.

  3. It's a tough question. I appreciate your perspective. I'm a mixed bag I guess. I have a very hard time admitting things are "worth it" when the loss of human life is involved, even though I'm extraordinarily grateful for those who have sacrificed so much for me.

    I definitely think moon missions are important to science. Sometimes the things that "don't make sense" don't make sense because we haven't figured out how to use the information gained. As far as the space shuttle aiding in that particular process - probably not a whole lot. On the other hand, from aerospace engineer perspective, NASA the space shuttle, etc. have fueled MANY advances therein. I can't deny that. HOWEVER, it's also clear by now that private industries can do MUCH better than NASA in this vein, even with fewer resources.

    So at least tentatively, I'm going to agree with you on this one in the hopes that someday we might look back and see the utility in it.

  4. Much as I'm impressed by the successes of privately funded spaceflight, I'm not sure you cam make easy comparisons to the shuttle program.

    Not least because there is a 30yr gap between the start of them.

  5. David,
    The thing I worry about with private space flight is that we're going to shift from exploration to economics as the focus and I think that generally to move a frontier forward you need a government to get the ball rolling and show that something can be done. In effect, I think you need a public project to "prime the pump" before private enterprises can take over. I'm not sure that we've primed the pump yet - at least not in terms of exploration.

  6. For keeping Hubble working, it was worth it.

  7. Ancient1,
    Hubble's total development cost before launch was $2.5 billion. The five servicing missions to Hubble have cost $9.6 billion total - essentially 4 brand new Hubble's. From a PR standpoint Hubble's long life has been wonderful but from a simple cost/benefit viewpoint I don't know of anyone that thinks that the scientific community wouldn't be better served by simply building a new Hubble every 5 years.

  8. Also, Hubble was one of the "causes-of-the-year" for the space shuttle several times, however I don't think anyone is advocating space telescopes as the focus of NASA's space exploration program.

  9. "The thing I worry about with private space flight is that we're going to shift from exploration to economics as the focus and I think that generally to move a frontier forward you need a government to get the ball rolling and show that something can be done"

    I think it's definitely a point worth discussing. It seems to me that the gov't in this instance provides 2 things - a goal, and money. Private industry has most definitely shown it can do things without the gov't's money. As for the goal, I think perhaps gov't does provide something in this case, but I'm not sure that there wouldn't be a better (albeit) different goal if the private industry took over.

    Part of the benefit of a market driven world is that it has the fewest assumptions about people - that is, people do whatever they want. With a central planner making the decisions we are subject to what it thinks is best. Perhaps it is the fault of the gov't planner in this particular case that the space shuttle seems to be a largely non-worthwhile effort.

    Note also that most FFRDCs are moving to private corporations now. The gov't actually has an idea, and acting like a rational player in the economy, puts it out for different companies to bid on. The big exception to this rule is NASA.

  10. Nick,

    It is only money!

    For fair comparision, you need to calculate how much would it cost to do 134 missions. Whether the missions were necessary or not is a different issue.

    Shuttle failures though spectacularly disheartening, probably were not outside of failure rates of complex systems. That said, I do not like the NASA administration that has become exceedingly political and has lost a sense of advanture. For that reason, I wouuld start all over again.

  11. Ancient1,
    Sorry if I wasn't clear - when I said the 5 servicing mission cost $9.6 billion I meant that those 5 missions alone cost $9.6 billion - as in each one cost $1.9 billion by itself. The cost of the other 129 missions was $165 billion or so, meaning that the Hubble missions were on average much more expensive than the others. Basically what I'm trying to say is that for the price of 5 servicing missions to keep Hubble running you could simply build and launch 4 brand new Hubbles.

  12. NIck,

    If we average out the cost, it is about $1.3B per mission. We should ask whether we would have done all these missions and also should ask whether any of these missions were shuttle specific, and could not have been done without the shuttle.

    I do agree that we would have done more in science of space exploration if these resources were available.

    It did give us a chance to watch for UFOs but NASA has not released much about this research!

  13. Thanks to the Apollo program we already had velcro and Tang. What else was there to gain from the Shuttle program? It has not given us any new sugar drinks and reusable adhesive technology.

  14. Moon landing never happened.

  15. Yeah, I can't name a single important thing that came out of the shuttle program (seriously). I'm a scientist and sure wish that we had those billions back... either for other more productive science, or for important stuff BESIDES science!


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