The Space Shuttle: $200 Billion Turkey?

As we enter the final days of the Space Shuttle program, new research has shown that the cost per flight was $1.5 billion per flight with a total cost of nearly $200 billion.

While many of the achievements of the space shuttle have been applauded, criticism of the performance and efficacy of the programme came early and proved to be scarily accurate. A year before the first launch, the Washington Monthly forecast many of the Shuttle’s subsequent problems: the overambitious launch schedule and subsequent higher costs per flight, the lack of a practical abort method, and the fragility of the Shuttle’s thermal protection system.


Space Shuttle in hanger
The vision for processing the Shuttle for its next flight was incredibly simple
Space shuttle in hanger surrounded by complex framework
Compare the vision with the actual ground processing environment

The Shuttle technology was largely derived from old technology and didn’t push the boundaries of what might be achieved and yet, despite this, still managed to be both highly unreliable and costly. NASA made a lot of promises for the Shuttle program and when they found it impossible to deliver on these
they changed the rules, played games and hid the truth; while cutting safety procedures and pushing for unrealistic and unsafe launch schedules. Taking part in the investigation into the Challenger investigation, Richard Feynman said NASA was trying to “repeal the laws of nature” through its risky and overly aggressive launch schedules.

Studies of other alternative launch technologies available at the time show that the Shuttle was no cheaper and significantly less reliable than the Saturn technology it replaced. But in throwing away the Saturn programme, NASA also lost the ability to reach the moon and in doing so threw away the possibility of any kind of Mars mission too.

The Shuttles looked the part, for sure. They looked like the kind of space plane that we see in science fiction and promised to deliver that level of access to space. But appearances can be, and were, deceptive. The writing was on the wall from a very early time in the programme’s life, but no-one dared talk about the ceramic-tile coated white elephant that was in the corner of the room.

Once the Shuttle is gone, NASA will rely on commercial companies for access to space. Without the spectre of the Shuttle unfairly competing with them, we can hope that these companies will be able to successfully develop.

[Images courtesy: Wikipedia]

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