The space shuttle was sold to America as cheap, safe and reliable. It was none of those. It cost $196 billion over 40 years, ended the lives of 14 astronauts and managed to make less than half the flights promised. Yet despite all that, there were some big achievements that weren’t promised: major scientific advances, stunning photos of the cosmos, a high-flying vehicle of diplomacy that helped bring Cold War enemies closer, and something to brag about.
Former President George H.W. Bush, who oversaw the early flights, said the shuttle program “authored a truly inspiring chapter in the history of human exploration.” NASA’s first space shuttle flight was in April 1981. The 135th and final launch is set for Friday, although storms could cause a delay. Once Atlantis lands at the end of a 12-day mission, it and the other two remaining shuttles are officially museum pieces — more expensive than any paintings.
America has done far more for far less. The total price tag for the program was more than twice the $90 billion NASA originally calculated. The nation spent more on the space shuttle than the combined cost of soaring to the moon, creating the atom bomb, and digging the Panama Canal, according to an analysis by The Associated Press using figures from NASA and the Smithsonian Institution and adjusting for inflation.
Even its most ardent supporters concede that the shuttle program never lived up to its initial promise. The selling point when it was conceived four decades ago was that with weekly launches, getting into space would be relatively inexpensive and safe. That wasn’t the case.
“But there is no embarrassment in setting the bar impossibly high and then failing to clear it,” said former astronaut Duane Carey, who flew in 2002. “What matters is that we strived mightily to do so — and we did strive mightily. The main legacy left by the shuttle program is that of a magnificent failure.”
Of the five shuttles built, two were lost in fiery tragedies. The most shuttle flights taken in one year was nine — far from the promised 50. The program also managed to make blasting into space seem everyday dull by going to the same place over and over again. Shuttles circled the planet 20,830 times, but went nowhere really new. The shuttle’s epitaph is “we tried,” said Hans Mark, a former deputy NASA administrator who oversaw most of the first dozen launches. Six years ago, then-NASA chief Michael Griffin even called the shuttle program a mistake. But as a mistake it is one that paid off in wildly unexpected ways that weren’t about money and reliability.
“The discoveries it enabled, the international cooperation it fostered and the knowledge it gained — often at great human cost — has also contributed in countless, important ways to humanity and our common progress,” President Bush wrote The Associated Press in an email. Bush oversaw the program’s early days as vice president, a job that has by tradition supervised NASA.
There are the magnificent photos from the Hubble Space Telescope, which helped pinpoint the age of the universe and demonstrated the existence of mysterious dark energy; the ongoing labwork on the International Space Station; a multitude of satellites for everything from spying to climate change; and spacecraft that explore the solar system. All owe their existence to the space shuttle. The Hubble was not just launched from the shuttle — it was repaired and upgraded five times by shuttle astronauts. They also captured and fixed satellites in orbit.
Earlier this year, shuttle astronauts installed a $2 billion particle physics experiment on the space station that may find evidence of dark matter and better explain aspects of how the universe was formed. Add the intangibles of near continuous American presence in space over three decades and a high-flying venue for both international diplomacy and school science lessons.
Like a real life version of the television show “Star Trek,” the shuttle was a United Nations in space, carrying representatives of 16 other countries. The U.S. and Russia became close partners in space and Russian rocket scientists after the breakup of the Soviet Union found new employment. NASA’s current boss said all that is not something that should be ignored. The shuttle also diversified space to make it seem more like Earth, sending the first American woman, the first African-American and teachers, lawmakers and even a former migrant farmworker into orbit.
“The space shuttle program reaffirmed, once again, American dominance in space and laid the foundation for the United States to continue its long-standing leadership beyond our home planet,” NASA Administrator and former shuttle commander Charles Bolden wrote in an email. “The shuttle program evolved over its lifetime and gave us many firsts and many proud national moments, along with painful lessons.”
University of Colorado science policy professor Roger Pielke Jr., who studies shuttle costs and policies, said there are probably other ways the country could have spent several billion dollars a year on a human space program and gotten more.
Launching like a rocket and landing like an airplane, the shuttle was the ultimate hybrid. It acts both as a space taxi, carrying astronauts, and has the muscle of a long-distance trucker, hauling heavy machinery.