John Logsdon asks a very straightforward question: was the space shuttle a mistake?
His answer? Yes (with a few caveats).
Logsdon acknowledges several shuttle achievements and benefits (international cooperation, Hubble, the de-testpilotification of the astronaut, and a creation/display of American pride and prestige) and then asks if these outcomes were worth the shuttle’s $210 billion program cost.
His answer: at about $1.5 billion per mission, probably not. This work could likely have been done more capably/less expensively using non-shuttle solutions (of course, the space station is highly culpable here as well).
Logsdon gives a head nod to NASA’s management of the shuttle’s initial development effort followed by a gruesome (but accurate) observation regarding NASA’s ability to subsequently operate the shuttle program on-budget.
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.
This leads to one of the major points of Logsdon’s article:
The shuttle’s cost has been an obstacle to NASA starting other major projects.
The space transportation system (STS), AKA the shuttle, became the mission that (almost) ate NASA. And that leads to another major observation:
Today we are in danger of repeating that mistake, given Congressional and industry pressure to move rapidly to the development of a heavy lift launch vehicle without a clear sense of how that vehicle will be used.
So, with apologies to Country Joe and the Fish
And it’s three, two, one
Here we go off to space
What to do way up there?
I don’t know and can’t make a case
With the S-T-S,
Astronauts get on aboard
Manned space it gives us glory
It’s some sort of allegory