It was a bittersweet moment when the last shuttle flight touched back down at Kennedy Space center. It signaled the end of a storied program that saw unbelievable highs, and unimaginable lows.
There was also uncertainty. With no replacement on the horizon for at least several years, it meant that NASA would have to reply on our space exploration partners, Russia specifically, in order to meet our obligations. Furthermore it seemed the space agency itself faced an identity crisis; would manned space exploration ever return to the United States.
In spite of the uncertainty, however, the space shuttles were given a hero’s welcome for completing their successful journeys.
But was the space shuttle program actually successful?
The Loss of Life
In today’s safety obsessed culture the obvious condemnation of the space program is the inherent danger of extra-atmospheric flight.
The risk involved in being an astronaut can be encapsulated in a single statistic, more than one in 25 space shuttle astronauts lost their lives during the 30 year program.
The question that I often consider is whether our government would have sanctioned a program knowing that at least 4% of those undertaking the job of astronaut would give up their lives in pursuit of science? In our safety obsessed culture I somewhat doubt it.
Clearly NASA never anticipated such a high accident rate, but it should certainly be cause for rumination.
Work on the space shuttle program began following the success of the Apollo missions, though it was 1981 before the first shuttle lifted off for low Earth orbit (LEO).
The initial plan was to launch 50 missions a year; that’s nearly one per week. Over the 30 year operational lifetime of the fleet that would amount to 1,500 flights. How many were managed? 135.
No matter how that is spun, that is a complete failure on one of the fleet’s primary goals – to make travel to LEO routine and accessible.
Furthermore we must consider cost. At more than $200 billion dollars (including launch costs) the total cost of the program is more than double what was originally estimated (though in today’s reality of government cost estimates, that doesn’t really seem too bad).
Breaking the cost down, the average cost per flight is in excess of $1.5 billion.
Beyond our Reach
Another criticism of the space shuttle fleet is its limited ability. While great at ferrying astronauts and cargo to the edge of space, the orbiters lack the ability to reach much beyond the realm of communications satellites.
Some doubt that we ever went to the Moon because since the Apollo missions we haven’t been back, even with all of the technological developments made by NASA.
While this is a silly argument, the reality is that we haven’t been back to the Moon since the 1970s. The reason being that the replacement system for Apollo was never designed for distant travel, but was rather optimized for delivering equipment to LEO.
Designing the fleet specifically for work in LEO has been helpful in constructing the International Space Station (ISS) and launching satellites, but it has severely limited NASA’s ability to go beyond the gravitational pull of Earth.
Knowing now that rocket technology has advanced to the point that a dedicated system for launching payloads into LEO would have circumvented a need for a space shuttle-like instrument, it seems that NASA lacked foresight.
Preparing the Way Forward
Relatively dangerous, seriously over budget, severely limited in scope and rarely used it seems obvious that the space shuttle fleet was a failure. But there were upsides.
While it’s true, as mentioned earlier, that some of the payloads delivered to LEO by the shuttle fleet could have found there way their more cheaply by advanced rockets, had NASA spent development money on such things over the shuttle fleet, some things necessitated a shuttle-like ship.
The Hubble Space Telescope, some would argue NASA’s greatest achievement, most likely never would have made it to orbit (much less received the much needed repairs over the years) without the shuttle fleet.
What’s more, the shuttle program helped pave the way for future programs. Sure the replacement for the fleet is going to look a lot more like the Apollo capsules than anything else. But it’s what will lie beneath the skin where the shuttle fleet will have influence.
This, naturally, leads to the discussion of technology. Listing technological advancements that can be attributed to specific NASA projects can be tricky, especially when considering the question of whether or not the technologies would have arisen anyway, perhaps from other projects.
What we can say, however, is that the space shuttle program has paved the way forward. Without it we could not possibly even have a conversation about a manned mission to Mars. The advancements in understanding and mechanics of space flight, while at times coming at a high price, have made the future of manned space flight possible.
Success or Failure?
A simple metric analysis of the program would lead to a conclusion of failure. But the shuttle program is more than numbers.
It allowed other programs like the ISS and Hubble to exist at times that may have been impossible without the fleet. And the advancement of scientific knowledge because of these endeavors is difficult to quantify.
So was the shuttle program a success or a failure? I don’t know that there exists a definitive answer. All we can do is look to the future and what is next.