May 16, 2011
Just a little while ago the Space Shuttle Endeavour lifted off into space from the Kennedy Space Center on its last mission, the second-to-last mission for any Space Shuttle. Like many people I watched the liftoff (from my computer at home) and was a bit wistful to see space exploration as I have known it since my childhood nearing its end. But I have to say, when I think about the end of the Space Shuttle program, I’m really not that sorry to see it come to a close.
Oh, it’s not that I’m not a fan of space exploration (I even made NASA-space-mission-themed cookies last week for my office), but the Space Shuttle never lived up to its original concept, and it’s been sucking up a lot of money over the years, money that could have paid for even more discoveries than have already been made.
When the Space Shuttle was conceived in the 1960s, before we had even landed on the Moon, proponents were making claims that a reusable space vehicle, one that could land like an airplane, could be cheaper to operate on a per-launch basis and could launch as frequently as once a week. But the reality was far different.
The Space Shuttle is expensive: Putting people into the unnatural environment of Earth’s orbit is never going to be cheap, but the shuttle is particularly costly. One analysis of the program pegged the cost per mission at $1.3 billion (I’ve also seen estimates of $1.5 billion), enough to fund almost 3,000 research grants at the National Science Foundation or pay for a big chunk of a spacecraft like Cassini that will be producing data for decades. Another way to look at this is the cost per kilogram of getting something into space: The shuttle averages about $10,400 per kilogram of payload while the Russians pay only about $5,400 using their Soyuz spacecraft. We’re overpaying for the service when it’s delivered via shuttles.
The Space Shuttle launches infrequently: Those dreams of once-a-week launches were quickly dashed by reality. Once-a-week became twice-a-month became less than once-a-month. It took months to turn over a Space Shuttle for its next mission, and frequently launching people, science experiments and satellites into low-Earth orbit has been impossible.
The Space Shuttle is not reliable: Shuttle launch delays are frequent and costly (good luck to anyone planning to go to Florida to watch the last liftoff next month). But even worse is the rate of catastrophic failure, about 1 in 65. My memories of the program are not the trip to the Kennedy Space Center my family took when I was a kid; they are of the images on TV of the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Space exploration is never going to be risk-free, and if we’re going to explore our solar system and beyond, bad things will happen—just as they did for early Earth-bound explorers. We still need to decide as a society whether or not this is worth the risk.
When I was making the cookies for work last week, I realized how little our greatest space science has depended on the shuttle. Out of the five missions, only Hubble had depended on the Space Shuttle program, and it didn’t have to—its replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope, won’t. And without the shuttle program draining NASA’s limited funds, perhaps even more and better science will happen in the coming years.
Replacing one-time-use rockets with a reusable spacecraft is still a good idea, but we’re just not technologically ready for this. Our imaginations are far bigger than our abilities. That might seem like a sad realization, but it’s not. All it means is that we will keep inventing and striving to reach our sci-fi dreams, and that journey is a truly fascinating one.
(Think I’m wrong? That’s what the comment section is for.)
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.