Retiring the Shuttle


in Bombs and rockets, Economics, Geek stuff, Politics, Space and flight

This year, after 29 years in operation and two catastrophes, the American Space Shuttle program is shutting down. The Shuttle was always a hacked-together prototype vehicle, never the cheap and dependable satellite-launching workhorse that NASA seemed to promise Congress. Lots of effort and brilliance went into the thing – make no mistake – but trips to space have never been safe or routine.

The Wikipedia entry on the Shuttle details just how costly the thing was, as a way of putting objects 300 or so kilometres above the Earth:

When all design and maintenance costs are taken into account, the final cost of the Space Shuttle program, averaged over all missions and adjusted for inflation, was estimated to come out to $1.5 billion per launch, or whopping $60,000/kg to LEO [low Earth orbit]

There are things that are worth putting into orbit at those prices – chiefly communication satellites and others designed to observe our planet and the wider universe. Human beings probably aren’t worth it, for now at least. The process of getting out of the atmosphere is perilous and costly, and there is nowhere remotely habitable to go, once you get up there.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

oleh May 16, 2011 at 8:08 pm

I believe that the origin of much of this cost was manned space travel – and in particular the Societ and US Race to put a man on the moon. This became a source of pride over function. After all I expect that robots could have as easily collected the rocks that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did on Apollo 11. The robots could have been programmed to say “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”.

The problem is not just getting the man to the moon, but also getting them back safely. Significant increased safety factors (and with that costs) would be built in.

Does anyone have data on how much more expensive manned flight was over unmanned flight?

Or how much would have been saved if the Space effort was not a competition between the US and the USSR?
Has anyone data

Milan May 16, 2011 at 9:01 pm

I have an alternative hypothesis about the Cold War space race – namely that it was a way for the United States and Soviet Union to demonstrate their military prowess without actually going to war. If you can put people into orbit, you can lob hydrogen bombs into Moscow or Washington.

It was also a way of competing ideologically, by showing which side could develop superior science and technology.

Compared with war, manned spaceflight seems like a rather good way to spend money.

oleh May 17, 2011 at 12:51 am

Milan, an interesting theory. The US and the USSR did actually avoid going to war. I wonder what John Le Carre would think of your theory. Often his novels showed how the US and Soviet espionage networks co-existed rather than competed.

Matt May 17, 2011 at 6:21 pm

While manned space flight is perilous, I don’t think you can point to that as a reason not to do it. As long as there are people willing to take those risks, I don’t think that it matters very much.

I know I’ve expressed this opinion here before, but I don’t think one should neglect the value of some of the benefits that are hard to put a price on. Specifically, the shuttle has been iconic of human achievement and inspirational to aspiring scientists and engineers (read: children).

Additionally, space flight and the space race has lead to useful technological advances and research. Also, it’s responsible for the Apollo 17 Earth Rise picture which, I’ve heard argued, was one of the biggest facilitators of the environmental movement.

Milan May 17, 2011 at 7:32 pm

It’s a good point. Space exploration has taught us a lot about the Earth, though arguably we would have learned more if we had invested more in robots and less in manned exploration. Of course, robots are generally less inspiring.

ihor May 18, 2011 at 12:13 am

I believe that one day life on planet earth will cease to continue as it
is today and although I agree that the costs of space exploration far
outway the benefits received isn’t it soothing to dream that the scientists will be able to one day find life beyond our planet and perhaps mankind will be able to send a tiny sample of ourselves so that we as a species can carry on.

Milan May 18, 2011 at 7:43 pm

The idea of expanding beyond this planet does carry appeal, but I don’t think humanity has the necessary maturity yet.

We don’t have anything close to the technology, either. Getting beyond the solar system will require either faster than light travel, the ability to create and maintain self-contained ecosystems, or the development of some technology to store and revive humans across vast swathes of time, or manufacture them once the ship nears its destination.

. June 7, 2011 at 5:44 pm

Apollo plus 50
The meaning of the race to the moon, half a century after the starting gun

FIFTY years ago, on May 25th 1961, President John Kennedy summoned a joint session of Congress and asked America to commit itself to the goal, before the decade was out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth. If it succeeded, he said, it would not be one man going to the moon—“it will be an entire nation”. A little over eight years later, when Neil Armstrong became the first man to step on to the lunar surface, the snowy images beamed down to Houston stamped an indelible memory on a generation of earthlings.

Some say that Kennedy conceived of the race to the moon principally to recover from the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs. John Logsdon, the doyen of American space studies, takes a more generous view in his new book (“John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon”, Palgrave Macmillan). Kennedy was not especially interested in space, and said as much in private. But after the Soviet Union sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit he believed it to be vital for America to take on and beat the Soviets at something very hard. The moon fitted this need like a glove. Planting a man on its surface required no big technological innovations, says Mr Logsdon, “just very expensive mastery over nature using the scientific and technological knowledge available in 1961”.

As to whether it is was worthwhile, there is no accountant’s answer even 50 years on. The Apollo project cost about $150 billion in 2010 dollars, five times as much as the Manhattan Project and 18 times the cost of digging the Panama Canal. It is not easy today to remember how imperative it seemed back then for the free world to show that it could outperform its totalitarian rival. But the moon landing was more than a win in the cold war. It also changed the way people of all nations thought about themselves and the planet they share. It showed that it really was possible for man to step out of this world into another. Apollo 8’s photographs of a little Earth, shining vulnerably in a great black emptiness, made people aware of the planet’s fragility and helped to spur the green movement.

. July 30, 2011 at 12:06 pm

After the space shuttle
Mission uncertain
The end of the programme will reverberate in Texas and beyond

FOR nearly 50 years the Johnson Space Centre in Houston has dominated the city’s cultural and economic life. Francie Newsom, a teacher at the centre’s museum, reckons that astronauts in Houston are like movie stars in Los Angeles: a normal part of the landscape. They shop for groceries and take their children to baseball practice. In her previous career, as a horse trainer, she gave some of them riding lessons. But the Space Centre is also an economic anchor for the region. It employs more than 18,000 people, and the statewide economic impact of NASA spending in 2009 was nearly $3 billion. It has helped draw about 50 aerospace contractors to the region, lured by several billion dollars’-worth of government contracts.

America’s last space-shuttle launch is scheduled for July 8th. With the end of the programme, NASA estimates that several thousand jobs will be lost around the country between agency employees and contractors. But the actual figure could be much higher, depending on spillover effects and the response from the private sector. Earlier this month, for example, Boeing announced that it would lay off more than 500 people working in its space-exploration division.

. August 5, 2011 at 3:14 pm

The space shuttle
Into the sunset
The final launch of the space shuttle brings to an end the dreams of the Apollo era

IF THE weather holds and there are no unforeseen complications, then early in the morning on July 8th a woman and three men will ascend the launch tower at Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre, strap themselves into Atlantis, the last operational space shuttle, and, as the engines ignite, wait for the countdown to reach zero. Burning thousands of litres of rocket fuel every second and blasting superheated gas into the water-filled trench beneath the pad, the engines will kick up the vast gouts of steam and smoke that characterise a rocket launch.

Atlantis will rise on a pillar of fire, slowly at first but then faster and faster. As it heads east across the Atlantic, its flight will flatten from vertical to almost horizontal. Around two minutes after launch, the boosters on either side of the shuttle will fall away, followed shortly afterwards by the giant external fuel tank strapped to the spaceship. Eight-and-a-half minutes into the flight and the craft, now travelling at about 27,000kph (17,000mph), will reach orbit and the four astronauts will enjoy the rare privilege of seeing their home planet from space.

. September 24, 2011 at 10:58 pm

I recently found out that, in 2050, when I am 69 years old, the Voyager 1 space craft will finally reach a distance of one single light-day away from the Earth.

Light will reach that point in 24 hours. A man-made jumble of electronics will have taken 73 years. At that rate, it’ll be more than 26,000 years before Voyager has traveled a light-year away from us.

The nearest star is more than 4 light-years away. (And also in the wrong direction.)

These facts were making me feel a little overwhelmed and strangely sad. Reader David Radune on Google+ captured those feelings perfectly, in one sentence,”I don’t think we’re ever getting off this rock.

. October 19, 2014 at 8:26 pm

Secret X-37B robotic space plane returns from 2-year orbital mission
Space shuttle lookalike sets down in California

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