A contrarian’s view on the shuttle program

The Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down Thursday at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., completing the final mission of the NASA program, originally approved by President Richard Nixon in 1969.

Over the past 30 years since the Space Shuttle Columbia was first launched on April 12, 1981, some 135 shuttle flights were made.

Of course, two ended in disaster: Challenger exploded in 1986 shortly after liftoff; and Columbia disintegrated in 2003, a few minutes before its planned landing. In both cases, all crew members onboard were killed.

While the media has generally hailed the final Atlantis trip as the end of era – and held the space shuttle program out as a success story – not everyone agrees.

David Veksler, writing at the Mises Economics Blogargues that the end of the space shuttle program is long overdue:

Did you know that two significant events in spaceflight took place in 1969? The first was the first manned landing on the moon, on July 20, 1969. The second is a little less known. Buoyed by the success of the space program, President Nixon made the fateful decision to launch the Space Shuttle program in that same year. The cost for the project was estimated to be about five billion dollars to deliver stuff to orbit at $118 per pound. The “space shuttle” was intended to fly much like a plane – cheap and easily serviced, with flights every few weeks and massive cargo capacity.

When the Shuttle was finally completed in 1981, the reality was a bit different. First, the shuttle was 20% too heavy, so it couldn’t actually deliver the military payloads it was designed to fly. That left the civilian market. Unfortunately, the actual cost was $27,000 per pound delivered to orbit. Finally, the overhaul after each flight actually took many months and cost $1.5 billion, making regular “shuttle” service impractical. Compounding the cost was the fact that the shuttle tends to explode with cargo and crew every decade or so, and thus costs years of idleness and a dozen billion or so in redesign costs. In other words, the program was a total failure before the shuttle ever got off the ground.

If a car maker tried to sell a car that cost 228 times what was promised, could fit only half the advertised passengers, and had to be refurbished after every drive, they might not do so well in the market, especially when a much cheaper alternative was available. The Soviet Soyuz launcher designed in 1965 costs under a tenth of the Shuttle and has now in fact replaced it.

When the government was faced with the same problem, it decided to “invent” a market for the shuttle instead. Thus came about thousands of useless space experiments and a useless $160 billion space station, which is scheduled to be demolished in 2016. In other cases, satellites which used to be launched by cheap expendable rockets were redirected to the shuttle, actually delaying the launch and ballooning the costs.

A counter to Veksler’s criticism might include that something as expensive and science-intensive as the space shuttle program might never have gotten off the ground without government backing.

And even if one disagrees with Veksler that the program was a total failure, one can laud him for attempting to bring a discerning eye to the shuttle program, something few in the media seem willing to do.

(Above: Atlantis touching down Thursday at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Photo by The Associated Press)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s