The shuttle as a flop (in numbers)

By Razib Khan | July 22, 2011 3:21 pm

Amos Zeeberg, the person you should pester (hopefully ineffectually!) when I’m not being nice to you in the comments, has an interesting opinion piece up lambasting the Shuttle program. Here are the numbers which jumped out at me (I knew the broad outlines, but nice to have precise numbers):

The most important thing to realize about the space shuttle program is that it is objectively a failure. The shuttle was billed as a reusable craft that could frequently, safely, and cheaply bring people and payloads to low Earth orbit. NASA originally said the shuttles could handle 65 launches per year; the most launches it actually did in a year was nine; over the life of the program, it averaged five per year. NASA predicted each shuttle launch would cost $50 million; they actually averaged $450 million. NASA administrators said the risk of catastrophic failure was around one in 100,000; NASA engineers put the number closer to one in a hundred; a more recent report from NASA said the risk on early flights was one in nine. The failure rate was two out of 135 in the tests that matter most.

To take the intangible value of human life out of the question, if we were going on the cheap then a 2 out of 135 failure right might be understandable. But we weren’t. The shuttle cost a lot. To whom much is given (in dollars) much shall be expected. It didn’t live up to the expectations.

In an unrelated vein, I wonder if the aging of the earth’s population is going to put a damper on space exploration in the short term. The explorers of the future are more likely to be de facto intelligent robots.


Comments (23)

  1. Re Dr. Strangelove: You can’t condemn a whole program because of two failures. The “reusable” Space Scuttle cost 3X as much as a use once and toss Saturn V to loft a kilogram mass into low Earth orbit. The Space Scuttle’s cargo capacity was mostly the Space Scttle.

    Each Space Scuttle launch was hard by a $billion overall. Recovery and refurbishment of the SSB shells and the orbiter cost a well-porkbarreled pretty penny. Cost to launch is total program cost amortized over all launches. NASA could carpet Rhode Island with all the Space Scuttle ancillary red ink lumps simmering in its books.

    Russia never did figure out how to make big liquid fuel engine bells at atmospheric pressure burn evenly. Multiple-engine Russian heavy lifters are eloquent testimony to burn flow instability (wild streaming rather than expansion). Their cost to LEO is also higher than that of a Saturn V.

    One stands aghast that a bunch of Nazi’s with slide rules and meager prior experience cobbled together a masterwork that supercomputers, CAD/CAM, and 40 years of experience in all fields cannot duplicate. Political management kills the future, for the only trusted employee is one whose sole marketable asset is loyalty.

  2. And yet I still can’t help thinking that it was a noble effort. There is no denying the fact that fixing the Hubble telescope was way cool.

  3. Brian Too

    Having done it and knowing that it didn’t live up to expectations, the armchair quarterbacks everywhere come out of the woodwork and criticize.

    Suppose we hadn’t done a shuttle. Suppose we had continued with Saturn+, Delta+, Redstone+, and so on. Then the armchair quarterbacks would be carping that we missed a golden opportunity to lower costs with a resuable vehicle. I mean, it’s obviously going to be cheaper, right?

    Some lessons you can only learn by doing. Everything is simple to those who do not have to do it.

  4. David C. Dean

    Best. “failure”. Ever.

    My apologies for being less than perfectly objective about it, but we did a *lot* of work with the shuttles, even if they didn’t do what someone promised 30 years ago.

    And people were proud of them. I’ll never forget standing there, watching Atlantis launch for the last time, with thousands around me chanting “USA”. At a time when we’re all supposed to be embarrassed about who we are, I’ve never seen or heard anything like it… and I fear I won’t again.

  5. DK

    There was a reason Russians shut down their copycat space shuttle program. They realized that the thing is not cost effective any way you look at it.

  6. gcochran

    “armchair quarterback” = anyone who can count. We knew that it was far more expensive than alternatives (without any compensating advantages) twenty-five years ago: the rational choice was to cancel it then. Challenger was enough of an excuse, surely.

    Doing things in an incredibly stupid way is not glorious. I’d like to think it isn’t quintessentially American, either. Without the Shuttle, maybe we could have afforded a real and progressing manned space program.

    The Shuttle program’s most glorious moment was when Atlantis rammed the alien mother ship, in Footfall.
    Problem is, that’s just a story.

  7. RJK

    “Some lessons you can only learn by doing.”

    If you stop at doing, you learn, at best, half a lesson. It’s as important, if not more, to take a “clear-eyed look”, as Mr. Zeeberg has, at the very real inadequacies and errors of the program that in future people may avoid falling into the same traps. I applaud him for being willing to take what is likely to be a very unpopular stance, and I hope others will come to agree in the fullness of time.

  8. I applaud him for being willing to take what is likely to be a very unpopular stance, and I hope others will come to agree in the fullness of time.

    hm. i recall the scientifically oriented press being way skeptical of the shuttle as far back as the 1980s. even granting #3’s argument, i don’t think it is compelling to suggest that we needed to wait *this long* to learn from the mistake in terms of the risk-cost/reward proposition re: the shuttle. the main argument from the scientific community in the shuttle’s defense was that it was important to get more general funding for NASA from what i can tell.

  9. Paul D.

    The shuttle seems less enthralling when you consider that something like Space X’s Falcons could have been done decades ago. The late Arthur Schnitt, starting in the 1960s, was pushing Minimum Cost Design expendable boosters; SpaceX’s boosters are a modern fulfillment of that plan.

    As for the Hubble… building a series of space telescopes on a production line would have amortized the development cost across multiple satellites, and allowed the initial testing problem to be fixed in later units with no need for repair flights. Putting the satellites into high earth orbit with expendable launchers would have nearly tripled the effective observing capacity of each one, due to reduced pointing constraints, and would have ended up being no more expensive than the series of very costly shuttle repair missions.

    As for skepticism in the 1980s: look back to the 1970s, there was skepticism there too:

  10. Paul D.

    Russia never did figure out how to make big liquid fuel engine bells at atmospheric pressure burn evenly.Russia never did figure out how to make big liquid fuel engine bells at atmospheric pressure burn evenly.

    This is a nitpick, but the “bell” of a rocket engine has little to do with combustion stability. The mixing and combustion of reactants is occurring inside the thrust chamber, upstream of the nozzle throat. The flow through the nozzle becomes supersonic at the throat, so no disturbance downstream, in the bell, can propagate back through that chokepoint.

  11. Like everyone else, I wish the program would have cost less, so we’d have more money to spend on other projects. Maybe our robotics would be much more advanced by now.

    But to just compare what they said it would cost with what it really cost seems one sided. Especially given the environment NASA is always in where people are constantly questioning why they should even be spending $1.

    If the project has a lot of wasteful spending, it will go over-budget.
    If the project is under-funded, it will go over-budget.

    What I don’t know is what the percentage split is of these 2 realities. 50-50? 30-70?

    Now if someone wants to show all the places money was actually “wasted”, so that we can prevent that in the future then that’s fine. I’m all for that.

  12. anon

    “The shuttle cost a lot. ”

    It’s not so much that the shuttle cost a lot — it did.

    It’s more like our nation’s failure of leadership and imagination has cost a lot. Not just in terms of the Shuttle, but in terms of Space, science, education, health, quality of life, environment.

    The shuttle is just an indicator, not a source.

  13. Butch70

    I’am glad that we had the space Shuttle program and sorry to see it go. The Russians had a space station which it went down flames and I always thought it was of crap. I would like to see
    the shuttle used to send our astonauts back to the moon. Because the moon is a big place to explore. And that is my opinion.

  14. MIchael

    Then reason a reusable vehicle was not cost effective was because it wasnt reusable. A resuable space vehicle can launch, land, and launch again the way a car does, without needing repair and maintenance after every single use, and without having to replace the primary engine after every use. Is returning to the saturn V a good solution? not really, but until a well enough designed permanent space vehicle can be found, the rocket wil suffice because and heres the kicker: we didnt fucking USE the space shuttle. we dont go to the moon anymore, we havent tried to go to mars, we havent done anything. For ferrying astronauts back and forth between a single space station and earth, why the hell not use one-time rockets?

  15. David

    Butch70: The shuttle was never able to go to the moon, nor was it ever designed to do so.

  16. Dark Upquark

    Humans should never have been put aboard solid rockets. We should not plan to do so in the future. That’s ONE thing the Russians surely got right with their shuttle, while ours was a Nixon era example of government trying to go big on the cheap.

    We should work to get payloads to orbit cheaply (like with solids and one-use vehicles) and humans to orbit safely. The two should never have been combined. And low orbit for a space station was another mistake.

    Maybe by the 22nd century we’ll get things right …

  17. I remember Saint Sagan telling us on TV that the next space project he was advocating (to Mars? or perhaps it was the first moon shot) would cost the same as what the USA spent on chewing gum. My rough calculations put the Shuttle at $1,000 per US person over its lifetime. Come to think of it, that’s about 10¢ per day per person – or am I out by a zero or two?

    And of course, from now on a least, it must be robots all the way in space.

  18. Given the ability that it had for lifting heavy cargo that could not have been lifted otherwise, how was it a failure. There are several satellites in orbit now that could not have been sent by any other means

  19. Paul D.

    CCTV: the Titan IV had about the same lifting capacity as the shuttle to low orbit. The military puts Hubble-sized payloads in polar orbit all the time, you know.

    Also, pointing to satellites that were designed for the shuttle as proof the shuttle was necessary is a bit circular. They were designed that way, at least in part, because the shuttle was there.

    But if we really needed more heavy lift, SpaceX is in the process of showing that a Minimum Cost Design approach to expendable boosters gives you heavy lift well beyond what the shuttle could do, at a fraction of the cost/lb. It’s a shame we didn’t follow Arthur Schnitt’s advice and go down that path 40 years ago.

  20. Chris T

    One editorial termed it a ‘magnificent failure’, and I think that description is apt.

    By any measure of its original objectives, it was a failure, but it was a beautiful technical accomplishment.

  21. Boddhisatva

    Well, the cost per launch may sound like a lot, and indeed there were many inefficiencies in the shuttle program, however, consider that the entire NASA budget is less than the U.S. military spends on AIR CONDITIONING in Iraq and Afghanistan. We should be spending more on space exploration and science programs in general, not complaining that one particular program should have been better.

  22. Liesel

    It all went down hill after NASA hired Lou Reed’s annoying girlfriend as “artist in residence.”

  23. The shuttle didn’t deliver what it promised. But, it deed break a lot of new ground:

    1. First reusable space craft.
    2. Frequency of flight at least as great as conventional rockets.
    3. Catastrophy rate comparable to manned rockets.
    4. Instrumental to establishing current space station.
    5. Gave human interest to space program.

    If was over budget, but the reality is that every tech stretching major government program ever devised, is overbudget, behind schedule and doesn’t deliver everything originally promised. No tech challenging Department of Defense program does any better and some do far worse. Substitute civilian space programs that were technologically edge pushing would have had the same flaws.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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