Nothing symbolizes American economic achievement and dominance in space quite like the space shuttle. It is an image of technological power – a skyscraper sized vehicle which thundered into space on top of two massive columns of fire produced by a pair of solid rocket boosters, each larger than the body of a Boeing 737.
The most common perception is that the space shuttle was the pinnacle of space-going hardware, that it provided cheap, reliable, and safe access to space, that it enabled a suite of scientific and technical achievements which would have otherwise been out of reach, and that it established the United States government as the clear leader in space capability.
This cultural narrative is considered indisputable fact by most people, but it is wrong. The general consensus among experts in the industry is the exact opposite of that of the general public. And that consensus is focused on three damning criticisms of the space shuttle program as well as the vehicle itself – that it was a catastrophic failure in light of the program goals, that it was catastrophically expensive, and that it was catastrophically dangerous.
This three-part series will use statements by experts in the relevant field, including astronauts, NASA administrators, engineers, and others to show that these three criticisms of the space shuttle are well grounded and support the conclusion that the space shuttle was a complete failure and a horrible mistake.
The space shuttle program failed to achieve even a single one of its stated goals.
At the 1970 public announcement of the space shuttle program president Richard Nixon said,
This system will center on a space vehicle that can shuttle repeatedly from earth to orbit and back. It will revolutionize transportation into near space, by routinizing it. It will take the astronomical costs out of astronautics.
Two years later in 1972, the Government Accountability Office released a report justifying the program. The report stated,
The primary objective of the Space Shuttle Program is to provide a new space transportation capability that will: reduce substantially the cost of space operations and provide a future capability designed to support a wide range of scientific, defense, and commercial uses.
At the time of that report, NASA estimated that the space shuttle would fly 500 to 624 times over a 10 year period, an average of at least 50 flights per year.
The Air Force was recruited by NASA to provide support for the shuttle in exchange for building certain specific capabilities into the vehicle and allowing the Air Force to use it to launch their payloads. Secretary of the Air Force Robert Stevens testified to congress in 1971 on behalf of the organization. He said,
…the Air Force [strongly recommends] that Shuttle development be authorized. When the operational system is achieved, we would expect to use it to orbit essentially all [Air Force] payloads, ‘phasing out’ our expendable booster inventory.
Thus, the space shuttle was designed to make space flight cheap and routine by the use of a reusable launch vehicle, and to provide the capability of launching a variety of military, commercial, and scientific payloads into orbit as well as refurbishing and repairing satellites already in there.
It utterly failed at every point.
Over the 30 years that the space shuttle was active, it flew 135 times, an average of less than 5 flights per year. It never flew more than 9 times in any given year, and then did that only once – in 1985. The space shuttle produced results an order of magnitude below what was expected – instead of 514 flights in the 1980s, it did 32.
It’s difficult to understand how the space shuttle could have been so bad that the expectation for the vehicle was more than 15 times higher than its actual performance. The simplest answer is that the people involved in the project knew from the beginning that the space shuttle would never fly as often as they claimed. After the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia over Texas in 2003, Robert F. Thompson, who was head of the space shuttle program during its development in the 1970s, told the investigation board that early studies of the program knowingly overstated the number of flights the shuttle would fly.
They got up to 40 to 50 flights a year. Hell, anyone reasonably knew you weren’t going to fly 50 times a year… We never thought you’d ever get above 10 or 12 flights a year.
And they never did.
In 1986, Challenger was destroyed during its ascent. In the wake of the accident, several changes were made to the shuttle program. Six months after the accident, NASA reported to the president that they planned to drastically reduce the number of Air Force payloads the shuttle would carry.
The initial step in this effort resulted in the identification of requirements for more than twice the number of Titan IV launch vehicles (10 to 23) planned for [Air Force] payloads in the near term (through 1992). The Shuttle and the Titan IV are nearly equivalent in launch capability; therefore each additional Titan IV launch reduces the [Air Force] requirements for shuttle launches by one flight.
The medium launch vehicle (MLV) being developed by DOD will be used to launch Navstar Global Positioning System satellites. Some 20 of these DOD satellites, previously scheduled for deployment from the shuttle, are now planned for the MLV. As part of the budget and manifest planning exercises currently under way, NASA and [Air Force] are evaluating options for additional offloading of payloads from the Shuttle.
Beside the reduction in number of payloads for the shuttle, this also meant that it would never fly a polar orbit, and never fly crossrange on reentry – both of which were capabilities the Air Force had specified, and which NASA had gone to great expense to provide.
One month after the Air Force report, President Reagan announced that the shuttle would stop carrying commercial payloads, saying,
NASA will no longer be in the business of launching private satellites.
The lunacy of the space shuttle program was obvious – Challenger’s mission when it killed 7 people was to deploy a communications satellite, something which was routinely done by unmanned rockets without putting human lives at risk.
Having removed all other justifications for the shuttle’s existence, NASA focused on the scientific value of the shuttle. Their History Office wrote in 1988,
The Shuttle could be used as a platform for observatories to study the Earth and sky; it could serve as host to a laboratory for experiments in the life and materials sciences; it could be a testbed for technology development leading to improved scientific instruments… Scientists who were not astronauts would have the rare opportunity to work in space, to escape some of the physical conditions that limit their research on the ground… The prospect of a new merger of science and manned spaceflight was exhilarating.
But this post hoc championing of the scientific value of the space shuttle was not convincing. The problem was a catch-22.
In order to make any straight-faced claims about being cost effective, you have to cart an awful lot of science with you into orbit, which in turns means you need to make the experiments as easy to operate as possible. But if the experiments are all automated, you remove the rationale for sending a manned mission in the first place. Apart from question-begging experiments on the physiology of space flight, there is little you can do to resolve this dilemma. In essence, each ‘pure science’ Shuttle science mission consists of several dozen automated experiments alongside an enormous, irrelevant, repeated experiment in keeping a group of primates alive and healthy outside the atmosphere.
Albert Cameron, Harvard physicist and chairman of the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Science said,
The duration of the flight is so short, there’s way too little time to carry out any meaningful experiments.
After the Columbia accident in 2003, Warren Leary wrote in the New York Times,
Many scientists say that research done on the shuttles has not been significant or that much of it could have been conducted by robot spacecraft at far less cost.
”There has not been any cutting-edge research done on the space shuttle” said Dr. Robert Park, a University of Maryland physicist and spokesman for the American Physical Society, who has argued that unmanned missions of exploration accomplish more, at less cost, than human space flight.
Experiments conducted on shuttle missions have not produced significant results that have transformed any discipline or resulted in any Nobel Prize-class scientific advances, Dr. Park and other critics say.
Science mission STS-95, flown in 1998, illustrates just how shoddy and vapid the shuttle’s science program was. Former astronaut John Glenn was scheduled return to space to take part in a suite of experiments relating to old age. Just one week before liftoff, it was announced,
Senator John Glenn has been dropped from one of the main age-related experiments in which he had planned to take part during his return to space next week. Mr. Glenn, who is 77, will still fly aboard the shuttle Discovery on Oct. 29.
The study’s principal investigator, Dr. Charles A. Czeisler of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said in interviews over the weekend that he was surprised when he had to disqualify Mr. Glenn. ”He did not meet one of the medical criteria that was established for participation in our study,” Dr. Czeisler said. But he declined to specify the reason for the change, citing NASA’s rule forbidding disclosure of medical information without the subject’s permission.
The experiments have been cited as the principal reasons Mr. Glenn is going into space for the second time. Mr. Glenn, an Ohio Democrat, won his seat on the shuttle flight by lobbying NASA for two years to fly as a human guinea pig for geriatric studies.
Of the experiments on Glenn, David Owen wrote,
NASA hoped that these data might lead to the creation of “a model system to help scientists interested in understanding aging”—although no such model resulted from the mission, and no earthbound scientist not connected with the program ever asked NASA to produce one. (Besides, if the apparent similarities between aging and space travel really are meaningful, wouldn’t it have made more sense to conduct the experiment in reverse, by observing Earth’s plentiful supply of old people and then applying any lessons learned to the comparatively small population of shuttle passengers?…)
Other than the experiments on Glenn himself, STS-95 did the following:
Sent cockroaches up to see how microgravity would affect their growth at various stages of their life cycle; studied a “space rose” to see what kinds of essential oils it would produce in weightless environment; at the suggestion of elementary school children, monitored everyday objects such as soap, crayons, and string to see whether their inertial mass would change in a weightless environment, contrary to 200 years of scientific findings; monitored the growth of fish eggs and rice plants in space; tested new space appliances, including a space camcorder and space freezer; and checked to see whether melatonin would make the crew sleepy.
None of that was a joke. Those were the experiments conducted aboard STS-95. The application of all that research? Owen wrote, of the “space rose” experiment,
According to [International Flavors & Fragrances Inc], exposure to microgravity during blooming led to an unspecified “shift in the scent” of the blossoms. “Essential oils” supposedly similar to those produced by the shuttle roses were later included, among roughly two dozen other ingredients, in a perfume (called Zen) made by Japan’s largest cosmetics company. The IFF press release announcing the breakthrough said: “This heavenly scent has come down to Earth in a product designed to enhance mood as well as to delight those who smell it. It also serves to remind us that reaching for the stars can result in down-to-Earth delights.”
None of that was a joke, either.
So it was that after the Challenger accident in 1986, just 5 years after the first shuttle flight, the entire justification for the shuttle program was destroyed by the program itself. It would never fly routinely to space, there was little scientific reason to continue, and it would not support military or commercial payloads. Without paying customers, there was no possibility to achieve the promised cost-savings. By any measure, it missed the program goals by a tremendous margin.
As we will see, the result of this and other factors was that even the most liberal cost estimates of the shuttle turned out to be well below the actual cost of the program. We will see that the economic promises made during shuttle development were dishonest, and that when properly counted, the space shuttle became the most expensive way of operating in space.
Continued at Part II: Cost