[Editorial] NASA’s Ambitious Space Shuttle Program: Was It Worth It?

With just a day left before the last flight in NASA’s ambitious space shuttle program, the question many people are asking, or at least ought to be, is this: Was it all worth it?

The uncomfortable questions…

The space shuttle program began immediately after the 1969 Moon landing, an event often deemed as the escalation of the Space Race between USA and erstwhile USSR.
Yes, the space shuttle program was what won it for the Americans; it was a brilliant follow-up of the giant leap of mankind. Yet, the question lingers. Is merely winning the space race compensation enough for an estimated $209 billion spent till the end of 2010? What about the 14 lives lost on two failed manned missions? More importantly, what happened to the initial promise of 50 launches a year, which petered down to an average of no more than 9 annual launches? Was the expenditure of more than double of the estimated $92 billion justified? Thorny questions face NASA, but NASA would rather focus on the future.

Too few?

Figures: The true and the unrealistic ones

Let’s look at the figures a bit more closely. Space launches were supposed to be made weekly, totalling about 50 launches a year. That figure stands at a mere 9 as the program ends a disappointing failure by all accounts. From 1981 (the first launch) till 2010, 133 missions have been launched, bringing the average cost of each launch to a staggering $1.57 billion. What does NASA really have to show for it? What has really been achieved? The argument that we just don’t know the various achievements of NASA falls flat on its face since NASA is not known to be too discreet. Publicity is one thing NASA is good at.

Just one? Buzz Aldrin on the Moon

The reality facing America and the rest of the world is stark: since the 1969 Moon Landing, we’ve been stuck closer to Earth. Sure, there have been repeated Lunar Missions, but has Man gone anywhere new?

In 1969, NASA had presented President Nixon with various proposals, including a space station, which would be a jumping off point for Mars, eventually paving the way for manned space missions to the Red Planet. Also, in the list of suggestions, was a Lunar Landing Base so that return to Earth was no longer necessary. This would have saved huge expenses in the long run, as re-entry is one of the costliest and most dangerous parts of any space mission. Then, there was the shuttle. Nixon ratified just the shuttle, citing lack of funds to support any of the others. The heating up of the Cold War worsened the fund crunch for NASA, as Nixon slashed funds further in 1972, right at a time when things were just beginning to move off of the drawing board. It would be another decade before the first space flight in the mission took place.

Was NASA being unrealistic and not merely ambitious? Could NASA have ever launched 50 flights in a year, after spending years preparing for the Apollo mission? Embellished with tags of being ambitious, safe and cost-efficient when it started out, the shuttle program seems to have failed on all three counts.


But let’s take a more positive look. Who could have dreamt of the International Space Station one and a half decades ago? It is the first habitable place outside Earth and, when NASA started building it in 1998, it promised a lot. True, many of those promises were not kept, but then, in active research, not all promises can be kept. It is an orbiting lab and provides an environment for microgravity experiments, which many believe will foster future research in fields like medicine. It’s one of a kind. Much of the shuttle program has been devoted to building up this unique behemoth.

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