The Space Shuttle Was a Beautiful – But Terrible – Idea

By George Dvorsky on at

In 2005, then-NASA administrator Michael Griffin shocked the aerospace community when he openly criticised the Space Shuttle program, describing it to USA Today as a “mistake,” “just barely possible,” and “not the right path” for the United States.

Griffin’s comments were astonishing, given that the program was still in full swing and very much celebrated by the American public. The shuttles would be permanently grounded just six years later, retired after 30 captivating but undeniably tumultuous years.

But the cracks in the program had formed long before Griffin publicly aired his grievances. The 1986 Challenger and 2003 Columbia disasters, which resulted in the deaths of 14 astronauts, caused many to question the concept and whether this 4.5-million-pound “space truck,” as it was pitched back in the 1970s, was worth the risk. Other blemishes appeared outside of these tragedies, as it became painfully clear that the program was failing to deliver on its promises.

That the Shuttle resulted in many technological and scientific advancements is undeniable. The question is whether those benefits were worth the costs, whether measured in lives, dollars, or the missed opportunity of not following a more fruitful space strategy. Regrettably, the only plausible answer is no.

Two years before Griffin spoke to USA Today, Alex Roland, a professor of history at Duke University, testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space, saying NASA had “convinced itself” that a reusable launch vehicle would reap tremendous economic benefits, promising savings between 90 and 95 percent in launch costs compared to Saturn V.

But the reality proved to be far different, as “it costs more to put a pound of payload in orbit aboard the Shuttle than it did aboard the Saturn launch vehicle that preceded it,” explained Roland to the subcommittee. “These mistakes produced a program that cannot work,” he said, adding that the “Shuttle grows more dangerous and more expensive to fly with each passing year.”

The Space Shuttle Atlantis launches on its first voyage on October 3, 1985. Photo: NASA

Indeed, deficiencies in the Space Shuttle can be traced back to its origin and stated purpose. As a concept, it goes back to the late 1960s and early proposals for an Integral Launch and Reentry Vehicle System. President Richard Nixon approved the development of the Space Shuttle program in 1972, with the inaugural launch happening in 1981.

The vehicle was supposed to represent the logical next step to the Apollo program – a bona fide spaceship that would provide “efficient transportation to and from the Earth,” as NASA officials explained in 1972. The Shuttle was to eventually support a space station, at first with a crew of six to 12 people and eventually “a space station in orbit around the earth large enough to eventually house fifty to one hundred men and women,” wrote Howard McCurdy his his 2007 book, The Space Station Decision: Incremental Politics and Technological Choice. This was all a prelude, of course, to the next giant leap for mankind: a crewed trip to Mars.

It was a vision straight out of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – one fuelled by the confidence and optimism garnered by the successful Apollo missions, which ran from 1961 to 1972. At the same time, however, the Space Shuttle was most certainly a reaction to the eye-watering spending that transpired during the Apollo program, which cost $25.4 billion (or $153 billion by today’s standards); accordingly, the next phase in the U.S. space program would see a continued emphasis on humans going into space but with hefty doses of fiscal prudence and the adoption of low-cost, reusable components.

“After Apollo, NASA came to believe that manned spaceflight was the key to all NASA funding,” explained Roland in an email to Gizmodo. “So they elected to build the civilian space program around a series of manned space spectaculars. That was, in my opinion, a mistake.”

The Space Shuttle Atlantis lands at Edwards Air Force Base after a successful mission. October 23, 1989. Photo: NASA

The Space Shuttle was a victim of compromise and almost instant obsolescence. Originally, it was supposed to be a fully reusable two-stage vehicle, but budgetary constraints resulted in the now-iconic system: a winged orbiter lifted by a pair of reusable solid rocket boosters and a disposable external tank. That this basic design would still be in play during the early 2010s would’ve been a complete shock to the designers and developers who initially sketched out the concept in the 1960s and 1970s; the program wasn’t expected to last into the 21st century, by which time it should’ve been replaced by something more advanced. Or at least, that was the intention.

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said the “original sin” of the Shuttle program was the promise that it would be “operational.”

“Declaring it operational after four orbital test flights was politically driven and a colossal mistake in my opinion,” McDowell told Gizmodo. “It was too big a leap forward compared to everything that had gone before. So the estimates of reusability and turnaround times were not based on actual experience and were basically over-optimistic guesses.”

To do it right, McDowell said, the Shuttle should’ve been flown somewhere between 10 and 20 times, scrapped, and then redesigned as Shuttle 2.0 based on the lessons learned.

This could’ve included an assessment of components requiring frequent servicing or replacement, an improved abort mode, better tiling to protect the orbiter during re-entry, and a re-evaluation of the foam used on the external tanks. A complete design rethink wouldn’t have been out of the question, such as using a single rocket to launch the orbiter, similar to Buran, the Soviet spaceplane.

“But there was no way to get the budget for that,” said McDowell. “Indeed, budget cuts in the mid-1970s also played a role with the cancellation of the reusable first stage,” which he said was actually a decent idea.

That the Shuttle program was exceedingly dangerous is uncontroversial. A total of 355 astronauts flew on NASA space shuttles, of which 4 percent were killed during missions. Of the 135 Space Transportation System missions from 1981 to 2011, two ended in catastrophe, for a one in 67 chance of complete failure. That is, in a word, terrible.

The crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia speak during an interview from space. All seven astronauts aboard the ship were killed when Columbia broke up during re-entry on February 1, 2003. From left to right are payload specialist Ilan Ramon, mission specialist Kalpana Chawla, commander Rick Husband, and mission specialist Laurel Clark. Photo: NASA (Getty Images)

The 2003 Columbia disaster can most certainly be attributed to the Space Shuttle design itself, in which foam detached during launch and damaged the orbiter’s left wing (importantly, this was by no means an isolated incident). The 1986 Challenger disaster was caused by a catastrophic flaw in the solid rocket booster O-rings, which caused hot gas to leak through a joint during launch, leading to a massive explosion. This initial design flaw was eventually fixed, but poor safety measures were cited as contributors to the disaster during the ensuing Rogers Commission.

The human cost was tremendous, but so were the economic costs. The Endeavour – the replacement orbiter for the destroyed Challenger – cost around $1.7 billion to build. By 2010, NASA was spending $775 million to prepare and launch each Shuttle mission. In total, the entire Space Shuttle program cost $209 billion from development through to retirement, not accounting for inflation.

Fair to say, the Shuttle did not deliver on its promise of numerous low-cost launches. Despite this, the Shuttle program retains much of its allure, and after-the-fact critiques of the program almost seem rude.

“I think you are way off base in thinking the Shuttle was a bad idea,” Roger Launius, former chief historian of NASA, told Gizmodo. “It was an idea that made sense at the time, but the technologies were insufficient to realise it fully.”

McDowell, despite his stated concerns about the program, conceded the Shuttle advanced our expertise in human spaceflight.

“We learnt a lot about space vehicle reusability, between-flight maintenance, and the supply chain of replacement parts,” he said. “We learnt enormous amounts about lifting hypersonic flight in the upper atmosphere, about in-orbit repair of satellites, and how to retrieve satellites from orbit.”

We also learned a lot about operating in space, said McDowell.

“At the height of Shuttle, we launched more people per year than the entire Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs combined. If you watch the tapes of mission control for the first few missions and the missions in the 2000s, there’s no comparison in the maturity of procedures, flexibility of operations, confidence – only rarely misplaced – in trying alternate plans.”

And as McDowell also pointed out, there were other reusable elements to consider, including the Spacelab modules, robot arms, cargo pallets, and so on. He agrees that the Shuttle didn’t deliver on the promised goals, but it “was better value for money than the International Space Station,” he told Gizmodo.

That’s fair, but the ISS has proven its worth as a good substitute for the Shuttle, a place where astronauts can conduct both short- and long-term scientific projects. And as much as the Shuttle improved our ability to operate in space, it ended up being a terribly wasteful way of delivering satellites and other materials into orbit.


“I know of no long-term benefits of the Shuttle program, surely nothing commensurate with its cost.”


In an email to Gizmodo, Roland said the Shuttle remains a “sacred cow” to the “space enthusiasts who invested their hopes and dreams in it,” but he believes most Americans lost their interest in the program long before it ended.

“It did not really seem relevant to life on Earth, and after time it became uninteresting on its own terms. Truth be told, nothing much ever happened on the Shuttle or on the space station it was meant to serve. They were operated at too high a cost with too little payoff,” he said. To which he added: “I know of no long-term benefits of the Shuttle program, surely nothing commensurate with its cost.”

Jessica West, a program officer at Project Ploughshares and the managing editor of its Space Security Index, agrees that the program is often seen through rose-tinted glasses.

“If the Apollo program defined American rivalry and supremacy in space, the Shuttle defined its international leadership,” West told Gizmodo. “It marked a unique era of international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space. The Shuttle docked with the Russian Mir space station. It carried astronauts from 16 different countries into space. And it made the International Space Station – that behemoth of financial, technical, and political wherewithal – possible.”

The two accidents have also contributed to the Shuttle’s sacred status.

“Like the major achievements in space, the sacrifices that they represent – men and women from different countries and different walks of life – unite us,” said West. “But this doesn’t mean that the program is beyond critique.”

The Shuttle program, it can also be argued, distracted the U.S. from more worthwhile projects, such as robotic probes sent on exploration missions to the inner and outer solar system, better ways of detecting incoming asteroids, or actually improving America’s ability to launch objects into space. But the Shuttle was a victim of its time, given the apparent need to keep sending humans into space – a goal that, while thrilling, doesn’t seem to have much scientific or humanitarian benefit.

Ironically, and as a final damning indictment of the Shuttle program, it’s now been nine years and counting since the United States was last able to independently launch astronauts to space from American soil; instead, NASA must pay exorbitant fees for its astronauts to hitch rides on Russian rockets. The fixation on the Shuttle program, it’s fair to say, contributed greatly to this astonishing loss of capability.

Griffin recognised the importance of moving beyond the Shuttle program, as USA Today reported back in 2005:

Only now is the nation’s space program getting back on track, Griffin said. He announced last week that NASA aims to send astronauts back to the moon in 2018 in a spacecraft that would look like the Apollo capsule.

Griffin was overly ambitious with his timelines, but he was right in saying that the U.S. would renew its lunar program and build a new capsule, called Orion. The current plan would see a return to the Moon in 2024 (but more realistically in 2028) under the Artemis program. The current global pandemic and inevitable economic downturn could delay this even further.

Regardless, the Moon and eventually Mars are the next stopping points for NASA, among many other promising new space programs. Amazing what can happen when you get a 4.5-million-pound gorilla off your back.

Featured image: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, NASA)