One of the most powerful legacies of the Space Shuttle program is that it resulted from a “policy failure” made in planning for the post-Apollo space program and that it was, in essence, a mistake relentlessly pursued by NASA for more than a generation. The most recent major statement of this position came in the fall of 2005 when the NASA administrator of some six months, but a longtime member of the space community, publicly called the Space Shuttle a mistake. Then NASA Administrator Mike Griffin commented that NASA had pursued the wrong path with the shuttle when conceived in the 1960s and developed in the 1970s, and persisted with it long after its flaws had been discovered. That poor decision now had to be corrected, he noted, albeit more than thirty years after the fact.
“It is now commonly accepted that was not the right path,” Griffin told USA Today in an interview that appeared as a page one story on September 28, 2005. “We are now trying to change the path while doing as little damage as we can.” When asked pointedly if the shuttle had been a mistake the NASA Administrator responded, “My opinion is that it was….It was a design which was extremely aggressive and just barely possible.”
Griffin’s assertion that the shuttle had been the “wrong path,” a mistake persisted in for more than a generation set off a firestorm of debate within the spaceflight community to the extent that NASA issued a point paper explaining what Griffin had meant. It also triggered not a little soul-searching about the importance of the vehicle in both the history of human space exploration and in the larger context of world history and culture.
Griffin’s statement was the most recent, and certainly the most influential, exposition of a longstanding criticism of the shuttle program among a large segment of the space intelligentsia as well as among certain elements of the broader space community. The first serious, well-publicized statement of this belief came in 1985 when Alex Roland, a former member of the NASA History Division who went on to become a professor at Duke University, offered a thoughtful and reasoned criticism of the shuttle in the era before the Challenger accident. Far from the muckraking journalism of some, Roland approached his subject with detachment and an attention to analysis. He asserted that the shuttle was over-sold as a practical and cost-effective way to gain routine access to space. It had not delivered on that promise, he noted, and it was essentially an experimental vehicle that offered a spectacle but its costs outweighed its benefits. Its much-touted capabilities had not been realized and he concluded that the shuttle program had been misguided, uninspired, and wasteful.
Roland’s arguments about the shuttle as a mistake have continued to the present. He summarized his critique in testimony before the U.S. Senate in the aftermath of the 2003 Columbia accident:
Briefly stated, NASA made two mistakes in shuttle development in the late 1960s and early 1970s. First, it traded development costs for operational costs. Second, it convinced itself that a recoverable launch vehicle would be inherently more economical than an expendable. NASA promised savings of 90%, even 95%, in launch costs. In practice, 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. These mistakes produced a program that cannot work. NASA could conceivably operate the shuttle safely and reliably, but it dares not admit what it would cost. The evidence for this was abundant before the Challenger accident. Instead of listening to the data, NASA consistently allowed its judgment to be clouded by its hopes and predictions for human activities in space. The agency cares about astronaut safety, but it is trapped by its own claims about shuttle costs. And, unlike expendable launch vehicles, the shuttle grows more dangerous and more expensive to fly with each passing year.
Other space policy analysts, including the dean of the community, John M. Logsdon, also weighed in to criticize the Space Shuttle as a flawed decision that was unable to meet expectations. In a thoughtful and influential 1986 article in Science Logsdon contended that the decision to build the Space Shuttle emerged from a murky policymaking process that did not properly analyze the approach or gauge the operational capability and, more importantly, compromised the funding levels so badly that serious technological concessions resulted as well. He noted that NASA allowed its shuttle hopes to be held hostage by political and economic forces, and that the program only gained its support on a cost-effective basis, rather than on scientific, technological, or other grounds. This ensured that the budget-cutters would hack away at the program every year. It also suffered from a lack of strong support from key political figures, as there were no Kennedys or Johnsons to champion the Space Shuttle and the result was a politicization of the process. It was, in Logsdon’s parlance, a “policy failure” that set in train a succession of negative consequences that eventually led to the Challenger accident on January 28, 1986.
Since that time many others have criticized the Space Shuttle effort as ill-conceived, politically suspect, and poorly executed. The result has been a steady stream of critiques of the shuttle program, especially coming whenever there is a public failure. Virtually all of these appraisals emphasize the convoluted history of the Space Shuttle’s origins, evolution, operation, and the continuing challenge of space access. Sometimes the criticisms are well reasoned and temperate, and at other times they are muckraking and outrageous; sometimes they are also erroneous. Always they emphasize missteps, policy reversals, organizational inertia, and leadership failings, as well as seemingly impossible technical challenges, which combined to prevent the realization of the vision that NASA had set about for itself in advocating the Space Shuttle.
Ironically, while there is no question that the Space Shuttle is a creature of compromise that does not enjoy a universally positive perception, its faults may have been exaggerated over the years. As only one measure of shuttle program performance, the cost of the development effort has come under heavy scrutiny and overruns of the budget have received considerable attention from such organizations as the General Accounting Office (GAO), which criticized it in the latter 1970s. But the cost from program approval through first flight was $5.974 billion (when adjusted for inflation to 1972 dollars), a 17 percent overrun above the $5.15 billion budget originally approved. For the development effort, NASA did not do too badly in estimating costs in an era of rampant inflation.
Contrarily, the Apollo program, which has a reputation as a highly-successful, well-managed program spent $13.45 billion (in 1961 adjusted dollars, $21.4 billion in non-adjusted funds) from project start to first Moon landing. NASA engineers had told NASA Administrator James E. Webb that Apollo would cost between $8 and $12 billion to complete the first mission. “Because no one could anticipate all contingences, he [Webb] enlarged the figure NASA sent Kennedy to $20 billion for the first lunar journey…using administrative realism to counter technical optimism in setting Apollo’s deadline and price.” If Webb had accepted the lower numbers, and instinct was the only reason he did not, clearly NASA would have seriously underestimated the cost of the lunar landing program. Other factors beyond the management of the research and development (R&D) effort for the shuttle must account for its poor reputation. Likewise, in terms of operational costs, individual shuttle missions are comparable to individual Apollo missions when adjusted for inflation although, of course, there is a difference between an orbital mission on the Space Shuttle and the lunar landings.
Rather, it seems that NASA officials created seriously false expectations about what the shuttle would be able to do in terms of costs. George M. Low, NASA’s deputy administrator, set the bar quite high in 1970 when he announced: “I think there is really only one objective for the Space Shuttle program, and that is ‘to provide a low-cost, economical space transportation system. To meet this objective, one has to concentrate both on low development costs and on low operational costs.” From the outset, therefore, the economics of the shuttle outweighed any other aspects of the program. This was strikingly different from the Apollo program and certainly unfortunate.
At a fundamental level, from the perspective of its operational era NASA spent heavily on the shuttle program. All NASA spending on the shuttle through 2011 totaled approximately $119 billion (real year dollars), which approaches the amount spent to put Americans on the Moon when adjusted for inflation. Accordingly, it has been widely acknowledged that the cost of operating the Space Shuttle did not meet its original expectations. Although, surprisingly, if NASA could have launched 50 missions per year as it originally envisioned it would not have been far off the original estimates. This has been a difficult reality for the shuttle program.
Couple that with a persistent drumbeat for the shuttle as the end-all, one-size-fits-all space truck, and expectations could never be realized. Indicative of these broad expectations NASA published in 1983 a marketing brochure entitled We Deliver that touted the vehicle as “the most reliable, flexible, and cost-effective launch system in the world.” It suggested that the Space Shuttle could satisfy every requirement in theUnited States. NASA and the Space Shuttle program may have fallen victim to its own highly successful marketing. Public opinion polls have consistently shown a perception of the Space Shuttle as a good investment.
Over time, as two shuttle accidents and other difficulties with the program became apparent it took on the perception of a failure rather than the unadulterated success that Apollo was perceived to be. It probably did not deserve that characterization, but perceptions and myths are almost as significant as facts and reality in public discourse and the result has been a legacy of the entire shuttle program as a mistake persisted in for more than thirty years.
Perhaps the shuttle program is no more deserving of being remembered as a mistake than the Apollo program is deserving of its perception as an unmitigated success. Certainly, the shuttle’s appropriate legacy rests between those two poles. In reality, it was the first attempt at a reusable, experimental vehicle. The shuttle program probably achieved about 80 percent of its technical objectives, but failed miserably in meeting its economic objectives. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that there ended up being no reason to fly 24 missions a year since satellites became larger, more capable, and longer lived. There was also a huge misstep in how NASA chose to operate the vehicle, where the standing army necessary to develop it was maintained into the “operational era” since 1982 because NASA managers (and their contractors) did not want to diminish capability by reducing personnel and budgets. Probably, NASA could have operated the vehicle with significantly less personnel—and about two-thirds of the budget—ultimately used. Beyond that, its principal failing may have been in staying with the shuttle for so many years instead of treating it as an experimental program that would lead to future reusable vehicles.