Assessing the Space Shuttle: A Thirty Year Mistake?

Michael D. Griffin, NASA Administrator, 2004-2009.

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.”

Brian Basset's tribute to the Space Shuttle with Red and Rover.

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.

A comemorative toy released when John Glenn flew on the Space Shuttle in 1998.

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.

The Space Shuttle on the launch pad.

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.

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18 Responses to Assessing the Space Shuttle: A Thirty Year Mistake?

  1. mike shupp says:

    Yeah, well. Let’s consider (a) on at least two occasions Richard Nixon’s OMB imposed financial restrictions which stretched out shuttle’s development period, the point being to reduce the federal buget deficit; (b) NASA was deliberately directed, again by OMB, to decrease shuttle development costs despite the knowledge that this would impose higher operational costs; (c) no one involved with the shuttle program had the slighest idea that those few vehicles would be operated for as many years as they have been — something better was sure to come eventually, we all knew, because that was the experience of everyone in the aerospace business. And (d) — NASA’s true mistake — the thermal protection system (those thousands of individually made and hand-placed tiles, demanding hundreds of employees) has sucked big time.

    There’s a lot to dislike about the shuttle and the way it’s been operated, but blaming all that on NASA officaldom or even the US aerospace industry is ill-informed.


    • launiusr says:

      Great points, thanks for making them. I certainly did not mean to give the impression that NASA should be blamed for all that has gone wrong with the shuttle program over the years. Indeed, I contend that the shuttle program was remarkable for all of the restrictions imposed on it.


      • mike shupp says:

        [Smile] I didn’t actually think a NASA Chief Historian would be so unkind or ill-informed; it was just a reminder that ill informed people do exist and seldom receive the squelching they deserve… [unSmile]

        The actual problem with the Shuttle is not so much technical or operational. As Griffin argues, focusing on near earth operations for manned flight for 40 years was a bad _policy_ choice. And shuttle enabled that bad choice, by being just good enough.

        For the roughly 30% of the population seeing manned space flight as part of a desirable future, the United States has been saying “You want astronauts? We got astronauts! Out there in space, right now! Whirling around the planet in a space station!” For the 30% who totally despise the whole idea of shooting people into space, the US promises “Don’t worry! We aren’t sending up many astronauts, and they don’t go very far, and not for very long. And there are no plans at all for ever going any further!” In foreign affairs, we offer shuttle rides to reward our international friends and allies; for 3rd world states fearful of interplanetary colonialism and exploitation, we call out “It’s all for science, really!” and point to a “Look But Don’t Touch” policy of future manned exploration.

        You get the idea. The space program with shuttle has been the biggest government kick-the-can-down-the-road policy since the formation of NATO, if not the Missouri Compromise. And now the cans are falling apart, and we’re back to where we were in 1972, without much to show for it. I wouldn’t call that successful.


      • Ferris Valyn says:

        Mike Shupp

        Forgive me if this seems stupid, but why should most people care if astronauts are going to the moon vs going to LEO? Whats the benefit to the single mother working 2 jobs in Detroit? Or the dairy farmer in Iowa? Or the rancher in Montana?

        You are right, it is a policy issue that was not dealt with vis-a-vie NASA, but it wasn’t about “being stuck in LEO”

        It has everything to do with being designed for a large budget and not adapting to getting a substantially smaller budget, or alternatively, actually being perceived to deserve a larger budget


  2. David L. Rickman says:


    Very well written piece, with quite a few quotable statements.

    David L. Rickman


  3. Anton says:

    NO. The Space Shuttle was NOT a mistake! The mistake was the management of the program and the critical human error made during the Challenger launch decision and the negligence to Columbia’s tiles before her final flight. Beyond all that, it remains the most glorious and most amazing space vehicle the world had ever seen. By FAR more hospitable to her crews than any cramped space capsule.


    • Bill Hensley says:

      Glorious, but also gloriously expensive. I love the shuttle. It is an awesome machine. No one else has anything like it…because no one else can afford it. The wealth and power of our nation are displayed in the mere fact that we can. But it is not the be all and end all of human spaceflight. It is time we show our technical and economic prowess by being the first nation on earth to have a private commercial human spaceflight industry, sending more people into space each year than ever before. And by moving beyond the shuttle to build truly economical and reusable launch vehicles. And by building deep space vehicles that can sustain human crews for months or years while traveling beyond low earth orbit. This is how we will continue to lead the world in space.


  4. George William Herbert says:

    I’ve said this for about 16 years now on and off, but IMHO –

    The key failure was that Shuttle (as conceived) needed more R&D and more reusability, and came in “over budget”. When that happened and the WH and OMB pushed back, NASA continued to use the advantages of the high price model in selling the system, instead of accurately describing what the reduced cost model would be able to do, which many accurately predicted at the time.

    The system was not going to be cost-effective compared to continuing to fly Saturn / Apollo (Saturn-I – Apollo CSM to LEO, Saturn-V space station modules a la Skylab, some ongoing Lunar flights perhaps). That was evident to anyone with the numbers in 1972. NASA seems to have been too institutionally committed to development to back off, reconsider cost effectiveness compared to existing systems, and change direction.


  5. LoboSolo says:

    You should do a similar assessment of the ISS. It was sold as a way station to the Moon and beyond but that was dropped in order to put in a higher inclined orbit for the Russians.

    BTW, since the Russians are going to launch out of Kourou, can we start moving the ISS to a more usable orbit that might actually make it a way station for future ops beyond LEO>


    • launiusr says:

      Yes, perhaps I’ll do the same for ISS sometime in the future. The space station was initially sold as a cold war measure. I wrote about this in my book, “Space Stations: Base Camps to the Stars.” There was a meeting in the White House on December 1, 1983, where NASA Administrastor James Beggs made his case. Here is what I wrote:

      The NASA presentation at this meeting, with the president in attendance, asked for a decision to proceed with the Space Station program. Beggs stressed the Space Station’s potential contribution to the leadership of the United States on the world’s stage. He knew that Ronald Reagan had long been concerned with a perceived withering of American prestige vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. The station, he argued, would help to quell that declension. The presentation also discussed potential commercial and scientific windfalls from station-based activities. He said that it also represented a continuation of American strength in spaceflight and would “dominate the space environment for twenty years.” Beggs remained silent on the role traditionally envisioned for a space station, the jumping-off point from which humanity would journey to the Moon and Mars. But as the punchline for the briefing, Beggs hit Reagan between the eyes with a photo of a Salyut space station overflying the United States. He punctuated the fact that the Soviet Union already had this modest space station and was planning a larger orbital facility. Should not the United States have one as well? Beggs asked, knowing full well that Reagan viewed the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” bent on the destruction of the United States, “what might the Soviets be planning to do to the United States from this new high ground?” In concluding the presentation, James Beggs told the president and others in the Cabinet Room that “the time to start a space station is now.” Reagan agreed.

      The orbital inclination for the ISS came a decade later when the Russians were brought into the project. Had elements been put into orbit on the schedule originally intended that inclination would probably have remained more equatorial and not have been changed.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. LoboSolo says:

    I remember much later when it reached a point of whether or not congress would fund that they said it would be used as a way point to the Moon and beyond. I remember think that if it isn’t going to be used that way, then why we would we build it? The concept was that the Shuttle would be a low-cost way to get to LEO and the space station. From the space station we could continue on … Well, the Shuttle turned out not to be low-cost and the space station was an end point rather than a way point.

    The two combined have cost us 40 years of wandering in the wilderness … round and round, always looking down.

    What do you do when your son asks you if it was true that when you were a boy that men went to the moon? As it stands now, I’ll probably have grandchildren who’ll ask me the same question before we get back.


    • Chris Castro says:

      I agree! The FORTY-YEARS-SPENT-IN-LOW-EARTH-ORBIT thing annoys the heck out of me! Project Constellation should’ve been allowed to continue! I squarely intend to vote Republican in this next presidential election. Obama really screwed-up everything, NASA & the American space program! I always have that thought in mind, about just how much older I have to get, before some nation will finally get back to exploring deep space, and the Moon in particular, once more. The arguments against Constellation were all bogus ones! The goal of a manned Lunar Return by the 2020’s should’ve remained the nation’s prime game plan. Instead, Obama’s space plan has us doing nothing but going ’round in circles endlessly clear till 2030. Being trapped in LEO for further decades is an enormously tragic thing.


  7. robb says:

    It missed it’s Budget and Safety commitments – every year…………… After all the time NASA had to “fix it” we lost lives and money. Time after time, delays in launch due to something broken or falling off on the Pad or in launch.


  8. chris devine says:

    Indeed the Shuttle and ISS consumed 1/2 the NASA budget yearly (7.5 billion dollars) and Von Braun’s plan would have put colonies on the moon by now for the same money or less. The moon is perfectly stable orbit with indigenous material to build future moon infrastructure and provide human sustenance. You don’t have be a rocket scientist to understand the political failure of Shuttle Mission and squandering 40 years of space superiority by the USA. I worked as an electrical engineer on the MARS Pathfinder mission. NASA is not to blame but rather the very ignorant politicians and presidents who would score political points than win the space race.


  9. Pingback: Some Myths of Shuttle History | Spudis Lunar Resources Blog

  10. Marco C says:

    NASA created ” missions ” myth, cost was blowing US budgets. NASA was money scums for decades.


  11. BRYAN SHORTALL says:

    Do we believe that the Space Shuttle program would have survived a sufficiently detailed feasibility analysis? It seems like a good feasibility analysis would have exposed some of the key fundamental technologies that were missing to even come close to meeting the goals of the program: lack of a truly reusable rocket technology, lack of a reusable heat shield technology, and the extra weight involved in hefting into space a big ship designed to look like a plane no matter what the mission might actually call for.

    I’ve only ever worked in the private sector, but one of the things I’ve observed is that there is generally a huge reluctance for any organization to accept reports showing that a project is infeasible and stop the project in its infancy in order to avoid further losses. Instead, what I’ve witnessed more than once is typically a punishment of those who have found problems with feasibility and an organizational, “doubling down” of resources, with the expectation that any technical obstacles can be overcome by brute force. This usually ends up with a project that is terribly over budget and behind schedule and doomed to deliver a product that will fail to live up to promises.

    I don’t know how organizations avoid this folly; even those where I’ve seen robust feasibility analysis required before committing investment have found themselves making exceptions to the process due to promises made before the feasibility studies were even performed. The inertia required just to get to that feasibility stage eventually leads to the project being so big that it just steamrolls over any hesitations or risks that the feasibility study might point out.


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