The Space Shuttle and the Costly Nature of Space Access

Two Space Shuttles on the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center in 2008.

Two Space Shuttles on the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center in 2008.

Why is space flight so expensive? Lowering the cost of space access has long been a major goal of rocketeers. Thus far they have largely been unsuccessful in doing so. Space travel started out and remains an exceptionally costly enterprise. The best expendable launch vehicles (ELV) still cost about $10,000 per pound from Earth to orbit. The result is that space flight remains an enormously costly business. No wonder that it has been the province of the government, a few high-end communications satellite companies, and other unique users.

Even the most modest space launchers, placing relatively small satellites of less than 4,000 pounds into orbit, still average some $25-$50 million per flight, or about $10,000-$40,000 per pound depending on the launch system. The mighty Saturn V Moon rocket, the most powerful launch system ever developed, had a thrust at launch of 7.5 million pounds of thrust. It could place into orbit a massive payload of 262,000 pounds, but to do so cost an enormous $113.1 million per launch ($465 million in 2015 dollars). And those are just basic launch costs to orbit; they do not include the cost of satellite development, indemnification, boost to optimum orbit, ground support and transportation, operations, and the like.

In 1972 NASA promoted to President Richard M. Nixon and the American people the idea of a reusable Space Shuttle as a means of reducing the cost to orbit from $10,000 per pound to $1,000 per pound. To conduct an aggressive space exploration effort, NASA officials declared in 1972, “efficient transportation to and from the earth is required.” This could be best provided, they believed, with reusable launch systems. Some NASA officials even compared the older method of using expendable launch vehicles like the Saturn V, Atlas, Delta, and Titan rockets to operating a railroad and throwing away the locomotive and box cars with every trip. The shuttle, they claimed, would provide the United States with low-cost, routine access to space.

At that time space observers calculated that a Titan IIIC cost $24 million to procure and launch, while each Saturn IB cost $55 million. Carrying 23,000 pounds to low Earth orbit, the Titan IIIC delivered its payload at a cost per pound of about $10,000. The Saturn IB cost about $15,000 per pound to deliver its 37,000 pound payload. It was these launch costs that NASA officials sought to reduce by a much-heralded factor of ten.

The Space Shuttle, therefore, became an attempt to provide “low-cost access [to space] by reusable chemical and nuclear rocket transportation systems.” George M. Low, NASA’s Deputy Administrator, voiced the NASA position on this objective on January 27, 1970: “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.” “Low cost, economical” space transportation became NASA’s criteria for the program, and it was an effort to deal with a real-time problem of public perception about space flight at the time: that it was too expensive.

Launch of the Space Shuttle "Atlantis."

Launch of the Space Shuttle “Atlantis.”

A subtle, but vital, change, occurred during the policy debate over whether or not to build the shuttle in the early 1970s that has affected the cost of space access ever since. As a result of deliberations between NASA and the White House’s Office of Management of Budget, the question of access to space shifted from “what is the least costly design for access to space” to “what design will provide low-cost access to space.” As a result, NASA’s rationale for the shuttle became much narrower and instead of talking about the benefits of the vehicle in toto, it’s rationale became just that it be low-cost. To achieve this, NASA had to raise the projected flight rate to amortize the large development cost which in turn led to policy decisions to place as many payloads as possible on the shuttle, with consequences that were not realized until the loss of Challenger in 1986 and the effective grounding of the American launch capability for more than two years.

NASA had originally intended to achieve cost-effectiveness on the shuttle through economies of scale, as late as 1984 estimating that they could fly as many as 24 missions per year. This proved an unattainable goal; perhaps even an undesirable goal since it would require nearly two launches a month to achieve it. Instead, NASA might have cut operational costs by investing more money in cost-saving technologies at the beginning of the program. Dale D. Myers, who served as NASA Deputy Administrator in the post-Challenger era, suggests that reductions in the cost of flight operations might have been achieved “had the design team concentrated on operations as strongly as they concentrated on development.”

The Space Shuttle flew no commercial payloads after the Challenger accident in 1986 and, consequently, there has been no agreed upon cost determination for flight per pound. Accordingly, observers have produced an enormous range of cost estimates—from $42 million per flight to estimates of more than $1 billion per mission. The range of cost estimates depend, not surprisingly, on policy questions as to how much of the shuttle’s fixed costs are treated and justified by flights. If the United States were to fly one less shuttle mission per year, would it save $42 million of one $1 billion. Those answers never came.

While the goals of “low cost, economical” access to space were appropriate for NASA; they eventually proved an embarrassment to the space program. In spite of high hopes, the shuttle never provided either inexpensive or routine access to space. The Space Shuttle—second to the Saturn V in both capability and cost—launched some 53,000 pounds of payload into orbit at a cost per launch of about $450 million according to NASA. It was a high-end user, and the cost per flight was so astronomical that only the government could afford it. In addition, by January 1986, there had been only twenty-four shuttle flights, although in the 1970s NASA had projected more flights than that for every year. While the system was reusable, its complexity, coupled with the ever-present rigors of flying in an aerospace environment, meant that the turnaround time between flights required several months instead of several days.

The Space Shuttle on the launch pad.

The Space Shuttle on the launch pad.

Since neither the cost per launch nor the flight schedule met expectations, many criticized NASA for failing to meet the promises made in gaining approval of the shuttle program. In some respects, therefore, a consensus emerged in the last decade of the twentieth century that the shuttle has been both a triumph and a tragedy. The program remained an engagingly ambitious program that operated an exceptionally sophisticated vehicle, one that no other nation on Earth could have built. In that context, it was an enormously successful program. At the same time, the shuttle was essentially a continuation of space spectaculars, à la Apollo, and its much-touted capabilities remained unrealized. It made far fewer flights and conducted far fewer scientific experiments than NASA publicly predicted.

What are the most effective ways to lower the cost of space access? Is it re-usability? Is it “big, dumb boosters?” Is it design for efficient operations? Is it something else altogether, or several “something elses?” Is it a combination of these and many other factors of a more sublime nature? Whatever the answer, it is important to take into careful consideration the legacies of these earlier research and development efforts in conceiving of any future launchers.

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17 Responses to The Space Shuttle and the Costly Nature of Space Access

  1. Guillaume says:

    To answer without answering (ha-ha) Roger’s question, recycling on earth is expensive, not just because of regulation, but because of the components we all use. So too was the shuttle. But since this is space and not earth, the only way to truly know what is best won’t be simply involve how much a pound lifted into orbit would cost, but more recently acknowledged factors, such as the cost of producing new propellants, and of course their environmental impact. Passengers on some airlines are now given the option of paying for their carbon footprint. We do not include that in our evaluation of launchers and their costs (yet.) Perhaps the throw-away option is cheaper, but boosters littering the floor of oceans will have a long-term cost. The shuttle was the Rolls of another era. We still need to find the equivalent an electric car, or at least a hybrid to claim a cheaper and cleaner access to space. Delusion you say? So was getting to the moon within a decade.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Albie says:

    Good points. Use all that NASA talent and history to tackle some of our many environmental problems that cocern all humanity. Continue and expand the collaboration with both former allies and “enemies.” Address these environmental projects on a bigger scale than has been done so far by the agency, which has some track record in that area. And get the Webb telescope out into spacs and educate us mere mortals about the scope of the multiverses. And what is Quantum theory? String theoy? Black holes? The Higgs Bosom? (Spelling?) And, while we are at it, isn’t it time for a woman adminisrrator? One of those super women who have served as commanders of the space shuttles and the ISS? Or a great woman engineer with management experience? Or . . .


  3. John Logsdon says:

    While Roger is correct in saying that OMB drove NASA to a public justification that the shuttle would provide inexpensive and frequent access to space, those factors were not the reasons the Nixon White House overruled OMB (which did not believe that the shuttle design proposed by NASA would achieve those objectives and thus opposed moving forward with that design) in late 1971 and approved the NASA-advocated shuttle design. See my just published “After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program” for an in-depth discussion of the shuttle decision and what led to it. As Roger suggests, continuing high profile launches of American (and non-American) astronauts was a crucial factor, much more influential than cost or routine operations.


  4. dphuntsman says:

    I was a proud member of the Space Shuttle team in a variety of jobs, from 1975 to 1990. I’ve also worked within NASA to try to foster increased public-private partnerships to hasten space development more than government alone can do. I’ll posit a couple of the broader lessons learned from the Shuttle program; as well as what is most likely to lead us forward in space development.

    Two things to remember is that the shuttle was not just a launch vehicle; and it was never funded in a way that minimized operational costs. It could launch satellites to any orbit, as well as to destinations beyond Earth; it could pick up spacecraft, service them, and release them to carry on; it could pick up spacecraft and return them to Earth; it could carry whole laboratories into space to study a myriad of things, from micro-g science and technology research to astronomical observatories. Etc. Etc. So, One lesson learned is: As great a multi-purpose vehicle as the shuttle was, let’s never do any such thing again!

    After all, we don’t do that on Earth; taxis, 18-wheelers, and oil tankers all have different functions and bring their own niche efficiencies to bear. The same needs to be true of space, if the costs are truly to come down.

    The fact that the shuttle program was never funded to be operationally efficient is undeniable; budget cuts started right away, in 1973, and continued over multiple administrations. Such underfunding always had the effect of making the system more expensive to operate. And as proud as I am to be a NASA guy, the fact that it was government designed, owned, and operated meant it was always going to be more expensive than if it had been done, from the beginning, as a more commercial venture, as part of a public-private partnership, for example; such as happened with SpaceX, where the Falcon 9 was produced literally for a fraction of the cost (NASA found in its own study) of what it would have taken NASA to do the very same thing, not to mention it relatively low cost of operation. (Just ask the Chinese; they’ve been bitching about it’s low cost and their inability to not match it).

    So government can’t be a designer/owner/operator; but it can be an investor, an anchor customer to help jump-start new space industries, and an investor in helping to create breakthrough technologies. We’ve done some of the first two, with Commercial Cargo and Crew; where we are really failing, though, is in the latter, technology development. In fact, technology development to help bring about reusable launch vehicle technologies is effectively prohibited in NASA right now. For example, when the Agency Technology Roadmaps were open for comment months ago, I took issue with the Roadmaps prohibition (stated very plainly) against research for RLV technologies so as to help lower the cost of access to space. My written recommendation to at least change that policy so that we in NASA at least felt free to discuss it was Disapproved, with the Rationale: “Not realistically actionable”.

    Part of this is just plain money. The space research and technology budget has been decimated now for at least 10 years, starting under the Bush Administration. In the last 5 years, the Congress has continued that decimation, by removing any attempt by the Obama Administration to make NASA a space technology generation engine again and syphoning away space technology money and transferring them to the 1970s-era developments of SLS and Orion, in favored Congressional districts. And each time Congress does that, none of the many layers of Senior Executives within NASA says a peep. So much for leadership. Which is the second problem, after money; a lack of bold, forward-thinking leadership within the Agency itself.

    Even if we were given billions more, after my 40 years (and counting) in the agency, I truly am concerned we would waste most of it, given our layers of passive ‘leadership’ and the ways we do things now.

    To recap on reducing the cost of space access:
    1. Avoid government doing the ultimate design, building, and operating of any space transportation system; we don’t do it well.
    2. Emphasize government doing what it can be really good at: a. Key investor in space capabilities, a la Commercial Crew and Cargo, etc.; b. anchor tenant in such capabilities; c. fighting for and funding those areas of space technology development that will make the most difference to reducing the cost of space access and in a way that the private sector will actually pick them up and use them.
    3. Recognize that their is a systemic personnel issue within the many layers of Senior Executive ranks within NASA and address it with a total revamping of leadership, emphasizing courageous “leaders”, who will tell the White House, Congress, and their own employees what they need to know; little things, like, the truth, which it is our duty – Duty – as employees of the American people to utter.

    Dave Huntsman


  5. Rand Simberg says:

    “The best expendable launch vehicles (ELV) still cost about $10,000 per pound from Earth to orbit.”

    Falcon 9 delivers ~30,000 lbs to LEO for ~$60M. That’s $2000/lb. Price, not cost. Falcon Heavy will roughly halve that. If they can reuse cores, they’ll drop the price further.


  6. Pingback: The High Cost Of Space Access | Transterrestrial Musings

  7. It’s a bit surprising to read that rocketeers have “largely been unsuccessful” at lowering the costs of space access while ULA and ESA/Arianespace scramble to design new rockets to match SpaceX’s lower costs. It’s also surprising to read that ELV’s “still cost about $10,000 per pound from Earth to orbit” when the Falcon 9 provides rides for $2100/lb to LEO and $5720/lb to GEO. The Falcon Heavy should cut those costs by two thirds ($730/lb LEO, 1800/lb GEO). Reusing first stage boosters should easily cut costs by another factor or two or more.

    For years I attended conferences where speakers from Arianespace and ULA scoffed at SpaceX’s promise of lower costs. At least now they accept the reality of SpaceX. It’s disappointing that aerospace academics still refuse to accept that SpaceX and its launch prices are for real.

    There was no magic in how SpaceX’s lowered costs. They simply made lower cost the priority in every design decision. Stewart Money’s book on SpaceX goes into great detail on this. A simple example was making the 1st and 2nd stages as identical as possible. That meant both stages could be built with the same materials, same tooling, same jigs, same workers, same engine, etc. That resulted in a big cut in cost compared to the usual case of two completely different stages. (SLS takes this to max cost by not only having drastically different stages and side boosters but planning never to stay with the same configuration for more than 2 or 3 launches.)

    Another key factor in SpaceX’s success at lowering costs is the embrace of continual incremental improvements. It has been the opposite with govt rockets. It was absurd to expect in 1969 to jump directly to a low cost RLV, especially one as big as the Shuttle. There should have been a series of vehicles, each of modest capabilities, from which to learn the innumerable lessons needed to build eventually a “fully, rapidly” reusable vehicle. Neither NASA nor DoD has had the patience to accept the required step-by-step approach to lowering costs. They instead always put the highest priority on maximizing the mass to orbit, not on cost efficiency.


    • launiusr says:

      Thanks for this clarification.


      • Rand Simberg says:

        Roger, that $10,000 number has been around so long that some people came to think of it a constant of nature, but SpaceX has finally demonstrated that it isn’t, and in the process, broken the traditional cost models (DC-X did the same thing, by the way, but it wasn’t an operational system). NAFCOM can still be used to do parametric costing for government programs, but no one can predict what private space hardware will cost going forward, at least from traditional cost-estimation techniques. Tory Bruno clearly recognizes this as well. ESA is finally starting to figure it out, but has no idea what to do about it. Ariane 6 looks likely to be obsolete before its first flight.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. launiusr says:

    Thanks for the clarification.


  9. mike shupp says:

    There are basic economic problems with small procurement programs, usually summarized by the metaphor of a “cost-curve”. Buy much more of some item, and costs go down. If the US had built half a dozen shuttles in the late 1970’s, then another dozen in the 1980’s, another two dozen in the 1990’s, etc., it might have possible to incorporate improved materials and fabrication methods and to revise operating procedures at each step, resulting in vehicles with larger payloads. smaller operating costs, and reduced procurement prices . We’ve got lots of experience with aircraft building over the years; we know how this works.

    But it takes large numbers. For comparison, we built 12,000 B-17’s and 18.000 B-34’s during World War II, and 750 B-52’s during the 1950’s. We built SIX operational space shuttles, over a period of 15 years. — with an R&D and procurement cost of about 1.5 billion dollars per bird. Assuming a best case of 100 flights per vehicle with 60,000 pounds of payload per flight, this gives a cost of 250 dollars per pound to orbit, even before we contemplate the costs of building the payloads and launching them into space and operations possibly over a period of decades. The sad reality is that the typical shuttle had about 25 flights, carried about a 40,000 pound, payload, and was tended by ground crews numbering in the thousands. None of these characteristics had the effect of lowering cost. And since the same vehicles were used over and over again, the improved production methods and refinements that might have gone into latter generations of space shuttles were never realized.

    Of course, the US avoided the R&D and purchase costs associated with multiple generations and larger numbers of shuttles. So that’s a kind of cost “saving.” But this basically reflects the tight constraints on the space program. NASA got by building and using six shuttles in a 30 year period because it was kept to a size where six shuttles was enough , and that kept its cost low enough to satisfy critics, even though payload launch costs remained high.


  10. Reusability is, I think, not the way to go. The “we don’t throw airplanes away after one use” idea is bogus when applied to space. Airplanes don’t go through what spacecraft go through.

    The reason a vehicle system like Soyuz/Progress is so cheap and reliable is that it is highly specialized and has long ago amortized its development costs and suffered most of its failures through both Soyuz/Progress and other types of launches. Had we kept Apollo CSMs flying to Earth orbit on Saturn IBs and used the Saturn IB as an unmanned launcher for GEO and planetary probes, we’d also have a cheap and reliable system. Basically, it’s about using the small crew/cargo transports to get to space, then using the station they service for many of those specialized things the Shuttle could do.

    I think that beyond a certain point, however, spaceflight is simply going to be costly. Earth-orbital flights can be cheap for the reasons given above, but if you expect to move beyond LEO, you’re going to need new and more complex systems. It becomes difficult to see how we can fly those often enough to amortize the development cost and avoid expensive accidents.

    If properly planned, Earth-orbital systems can contribute to systems for travel beyond LEO, but that can only go so far because the requirements of lunar and planetary missions are different from those of Earth-orbital missions. We’d need to plan to use a space station module as an interplanetary module from the start to make it work. We haven’t done that.

    NASA and its contractors studied that approach in the 1960s and reached no single conclusion. Generally, though, designing for interplanetary flight meant a stunted station and designing for space station operations meant a hefty planetary mission module or big mass-trimming changes that eliminated any cost savings.



    • rboozer1 says:

      “The reason a vehicle system like Soyuz/Progress is so cheap and reliable is that it is highly specialized and has long ago amortized its development costs and suffered most of its failures through both Soyuz/Progress and other types of launches.”
      Cheap and reliable compared to most other expendable launch vehicles but not all. Price per pound to orbit for Soyuz/Progress is not as low as Falcon 9 currently is and that is far higher than it will be when reusable first stages are working on both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. F9 launch with reusability is estimated by SpaceX to be in $5 million to $7 million dollar range. And before anyone scoffs at that, I would remind them that people said their current launch prices were an impossibility until they showed they weren’t.


    • Rand Simberg says:

      David, “it becomes difficult to see how x” isn’t a very compelling argument to people who don’t have such impaired vision.


    • “Reusability is, I think, not the way to go. The “we don’t throw airplanes away after one use” idea is bogus when applied to space. Airplanes don’t go through what spacecraft go through.”

      Yes, it’s true that airplanes don’t go through what spacecraft and rockets go through. That’s why spacecraft and rockets are designed differently than airplanes. And designing a rocket to withstand the conditions experienced during a launch multiple times is well within the capabilities of modern materials and engineering methods.

      The levels of stresses and strains are known and the structures are designed and tested to withstand the maxima expected plus some significant margin. Robust multi-use rockets engines are available today. The current SpaceX Merlin engines, for example, will fire up to 40 times before needing some parts replaced. XCOR engines, albeit of modest thrust so far, can be fired thousands of times before overhauls are needed. Reentry technologies are also available to allow for multiple returns from space.

      Propellants are less than 0.5% of the cost of an ELV launch, the rest of the cost is for a vehicle that is thrown away. This makes space launch absurdly expensive, exactly like throwing away an airplane after a single flight. It will be awhile before rockets will reach the fly-land-refuel-repeat cycle of aircraft but there is certainly no deep fundamental physics or engineering barrier to prevent it from happening. (It may be fly-land-reassemble stages-refuel-repeat for a long time.) Just a lot of solvable problems to overcome via the same sort of relentlessly incremental process of continual improvements and innovations that we have seen in the development of most any technology (autos, aircraft, computers, flat TVs, etc) as it evolves from expensive, flawed, and impractical to affordable, reliable, and widely used.

      For decades the high ante required to participate in rocket technology left only govt players who were satisfied with its evolution moving at a snail’s pace. Now that outsiders have gotten into the game, we are finally seeing rocket technology starting to accelerate. The next few years in rocket development look to be exciting ones.


  11. Coastal Ron says:

    The question asked at the end of the article, “What are the most effective ways to lower the cost of space access?”, is the right question. But referencing past space transportation systems is the wrong way to consider how we should be making progress in the future.

    For instance, the Apollo program was created for a political goal, to beat the USSR to the Moon, so engineering choices were made in the interests of expediency, not cost or sustainability. So other than proving we can build large rockets and safely send humans to the Moon, there are no real lessons we can take away regarding sustainable low-cost transportation systems.

    The Shuttle was an experimental vehicle that was operated in an operational fashion. While it’s goal was to lower the cost to access space it was very presumptuous to assume that a 1st generation transportation system would be successful enough to keep operating for very long before addressing the shortcomings with 2nd and 3rd generation versions. And how our history of aviation has shown us that it can take many generations to find successful combinations of features, so we can assume it will be the same for lowering the cost to access space.

    The biggest question to ask is who should be trying to lower the cost to access space? Should the government? For DoD/NRO payloads the answer is no, since they are content being a customer and not owning their own transportation system. For NASA though it’s mixed, since for robotic missions and ISS support NASA is content to use the private sector, but Congress wants NASA to own and operate an HLV transportation system. Of course the goal of the SLS was not to address how to lower the cost to access space, so if anything the SLS is a huge distraction on that front.

    Again, looking at history, where we innovate the most is when there is competition, and we have a lot of competition in the commercial payload sector. Not to say we have a lot of innovation, since the paradigms that have been used up until the beginning of the 21st Century have relied on incremental improvements, not significant improvements. NewSpace as a whole is well positioned to shake up that status quo and certainly SpaceX is the most successful of them so far.

    And if you want to make dramatic changes you have to assume some risk. No risk, no significant changes in the status quo. Again SpaceX is the most visible of these efforts with their attempt to recover and reuse their 1st stage cores, but by nature all of NewSpace is pushing the boundaries of what can be done in order to create new business models.

    Which NewSpace companies will be successful? We won’t know until they become successful, or maybe not even until well after that point. Which means if we as a nation want to significantly lower the cost to access space we need to encourage and support experimentation in the private sector.

    My $0.02


    • Greg Hoback says:

      I still don’t get it when people say STS was “experimental” instead of operational. What does that mean? It was an operational platform–it performed work (assemble ISS, service Hubble, remote sensing, Spacelab, etc) other than researching the vehicle itself. The X-15 was experimental, since it was built and used strictly to research certain flight regimes and systems performance.


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