Killing the Shuttle: Will Innovation Be Lost in Space?
Policy + Politics

Killing the Shuttle: Will Innovation Be Lost in Space?

AP Photo/John Raoux

For the past four decades, no program has demanded as much of NASA’s budget as the Space Shuttle. Exact numbers are elusive, but the leading calculation is close to $200 billion in total, with a yearly budget of around $6 billion — nearly equal to what the government spends on CHIP, a health care insurance program for America’s children. At a time when the country is making painful cuts left and right, axing a program like the Shuttle seems like a no-brainer. So the Shuttle is preparing for its final blast off, either with its 134th launch this spring or with an additional mission in the summer. But at closer look, more than just a symbolic, expensive space exploration program may be at stake.

A debate is currently percolating about the program’s legacy and value to the country and could rage for another forty years. The question is what was the full economic benefit of the Space Shuttle program and did any of that money return to Earth and the U.S. economy?

Houston, We Have Lift-Off
During its development in the 1970s, the Shuttle was touted as a radical break from the fully disposable rocket ships of the Apollo program, which cost a $1 billion or more per launch (adjusting for inflation). The Shuttle was a reusable space plane, a winged design that would launch up to eight astronauts vertically and glide back to Earth. Its crews could deploy satellites from the cargo hold, repair space-based telescopes in orbit, and eventually piece together the International Space Station. It was like nothing the world had ever seen.

Now, however, critics blame the Shuttle for stalling innovation in spacecraft design since NASA hasn’t fielded a new manned vehicle since the program took off in 1981. They also argue that NASA reneged on promises to create cheaper, reusable transport, citing the estimated, and more expensive, $1.4 billion cost per launch and the fact that the boosters that power its ascent are disposable. Supporters counter that there are no proven examples of how to do the same range of jobs cheaper. There was also the impossible to quantify boost to national pride. Despite negligible TV ratings for most launches, 52 percent of Americans thought the Space Shuttle was worth its overall cost, while just 28 percent disagreed (another 20 percent were unsure), according to a poll conducted last fall. The 52 percent may have been right.

Return to Earth
According to NASA, of the more than 1,650 space program technologies that have benefited the nation since it started keeping track in 1976, over 120 have come directly from the Shuttle program. There’s no specific dollar value attributed to these innovations, a diverse lineup that ranges from lubricants for automobiles and train tracks (first used in the giant trucks that transport the shuttles) to improved contact lenses, video stabilization software and home insulation, among others. Many of these commercial spinoffs seem like a natural extension of space-related R&D, such as aerodynamics and materials research that has improved fuel efficiency for passenger aircraft. Others demonstrate how prophetic these innovations can be: A world-class artificial intelligence computer system, designed to mimic human decision-making to maintain safe engine operations, is now powering the online matchmaking service,

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to tally the net worth of every company born or jump-started thanks to Shuttle’s spinoffs, but what about the value of all the programs, from the deployment of government-owned satellites to the construction of the International Space Station (ISS), that the Shuttle made possible? “You really can’t decouple Shuttle from the rest of NASA,” says Henry Hertzfeld, a professor at Georgetown University’s Space Policy Institute. “Originally it was supposed to launch communications satellites. Then it was used to fix the Hubble telescope, and augment it on another mission. It became a means to do various things.” Assessing the value of an orbital workhorse — the only one of its kind — means assessing the worth of everything it hauled and fixed.

“If you’re only creating five iPhones
a year, and that’s all you’ve produced
for 30 years straight, you’re not going to
see much innovation in the phone industry”

But with the final mission in the near future, the question is what now? As Hertzfeld and others point out, NASA appears to be without a concrete strategic mission, forced to scramble for a stop-gap solution to its ongoing obligation to carry personnel and supplies to the ISS. President Obama’s cancellation of the previous administration’s mission to return to the moon has halted development of an Apollo-like system of vehicles called Constellation, which would have taken over Shuttle's ISS-related duties.

NASA’s response has been to send out a kind of distress call by pouring money into private companies developing their own orbital transportation for humans, such as SpaceX, with its Dragon capsule, and a yet-to-be-unveiled craft from Orbital Sciences Corporation. By eliminating a program that has become a symbol for big-government bloat, the development of a new kind of space travel could be boosted, where NASA is primarily a client, funding a burgeoning industry as the first of many paying customers. “The problem with the Shuttle was that it got up four or five flights a year, and that was it,” says John Gedmark, executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “If you’re only creating five iPhones a year, and that’s all you’ve produced for 30 years straight, you’re not going to see much innovation in the phone industry. It’s when you have the commercial sector and the free market coming up with new ideas--and creating customers that weren’t there before--that costs come down, and you create value for the entire economy.”

There is a very real possibility that NASA’s post-Shuttle emphasis on commercial space flight is a temporary experiment, and a cheap one, at that. For 2011, the agency has allocated $612 million to the development of transportation to and from the ISS, and has set aside $792 million in its recently released 2012 budget proposal. That’s a fraction of NASA’s roughly $19 billion budget, as well as the Shuttle’s traditional allocation of $3 billion to $6 billion. The vacuum left by the Space Shuttle’s absence may simply be filled, in the years to come, with another massive program to send humans into space, presumably to asteroids, Mars, or other destinations beyond Earth’s orbit. But there’s also evidence that NASA is becoming nimble, and even innovative in how it spends money.

Flight of the Robot
One of the last Shuttle missions — STS-133, which took off on February 24th — carried a humanoid robot called Robonaut 2 to the ISS. The robot, which NASA hopes will pave the way for robotic assistants that work alongside astronauts in space, was developed in collaboration with General Motors. The automaker approached NASA in 2006, after the first version of the robot was unveiled, and engineers from the two organizations began sharing expertise and financial resources to develop the follow-up model.

GM plans to incorporate some of Robonaut 2’s systems into its industrial robots and manufacturing process. Robonaut 2 is designed to be fully aware of its body in relation to nearby humans, and to yield or avoid contact altogether. A hulking, industrial machine that can safely work elbow-to-actuator, on the same line as people, could save millions per plant. According to Marty Linn, principal engineer of robotics at GM, for every dollar the company spends on its existing industrial robots, it spends an additional $3 to $10 setting up protective environments and backup systems that keep the powerful bots from injuring human workers. Take into account the thousands of auto factories around the world, and the savings climb into the billions. By working with GM on Robonaut 2, NASA was able to produce a potentially revolutionary technical innovation, as well as the first of a new breed of non-human astronaut, all with a budget of just $3.5 million.

Robonaut 2 is one small example of an apparent trend. Whatever replaces the Shuttle in orbit, or pushes past it into deep space, NASA’s economic impact might have nothing to do with human spaceflight, or any single program. Most of the agency’s work will remain in R&D. A new emphasis on direct partnerships with the commercial sector could mean quicker economic results, but most programs will be gambles. “All you can do is look back though history and see what benefits materialized,” says Hertzfeld. “There are some big winners, some minor quality-of-life changes, some technologies that went nowhere. Investing in R&D is an act of faith.”

Related Links:
What does end of space shuttle program mean to US? (
Discovery space shuttle: the beginning of the end for Nasa's shuttle programme (The Telegraph)