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, Match.com.
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.
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.