NASA’s Space Shuttle program began almost forty years ago. Today, it blasted offfor the last time. When the program was officially launched by President Nixon on January 5, 1972. The goal for NASA was to develop a reusable space shuttle system which could handle as much as 50 missions per year. While NASA never came close to those number of launches, it did managed to do it 135 times. With the reduced number of missions, the original hope of cost reduction ($7M/launch est. vs > $800M/launch actual) never materialized. The total price tag of the program has been estimated to be between $115 billion to over $200 billion. For numerous reasons (accounting methods, what to include, who paid for what, etc…), the true cost is difficult to pin down.
Whether the Space Shuttle program was worth the cost paid has been and will continue to be the subject of debate. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that the reusable Shuttle has given scientists capabilities unavailable by any other mean. The five shuttles — Columbia, Challenger, Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavor — hauled over 3,500 tons of scientific instruments (space probes, satellites, telescopes) into orbit. It was instrumental in the construction of the International Space Station. Without the Shuttle, the Hubble Telescope could never have been repaired.
Still, it is valid to criticise NASA for their mistakes and lack of focus with the Space Shuttle. Fourteen men and women were lost with the Challenger and Columbia accidents. Unlike the Apollo program with landing on the moon as its goal, the Space Shuttle program had no clear criteria for success. What WAS the vision for the reusable craft? Was it a “if we build it, it’s reason for being will come” kind of thing?
it is unlikely that we will see another manned space program any time soon. The return on investment is hard to justify in the current economic climate. However, with the ending of the Space Shuttle program, NASA will now have the funds available for many other projects. What is next for NASA? We can’t wait to find out.