Shuttle program concludes with mixed legacy

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. --- The space shuttle was sold to America as cheap, safe and reliable. It was none of those.

A 2007 photo shows space shuttle Endeavour docked to a lab at the International Space Station.   NASA/Associated Press
NASA/Associated Press
A 2007 photo shows space shuttle Endeavour docked to a lab at the International Space Station.

It cost $196 billion over 40 years, ended the lives of 14 astronauts and managed to make less than half the flights promised.

Yet despite all that, there were some big achievements: major scientific advances, stunning photos of the cosmos, a high-flying vehicle of diplomacy that helped bring Cold War enemies closer, and something to brag about.

Former President George H.W. Bush, who oversaw early flights, said the program "authored a truly inspiring chapter in the history of human exploration."

Even its most ardent supporters concede the program never lived up to its initial promise. The selling point four decades ago was that with weekly launches, getting into space would be relatively inexpensive and safe. That wasn't the case.

"But there is no embarrassment in setting the bar impossibly high and then failing to clear it," said former astronaut Duane Carey, who flew in 2002. "The main legacy left by the shuttle program is that of a magnificent failure."

Of the five shuttles built, two were lost in fiery tragedies. The most flights taken in one year was nine, far from the promised 50.

The program also managed to make blasting into space seem dull. Shuttles circled Earth 20,830 times but went nowhere really new.

The shuttle's epitaph is "we tried," said Hans Mark, a former deputy NASA administrator who oversaw most of the first dozen launches.

Six years ago, then-NASA chief Michael Griffin even called the shuttle program a mistake.

Science, diplomacy

Still, the program paid off in wildly unexpected ways that weren't about money and reliability.

There are the magnificent photos from the Hubble Space Telescope, which helped pinpoint the age of the universe and demonstrated the existence of mysterious dark energy; the ongoing labwork on the International Space Station; a multitude of satellites for everything from spying to climate change; and spacecraft that explore the solar system. All owe their existence to the shuttle.

The Hubble was launched from the shuttle and was repaired and upgraded five times by shuttle astronauts. They also captured and fixed satellites in orbit.

Earlier this year, shuttle astronauts installed a $2 billion particle physics experiment on the space station that might find evidence of dark matter and better explain aspects of how the universe was formed.

Like a real-life version of Star Trek , the shuttle was a United Nations in space, carrying representatives of 16 other countries. The U.S. and Russia became close partners in space, and Russian rocket scientists found new employment after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

NASA Administrator and former shuttle commander Charles Bolden said all that is not something that should be ignored. The shuttle also diversified space to make it seem more like Earth, sending the first American woman, the first black and teachers, lawmakers and even a former migrant farm worker into orbit.

Trouble from start

When spaceships carry people, extra safety requirements add hefty expenses. Rockets that haul big pieces of equipment require more power and fuel, which means more cost.

The shuttle has both of those problems that escalate the price.

One problem is that the shuttle was a compromise from start to finish, said Howard McCurdy, a professor at American University and author of several books on the space agency. The shuttle had to satisfy both NASA and the Department of Defense, which dictated the exact shape of its wings and the size of its payload bay, said Roger Launius, the senior curator at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

The concept behind it was based on a three-step space plan, ultimately ending on Mars, said George Mueller, the former top official who is credited as the father of the shuttle program. To get to Mars, NASA needed a space station circling Earth as a jumping-off point. To get to the space station, NASA wanted a completely reusable space shuttle.

In 1971, President Nixon gave NASA only the shuttle. It had no place to go. The space station wasn't built until 1998.

Worst of all, Mueller said, was that the plan to make every part of the shuttle fully reusable was dropped. Budget cuts ordered by the Nixon White House meant the fuel tank would be jettisoned with each flight and the boosters would fall into the ocean after launch and have to be retrieved and refurbished extensively.

Those changes were made to save upfront money but meant adding incredible expense to every flight, Mueller said in an interview.

The shuttle will likely go down in history as an anomaly of America's space program. The spacecraft before it were disposable capsules, such as Apollo, and the designs for machines of the near future are also for the most part disposable capsules. That suggests the 30 years of reusable shuttles that landed like airplanes were a diversion from the natural evolution of rocketry, McCurdy said.

John Glenn, who flew in a Mercury capsule in addition to the shuttle, called the shuttle "the perfect vehicle for its time."

MORE THAN AIG BAILOUT, LOWER THAN WARS

At $196 billion, the amount taxpayers spent during the lifetime of the space shuttle program seems astronomical. But the entire federal government spends that much in just three weeks.

For that $196 billion, America got five space shuttles and what will be 135 flights. That figure includes design and construction spending dating back 40 years to when the program was first conceived. When all of that's included, the cost per launch is about $1.5 billion. If you exclude those early expenses and costs for upgrades and so forth, the average operating cost of a shuttle flight is $847 million.

So, even at the cheaper calculation, each shuttle launch averages out to more than the $800 million the U.S. Food and Drug Administration spends in an entire year on food safety. The overall $196 billion is also slightly more than the $182 billion bailout of failed insurance giant AIG.

The Apollo program to the moon cost $156 billion, the Manhattan project that created the first nuclear bomb cost about $29 billion, and digging the Panama Canal cost $8 billion, according to the Smithsonian Institution. All three total $193 billion -- $3 billion less than the space shuttle.

Compared with other federal spending, though, the space shuttle barely gets off the ground in terms of big money.

In 2010, Medicare spent $196 billion in about five months. The 40-year lifetime price tag of the space shuttle program is less than one-sixth of the government's $1.2 trillion estimate for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars so far. The current federal budget deficit is heading for about $1.4 trillion -- seven times the shuttle program's overall cost. Experts put the cost to federal coffers of the 2001 tax cut at somewhere between $1 trillion and $2 trillion.

- Associated Press


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