"Issues of mismanagement and expense certainly dogged the space shuttle program throughout its 30-year run, which came to an end Thursday with the safe touchdown of the shuttle Atlantis in Florida. Thank goodness. Maybe now NASA can concentrate on what it does best—mainly, unmanned space exploration—while private enterprise takes over the business of putting humans into orbit.
When it was first conceived, the shuttle was supposed to be a kind of space truck, going into orbit 50 to 75 times a year and carrying large payloads at a cost of $54 million a launch in 2011 dollars. It didn't work out that way. The shuttle went aloft an average of five times a year. The cost-per-launch averaged some $1.5 billion. Its heaviest payloads barely exceeded what an unmanned Delta IV rocket can carry.
Not that the shuttle didn't have its uses, like the dramatic repairs of the Hubble telescope, or its moments of splendor. But it also had its tragedies, with the loss of Challenger and Columbia and their 14 astronauts. And it exacted a huge opportunity cost on an agency that could have done more with its money than put humans in orbit again and again."
Thanks to Pete Friedlander for the link to The Unbroken Window Blog, with this great comment about the WSJ editorial above:
"I’m reminded of what the expectations were for Medicare and Medicaid were in the 1960s. Something about that generation…"
MP: It's probably the case that without "putting humans in orbit again and again" the public and politicians would have lost interest in the space program years ago after the novelty factor wore off, and it would have been harder for NASA to justify its ongoing increases in taxpayer funding (totaling almost $1 trillion in constant dollars since 1958). With manned space shuttles, NASA could promote an endless series of "firsts" to maintain public interest in its missions: the first woman in space, the first minority in space, the first minority woman in space, the first school teacher in space, the first minority woman in space, etc.