Thursday, July 21, 2011

Finally, An End to NASA's Manned Space Shuttles

"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.   


At 7/21/2011 11:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Exploration has often been sponsored by governments. Isabella backed Columbus, Jefferson backed Lewis & Clark, etc. But I emphasize the word SPONSORED. The explorers of old were not government employees. They were often men with their own motivations & experiences who picked their own teams. That had government patrons. We could do something similar & save money by not maintaining a huge bureaucracy.

At 7/22/2011 12:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a nice writeup from 2005 that argued essentially the same points against what NASA was doing, in more detail.

At 7/22/2011 1:51 AM, Blogger Andrew_M_Garland said...

Mark Perry: It's probably the case that without "putting humans in orbit again and again" ...

So, the space program was not intrinsically very expensive. But, the advertising was a killer.

At 7/22/2011 3:29 AM, Blogger PeakTrader said...

It seems appropriate, in America's new economic world, astronauts will need to rely on the Russians for space flights.

At 7/22/2011 4:38 AM, Blogger Ron H. said...

Peak: "It seems appropriate, in America's new economic world, astronauts will need to rely on the Russians for space flights."

Why will astronauts need space flights? Where will they be going?

Is it just because that's what astronauts do? :)

At 7/22/2011 6:43 AM, Blogger geoih said...

When the Europeans began sailing around the world in the 15th century, they had a practical reason for it. Very little had changed in ship technology for hundreds of years. The Romans or the Han Chinese could just as easily sailed around the world as the 15th century Europeans.

I think the space program has been a wonderful example of what can be done through brute political force. The moon landings and the shuttle were all done before the great advances in computers and material science. There was no practical reason for us to go into space, but we did it for politics and through brute force.

I think the space program is also a good example of what happens when the state starts a program with purely political goals. It stagnates and decays. Who would think that rocket systems designed and built 30 years ago would still be viable today? What private high tech company doesn't have a dozen potential new products they're developing? What has NASA developed in 30 years? Nothing. They have nothing, not because there wasn't the ability to develop something new, but because there was no political reason for it.

At 7/22/2011 10:53 AM, Blogger Benjamin Cole said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 7/22/2011 10:53 AM, Blogger Benjamin Cole said...

It would be nice if the WSJ applied the same skepticism to the $1 trillion-a-year Department of Defense-Homeland Security-VA complex.

NASA? We want to cut NASA and not the DoD?

We are spending more now on defense than when the USSR had three million men in uniform, a blue-water navy, an air force with supersonic fighters and bombers, ICBMs, a KGB, and was producing thousands of new tanks, planes and warships every year.

Now, our "enemy" is a few dozen, possibly a few hundred punk terrorist.

No private sector company would respond to such a reduced need by spending radically more--only a federal agency could accomplish that.

And no, no GOP pol, and damn few Dem pols will say anything. The Department of Defense pours money into key districts, and into the pockets of campaign contributors.

DoD employs 3 million directly, and another 2 million in the private sector--5 million votes, not counting families, friends, retirees on VA benefits, etc.

DoD is a prime example of how dangerous socialism is--these employees, private contractors and their families are dependent on continued federal outlays.

So they vote to tax productive people, take their money, and give it to themselves.

But, hey. let's beat up on NASA.

At 7/22/2011 12:25 PM, Blogger Mike said...

I agree with you...drives me crazy. Of course, being here in Houston, I may be a bit biased.

I really believe the problem is our government not seeing around the next corner because it's further than the next election.
The DoD makes us quite a bit of money to go with the cost...and, as long as the rest of the western "powers" refuse to pull their weight, we'll be the sole provider of safe waterways and "stability" for trade (and extortion)...but they don't seem to see the benefit the space program provided DoD and private development.

I really hope the visionaries, like American tech companies, can fill some of this void and let us see exactly what the private sector would provide. I want to think the advancements will be better and cheaper, but I'm not so sure.
Nasa has been a great example of what government can do, cost/benefit wise, but not everybody has the same definition of 'benefit'.

At 7/22/2011 1:21 PM, Blogger Hydra said...

The Romans or the Han Chinese could just as easily sailed around the world as the 15th century Europeans.

Not really, when the Europeans started sailing offshore significant changes happened in shipbuilding, navigating, etc. though not all of them were obvious.

For one thing, the entire science of ballasting had to be learned the hard way. When the VASA sank, she was the most expensive thing Sweden had ever built. Ship design became a very conservative practice, with only incremental changes, and these viewed with suspicion.

It is the same case in rocketry, where the expense and risk are so great that change comes slowly.

At 7/22/2011 4:32 PM, Blogger Benjamin Cole said...


Thanks for the comment, but...

I disagree with you. Who, today, wants to close shipping lanes?

China? An exporting nation?

Russia, that exports oil?

France? Great Britain? Japan? Canada? Germany?

We are spending trillions of dollars in case somebody someday wants to close shipping lanes, and enemy we cannot even imagine (since even those who might be enemies are heavy exporters). Can't we wait for a threat to begin to emerge, before we start spending trillions?

No, in the private-sector, you take advantage of the ability to cut costs.

Not so in D.C.

At 7/22/2011 4:52 PM, Blogger Innovation rules said...

Rand Simburg wrote an interesting article: NASA heads into an uncertain future, many are drawing lessons from the shuttle experience to apply to policy going forward.

Unfortunately, many of those lessons are false. If they are believed and applied, they will result in human spaceflight, at least as performed by NASA, that remains expensive, unsafe and rare. Here are some of the more important things many people learned from the shuttle program that are just plain wrong:

Source: 6 False Lessons Of The Space Shuttle - Atlantis Final Flight - Popular Mechanics

At 7/22/2011 10:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heh, someone just sent me this video of a mechanical bird, cool stuff.

At 7/24/2011 3:32 PM, Blogger geoih said...

Quote from Hydra: "Not really, when the Europeans started sailing offshore significant changes happened in shipbuilding, navigating, etc. though not all of them were obvious."

The Vikings sailed across the Atlantic more than 500 years before Columbus. All of Polynesia was colonized with canoes.

The later advances in ship building by the Europeans simply allowed for more cargo to be carried and for the ship to function as a good artillery platform.


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