The space shuttle flew its last mission in July 2011, signalling a temporary end to America’s manned spaceflight capability. NASA has been working on the Shuttle’s replacement, Project Orion (no, not that Project Orion) for seven years now but it’s yet to get off the drawing board in any serious way and projections that it’s going to make the first unmanned test flights in 2014 are extremely optimistic, so this is a state of affairs that’s likely to continue for at least half a decade or so. You won’t have been able to hear it amongst all the dewy-eyed wall-to-wall coverage about the last space shuttle flight heralding the end of an era, but a significant portion of the space scientist community could be seen muttering “Well thank god that’s over with” after Atlantis touched down on the runway at Kennedy Space Centre.
You see, despite what people might think about the space shuttle, despite its value as a symbol of NASA’s technological superiority, as an actual space vehicle the Space Shuttle sucked. It sucked like nothing else in space flight before or since. It sucked more than the Soviet rocket that blew up on the launch pad, incinerating 120 of Russia’s best rocket engineers. It sucked more than the flight of Soyuz 11, which inconveniently vented the spacecraft’s entire atmosphere into space on re-entry killing the three cosmonauts on board. It sucked more than Voskhod 2’s crash-landing, which dumped the crew in the middle of the Siberian taiga where they had to spend a very uncomfortable night fending off wolves and bears. And the reason it sucks more than all of these things is because Voskhod, Soyuz and all the rest were successful space vehicles that did what they were designed to do and only killed hundreds of people when there was an unfortunate glitch in the system. The space shuttle, by contrast, was very, very bad at what it did, which was delivering both manned and unmanned payloads to low earth orbit (LEO). This wasn’t because it couldn’t lift very much. It could lift quite a lot. It wasn’t because it was particularly bad at carrying crew, either; the space shuttle is probably the most comfortable manned space vehicle in existence. The problem was that it combined both of these functions into a single highly complex vehicle (it’s been called the most complicated machine made my humans, which isn’t too far off the truth) where two different vehicles specifically designed to do only one of them would have been far, far cheaper.
Cheaper, I hear you say? Isn’t the whole point in a reuseable space vehicle that it’s supposed to be cheaper than fire-and-forget one-shot launchers that can’t be reused? Well, that’s what the designers of the space shuttle thought back in the 60s. The main Orbiter? That’s completely reusable; just build one and use it again and again and again. Those two little boosters on the side of the big orange external tank? Those splash down into the ocean after they separate from the main vehicle, are recovered by surface ships and hauled back to land to be refurbished. Those are reusable too. The only part of the space shuttle that isn’t reusable is the external tank itself, and how expensive can those be?
The answer is: pretty expensive. But the price tag attached to the components wasn’t the problem with the shuttle program. The problem was that when the shuttle was being designed, it was anticipated that it would make 24 flights per year. This was lowered to 12 flights a year after the designers realised they could only make 12 external fuel tanks (the only non-reusable component) in that time. The actual record for most shuttle flights in a year was 9 flights in 1985, and now that the shuttle program is over we can see that they averaged out to just over four flights per year. Four. Six times less than the original estimate. And remember, all the time the shuttles are sitting around on the tarmac it costs money for maintenance to keep them in good working order. Every time a shuttle comes back from a mission it basically has to be torn apart and rebuilt to make sure it still functions and won’t kill the astronauts next time it flies, and that costs a staggering amount of money. The shuttle spend over a year grounded after both the Columbia and Challenger disasters; it was eating up money then as well. The up-front cost of a single shuttle launch is $450 million. When you factor in what the entire shuttle program has cost and average it out over the total number of launches, it actually works out to just over $1.5 billion per launch. And this is compared with the launch of a non-reusable Russian Soyuz rocket, which can carry either a satellite payload or the Soyuz manned capsule, and which costs approximately $250 million dollars up-front.
So the space shuttle was a fantastically expensive and complicated way of doing something that the Russians (and now other countries) were doing cheaper and more efficiently with the traditional one-shot orbital capsules. Unfortunately by the time the Americans figured this out; it was far too late, the Shuttle was already flying, and it had a lot of national prestige attached to it as a symbol of America’s obvious technological superiority over those perfidious commie Russians. They couldn’t cancel the Shuttle program at that point; it would have been like cancelling Apollo. They were stuck with it. Bizarrely they also dragged their feet when the time came to design a shuttle replacement, keeping the shuttle flying for nearly a decade past the date it was originally supposed to retire and only doing so when there was a significant chance the next orbiter launched would drop out of the sky because it was so old. Orion was nowhere near ready when the shuttles stopped flying. Now theUS has to pay the Russians to use Russian launch facilities to launch American astronauts in Russian Soyuz capsules mounted on Russian rockets, and it’s all because of the space shuttle. Nice one, guys.