Is the Space Shuttle Worth the Effort?

Former NASA employee Keith Cowing is the editor of nasawatch.com, and co-author of a book with journalist Frank Sietzen on the remaking of the space agency (New Moon Rising). Is there a good argument to be made to drop the space shuttle program?

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand. Today's scheduled shuttle launch is the second since the shuttle Columbia broke apart three years ago, killing seven astronauts. Is the space shuttle program worth the risks? Is it worth the cost? Keith Cowing runs Nasawatch.com, and he used to be a biologist at NASA. Welcome to the program.

Mr. KEITH COWING (Nasawatch.com): How are you today?

BRAND: Fine, thank you. Well, how much does the space shuttle program cost?

Mr. COWING: Well, you can average half a billion dollars for every shuttle flight, but there are some costs that are there regardless of whether they fly five flights a year or two, and it's about on the order of three or so billion dollars a year. The past couple of years, most of that has been spent on fixing problems with the shuttle and getting ready to launch it again.

BRAND: Why are there so many problems with the shuttle?

Mr. COWING: Well, it's - remember that TV show, That 70's Show? Well, you're looking at that. This is a vehicle designed at the end of the Apollo era. It was state of the art then and in many ways still is, but it is not aging gracefully. The maintenance required to keep it flying increases rather than decreases. So it's becoming more of a burden to NASA than anybody expected.

BRAND: And why does NASA keep running the space shuttle program?

Mr. COWING: Well, because they have to. They have a requirement at treaty-level commitments with a variety of nations to finish the International Space Station, and the components of the International Space Station that the United States, Europe, and Japan have launched are all designed only to be carried on the space shuttle, so if you don't have the shuttle to carry it, to modify those parts to launch would take years and cost a lot more money. So they're sort of stuck with the situation. They're joined at the hip.

BRAND: And they can't renegotiate this treaty, and...

Mr. COWING: Oh, they can renegotiate it, but you know, it's like anything else. Everybody else has met their commitments. That would have to be a decision that the White House would make, in essence to break the treaty.

BRAND: So $3 billion or so a year. What do Americans get in return?

Mr. COWING: Well, first of all, contrary to the complaint that this money's being spent in outer space, there are no banks, there are no stores up there. Every penny that is spent on the space program goes to people's salaries, so it does provide jobs and income to people and to companies, small and large. But in a greater sense, you have to ask what it is the shuttle, or the space program, I guess, is doing, and it is a variety of things, from weather satellites and improved communications to other technologies. But it's not just that. It's about exploring and learning and going to various places in our solar system, and I guess you can't place a value on that.

BRAND: Well you can. You can say it's not worth it. You can say it's not worth the money, it's not worth the risks.

Mr. COWING: And some say that it is.

BRAND: More people now than before?

Mr. COWING: Well, if you look at Gallup polls, it's kind of interesting. It depends what question you ask and who you ask, but they did a poll recently that showed that people were - more than 50 percent of the taxpayers supported the space program, yet on the space shuttle, they were split, 48 for, 48 percent against. So I guess it depends who you ask and when you ask, but support has always been more in the majority for the space program.

BRAND: Keith Cowing of nasawatch.com. Thank you.

Mr. COWING: Thank you.

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