Shuttle Legacy: Grand, Though Not What Was Planned When the space shuttle program began more than 30 years ago, it was billed as "our biggest bargain in out-of-this-world research." Flights never became as routine or cheap as NASA had initially envisioned. Still, many say the shuttle fulfilled its promise of being a reusable spacecraft.
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Shuttle Legacy: Grand, Though Not What Was Planned

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Shuttle Legacy: Grand, Though Not What Was Planned

Shuttle Legacy: Grand, Though Not What Was Planned

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SCOTT SIMON, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.


SIMON: This is how the crew aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis woke up this morning, to "Viva La Vida" - forgive me, "Viva La Vida," by Coldplay. Atlantis, of course, was the last shuttle flight ever. Forty years ago, when NASA was trying to sell the idea of the shuttle, it promised it would usher in a new age of travel. As the program heads into retirement, NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce compares the promises to reality.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: If you opened up a copy of the magazine "Popular Science" back in 1974, you'd see an artist's conception of a blast-off for the new spaceship that NASA was building. The headline: "Reusable Space Shuttle, Our Biggest Bargain In Out-Of-This-World Research." The era of cheap, routine space flight was about to begin.


NARRATOR: The United States can no longer afford the luxury of the throwaway rocket. Our answer to this challenge is the space shuttle. At home in the vacuum of space, and the atmosphere of earth.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's a NASA promotional video. The space shuttle would land on a runway instead of splashing in the ocean, making getting into a spaceship more like getting on an airplane - opening up all kinds of new opportunities in satellite technology and scientific research.


NARRATOR: Space and space technology are assuming an ever more important role in our modern civilization. The instrument by which routine access to space will be achieved is the United States space shuttle.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Now, NASA's moon shot had been a spectacular success, but expensive. If space travel had a future, any new vehicle had to be cost-effective. So the agency enlisted economists to make the case for the shuttle. Edward Greenblat was a young Ph.D. student who worked on one influential study back in the early 1970s.

EDWARD GREENBLAT: You know, it was just thrilling to be that close to such an interesting project.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: No one had built anything like the shuttle before.

GREENBLAT: There were a whole bunch of things on the drawing board, and we had to sift through them and come up with what we thought would be the most cost-effective design.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A lot of the economic arguments for the shuttle came down to the satellite business. For the military, communications and science missions, the shuttle's large payload bay could carry up multiple satellites at a time. And astronauts could repair satellites, or bring them home to be refurbished.


GREENFIELDBOYCE: On April 12, 1981, the first shuttle lifted off.


NARRATOR: We are beginning a new and exciting age, signaled by the flight of Columbia into Earth's orbit.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thirty years later, people are asking if the age of the space shuttle lived up to its promise.

ROGER PIELKE JR.: If you want to answer the question, is it a success or failure? one way to do that is to ask the question, well, what was it supposed to do, and at what cost? And then compare what the data says to what those expectations were.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Roger Pielke Jr., a science policy analyst at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

PIELKE: Where NASA really fell short was in the flight rate. In the early 1970s, when promising what they were going to deliver, they were talking about a flight rate of 48 shuttle flights per year, at a marginal cost per launch of something like $15 million.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Instead of going up nearly once a week, the reality is that the shuttles have flown about four times a year, at an average cost of about $1.5 billion. Pielke recently added up the entire cost of the shuttle program - no small feat - and here's what he found.

PIELKE: In 2010 dollars - so converting everything to current dollars - in one round number is a $200 billion effort, and that works out somewhere between $200 and $250 million per person launched into space. So any way that you slice the numbers, it has been a pretty expensive undertaking these past 40 years.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The spaceships were reusable, but they took much longer than people had thought to get turned around to go up again. They were also grounded for years after seven people, including a schoolteacher, died in the Challenger accident. And then seven more people died in the Columbia tragedy.

Even if space shuttle launches had become common enough that most of the public ignored them, these accidents were a painful demonstration that space flight was still far from routine. But Pielke says the shuttle did deliver on some of its promises.

PIELKE: You know, at the highest level, it does fulfill the promise of being a reusable spacecraft - and in that sense has been, really, a tremendous success.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The shuttle allowed the U.S. to forge international partnerships, to build a huge orbiting space station. Astronauts live there in spacious splendor for months at a time. And the shuttle allowed the U.S. to retain its position as the world leader in space flight after the Apollo era. Pielke says to many people, those are valuable achievements.

PIELKE: There's a lot of intangible benefits to the space shuttle program. And the question of, was $200 billion worth it? is really kind of an ink blot test.

BOB THOMPSON: As far as the specific vehicle and what it can do, it's turned out exactly as we envisioned.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Bob Thompson. He ran the shuttle program from 1970, when it still being conceived, until after the first flight. Yes, he says, some of the early cost projections were pie in the sky. But the shuttle has evolved our ability to live and work in space.

THOMPSON: The shuttle provided the country a national capability it could not get otherwise. The shuttle gave the country a very capable work vehicle to go into low Earth orbit and do everything from carrying experiments there to launching satellites from there, to building space stations, to building telescopes like Hubble. It was a multipurpose work vehicle.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thompson believes that history will remember the shuttle kindly. Meanwhile, NASA is looking ahead to its future, trying to figure out what's next. It's set its sights on deep space. The bread and butter of the shuttle's work - quick trips up close to Earth, like to the orbiting space station - will be turned over to private companies. They're developing new rockets and capsules, and promising to usher in a new era that will make space more accessible than ever before.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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