05 August 2011

"Good riddance to the Space Shuttle"

Locklin on science | Scott Locklin | Good riddance to the Space Shuttle

Really though, it is much worse than this. The shuttle was supposed to cost under $50/lb of launched payload. I can’t figure out how much mass they launched into orbit with the thing, but assuming 3/5 of the total 50,000lb payload capacity per flight (almost certainly an over estimate).

200E9 total program cost/(30,000lbs * 135 missions) = $50,000/lb

Making it a mind boggling 1000 times worse than it was supposed to be. And about 5-10x as expensive as using non-reusable spacecraft.

I guess 5-10x more expensive wouldn’t be horrible if it were incredibly safe or reliable. But as well know, it is neither safe nor reliable. The politician/managers estimated there was a 1/100,000 chance of a catastrophic failure. The engineers rated it 1/100. Both underestimated the dangers. In reality, we got amazingly lucky: hindsight informed us the early flights had more of a 1/10 danger of a catastrophic failure.


There is an excellent history page on Nasa’s website detailing the political and engineering decisions that led to the Space Shuttle (where I got the images of prototype concepts which are better than what we got). It should be read by anyone interested in the history of launch technologies: you’ll learn about what could have been, and what the design tradeoffs were that led to this abomination.
The Space Shuttle is a topic that should be studied by all engineers, anyone in political science or public administration, and probably many economists as well. The Shuttle program gives you the whole package of what goes wrong with institutional incentives.


  1. Tiles. I recall - now - reading an article on how cool and groovy the shuttle was. Light weight! A miracle of modern materials technology. Science, man.

    Each tile is unique. They have to be glued back on after each flight. By hand.

    At some point an adult should have looked at this system and pointed out that no way was this thing going to be turned around quick enough to make it cheap to operate.

    Of course they did, and were ignored, or wishful thinking prevailed or something.

    Hey - at least a whole lot of guys and girls had lifetime employment gluing ceramic tiles to a spaceship.

    Yay, government.

  2. I have similar memories. 30,000 unique parts to manage -- just for the thermal shielding? That's literally too many pieces.