After three decades, Atlantis which was launched on Saturday will be NASA’s last space shuttle mission. For the next eleven days, it will be orbiting the Earth, and for the next eleven days, the Iconic Photos will feature the most breathtaking images from the shuttle’s career.
First, a disclaimer: I am not a fan of the space program; my friends go so far as to say I have “deep-seated mistrust in science and scientific community”. Many articles and pundits this week noted — and will note — the space shuttle program’s extraordinary achievements. While I do not deny this, it is worth reflecting on its failed promises.
When first conceived in the 1970s, the shuttle was to launch once a week. However, since its first mission thirty years ago, only 135 flights were launched, a dismal average of one every three months. So much for a vehicle envisioned as an everyday freight truck.
But it is not very good at freighting either; initially, it was estimated that each kilogram sent into orbit will cost $1,400. Costs spiraled to $1.5 billion a mission, at the cost of $60,000 per kilogram. Although its big selling-point was reusability, extensive maintenance needed after each mission meant that it was never truly reused again.
Its supporters point out that actually less than 1% of the federal budget went to NASA. It is true but in three decades, at the cost of $192 billion, the shuttle program has cost American taxpayers more than the Manhattan Project, the Apollo Programme and the Panama Canal combined. Its safety record — 1.5 per 100 flights — is also not topnotch.
True, its achievements — like delivering the Hubble Telescope and countless other satellites — should not be ignored, but the space shuttle was costly, both in terms of money and human life. Other nations and robots will perform the shuttle’s duties, and American astronauts will hitch rides with Russian rockets. Those are cheaper, safer alternatives, even if they are less magnificent.