The selection in 1972 of an ambitious and technologically challenging shuttle design resulted in the most complex machine ever built. Rather than lowering the costs of access to space and making it routine, the space shuttle turned out to be an experimental vehicle with multiple inherent risks, requiring extreme care and high costs to operate safely. Other, simpler designs were considered in 1971 in the run-up to President Nixon's final decision; in retrospect, taking a more evolutionary approach by developing one of them instead would probably have been a better choice....ADDED: Was the shuttle program too expensive? It cost $209.1 billion. Think of it as a jobs program and compare it to the Obama stimulus, which is said to have cost $278,000 per job. The stimulus was $666 billion, more than 3 times the cost of the shuttle program, which went on for many years and which went way over budget.
The shuttle was much more expensive than anyone anticipated at its inception.... The shuttle's cost has been an obstacle to NASA starting other major projects.
But replacing the shuttle turned out to be difficult because of its intimate link to the construction of the space station....
Today we are in danger of repeating that mistake, given Congressional and industry pressure to move rapidly to the development of a heavy lift launch vehicle without a clear sense of how that vehicle will be used. Important factors in the decision to move forward with the shuttle were the desire to preserve Apollo-era NASA and contractor jobs, and the political impact of program approval on the 1972 presidential election. Similar pressures are influential today. If we learn anything from the space shuttle experience, it should be that making choices with multidecade consequences on such short-term considerations is poor public policy.
July 6, 2011
Asks John M. Logsdon — professor emeritus at the Space Policy Institute, George Washington University, member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board — in the MIT Technology Review: