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One Small Misstep?

Questions about the merits of the space shuttle are older than the program itself.
April 19, 2011

As the space shuttle program winds down (the last flight is scheduled for June 28), it’s fair to ask: what did we gain after several decades and roughly $173 billion?

Back to the drawing board: This NASA illustration from the shuttle’s conceptual phase depicts the vehicle coming in for a landing.

Certainly, the program has had its successes: shuttles have flown more than 130 missions, making possible decades of science experiments in space. Shuttle crews carried components of the International Space Station into orbit, built it, and maintained it. Crucial fixes to the Hubble Space Telescope would have been unthinkable without a vehicle like the shuttle.

On the other hand, the shuttle has kept astronauts tethered to Earth orbit. The program didn’t make spaceflight less expensive, as was promised. The Challenger and Columbia disasters caused 14 deaths between them. In 2005, NASA administrator Michael ­Griffin said the consensus was that the shuttle, from the beginning, was “not the right path.”

A lot of the potential drawbacks were apparent years before the shuttle first took flight in 1981, as evidenced by a 1971 article for Technology Review titled “Shall We Build the Space Shuttle?” In that piece, John M. Logsdon, a professor in the Program of Policy Studies in Science and Technology at George Washington University, laid out the conflicting and sometimes dodgy rationales for the shuttle’s existence.

NASA leaders justify the shuttle in terms of a variety of national needs, but it is also true that the Agency must have an extensive and technologically challenging new program to maintain large development centers at Houston and Huntsville … Further, the agency needs some semblance of a future manned space flight program in order to maintain its highly visible public image.

From the moment it was conceived, the shuttle was at a disadvantage relative to the Apollo program (which had two missions to go at the time of Logsdon’s writing). Where Apollo had a clear goal—to the moon and back by the end of the 1960s—the shuttle had no definite time frame or objective, and it had to please many constituencies, each with its own goals and motivations. It had to be a worthwhile vessel for science experiments. For the Pentagon’s sake, it had to be plausible as a military asset. It had to capture the imagination of the American people.

The motivations underlying the decision to begin Project Apollo were preeminently political. Top priority was given to the symbolic U.S.-Soviet competition in space spectaculars … Now, there is far less fear of a Soviet threat to spur competition and innovation. There is a general questioning of the value of massive federal investments in large scale technological enterprises. NASA is being asked to demonstrate, in advance, that its plans for the next decades have some relevance to a revised set of national goals and priorities

A mere two years after the Apollo 11 moon landing, the public was already starting to lose interest in space travel. Walter Mondale, then a Minnesota senator, would soon call the space shuttle a “senseless extravaganza.” (However, his opposition would have little effect: four of the five spaceworthy shuttles would be constructed, at least in part, during Mondale’s vice presidency under Jimmy Carter.) Three prominent scientists—James Van Allen, Thomas Gold, and Brian O’Leary (who’d been part of NASA’s astronaut program in the mid-1960s)—urged unmanned missions instead. But as Logsdon pointed out, politicians were reluctant to cede leadership in spaceflight to the Soviets.

Although public enthusiasm for new manned flight programs is now at an ebb, it is difficult to conceive of a President of the United States deciding in effect to abandon manned space activities for the next decade or more at a time when the Soviet Union is developing increasingly more complex and longer-duration earth orbital stations.

So was the shuttle the right path or not? That’s debatable, but Logsdon’s article suggests that by the early 1970s, the shuttle was in favor less because of its superior technology than because a lot of people had spent a lot of time thinking about it and planning for it. The idea had taken root.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, whatever the merits of the shuttle, this is the wrong year for NASA to be asking for a decision to proceed with its development … But now NASA has cranked up … teams to study the shuttle, and it would be difficult and expensive, both for the agency and for the firms competing for the contracts, to keep those teams together for another year if the decision on the shuttle were to be deferred. Thus, although there is no strong technological or economic reason why the shuttle decision should be made at this time, organizational momentum is pressing for a decision this winter.

Timothy Maher is TR ’s assistant managing editor.

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