The space shuttle programme has been a multi-billion-dollar failure

Atlantis and the other space shuttles have been a colossal waste of American resources, time and creative energy. The real science done by Nasa has not involved humans

Spacewalk to repair Hubble Space Telescope
A shuttle spacewalk. 'What we learn from sending people into space is not much more than how people can survive in space,' says Krauss. Photograph: AFP/Getty

With Atlantis's touchdown on Thursday bringing down the final curtain on the space shuttle programme, there is much hand-wringing over the end of an era. For the first time in 30 years Nasa has no immediate programme for human space travel in place. While many are mourning this loss, the last flight of the space shuttle instead provides an opportunity to rethink space exploration and a time to cut our losses from a failed programme that has been a colossal waste of resources, time and creative energy.

The space shuttle failed to live up to its primary goal of providing relatively cheap and efficient human space travel. There is a good reason for this. As the engineers made it clear to the physicist Richard Feynman when he was investigating the cause of the Challenger explosion, human space travel is risky. While Nasa managers had estimated the odds of a shuttle disaster to be microscopic, engineers estimated the loss rate at about 1 in 100 flights, which is close to the actual disaster rate.

Not only has the shuttle programme been costly, it has been boring. A generation that grew up with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey had hoped that by the dawn of the new millennium we would be regularly vacationing in space, and routinely sending astronauts to boldly go where no man or woman had gone before.

Instead we were treated to regular images of the shuttle visiting a $100bn boondoggle orbiting in space closer to Earth than Washington DC is to New York. No one except a billionaire or two has ever vacationed in space, and their "hotel" was a cramped, stuffy and at times smelly white elephant.

Either aboard the shuttle or the International Space Station, astronauts have explicitly demonstrated that what we learn from sending people into space is not much more than how people can survive in space. The lion's share of costs associated with sending humans into space is devoted, as it should be, to making sure they survive the voyage. No other significant science has been learned by a generation's worth of round trips in near-earth orbit.

Yes, there have been highlights, such as the Hubble Space Telescope launch and repair missions, which were not only exciting but useful. However, the real question is whether they were necessary to achieve the science goals. The initial HST repair mission was required because of poor engineering on the ground, which may even have resulted from the daunting requirement of creating a device that had to be designed to be deployed from the space shuttle.

And given the $5bn or so price tag per year associated with the shuttle (leading to cost estimates ranging between $500m and $1.3bn per launch) compared with the total cost of, say $5-7bn over more than a decade for the James Webb Space Telescope, one wonders – as my colleague Robert Parks has mused – whether it would have cost less and been more efficient to merely send up another Hubble (on an unmanned rocket) instead of sending an expensive crew ship to repair the old one.

Helping construct the International Space Station has been no serious justification for the shuttle programme. A largely useless international make-work project that was criticised by every major science organisation in the US, all that can be said for its scientific justification is that it now houses a $2bn particle physics experiment (the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer) that managed to avoid serious scientific peer review during its development, otherwise it certainly would not have been recommended for funding.

The real science done by Nasa has not involved humans. We have sent robots to places humans could never have survived and peered into the far depths of the cosmos, back to the early moments of the big bang, with instruments far more capable than our human senses, all for a fraction of what it costs to send a living, breathing person into Earth's orbit. The first rovers went to Mars for what it would cost to make a movie about sending Bruce Willis to Mars.

But science is not the real goal of human space travel. As I argued over a decade ago to the House Science Committee when Buzz Aldrin and I were asked to testify before their subcommittee on space exploration, we send humans into space for adventure. Astronauts inspire us by their courage and skill, and not least by the fact that they risk death every time they step into a spacecraft.

I personally have no problems with this fact. I believe the future of the human species will eventually be in space, and that we will one day colonise other planets. But we have to be honest about this goal.

I have been on stage with astronauts and watched how they inspire kids to dream big dreams. Indeed, I myself stayed home from school during every Apollo moon mission, and dreamed of one day walking on the moon myself.

Did those missions encourage me to become a scientist, or was I interested in them because of a pre-existing fascination with the cosmos? It is hard to say. But the inspiration associated with tackling problems as immense as those associated with sending humans away from their natural environment into the hostile reaches of space has ultimately produced a host of scientists and engineers who might otherwise have pursued other careers.

If we are going to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on human space travel, however, we need to have a rational plan, and one that can excite the imagination of the next generation of would-be scientists and explorers. The space shuttle did not provide such a plan.

As Richard Feynman himself said in his final report on the Challenger disaster: "Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."

Lawrence M Krauss is foundation professor and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, and the author of books including The Physics of Star Trek. His most recent book, Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science, was published in March

Comments in chronological order (Total 23 comments)

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  • DanteDAnthony

    21 July 2011 1:46PM

    except for maybe that "Science" isn't the only criteria of value and the human settlement of space, well, that ranks too. http://www.amazon.com/Mining-Sky-Untold-Asteroids-Planets/dp/0201328194 ...robots are not alive and "Without knowledge action is useless and knowledge without action is futile."
    -Abu Bakr

  • DanteDAnthony

    21 July 2011 1:55PM

    "But science is not the real goal of human space travel. As I argued over a decade ago to the House Science Committee when Buzz Aldrin and I were asked to testify before their subcommittee on space exploration, we send humans into space for adventure. " ....what a croc-"adventure". If you want to have an adventure, go to Vegas. Space settlement is the expansion of life and the subsequent economic benefit into the blind matter of the cosmos. Sentience-we are our own reason to be. We go out there for the same reason Australopithecus wandered out of Africa, why the Clovis braved the seashore to another continent and why every living thing since the trilobites sought to expand habitat. So our progeny can open their eyes, grow up,. fall in love, dream, sing, DANCE. Science and adventure are not ends in themselves-they are process in the scheme of life. Tools. To let us fall in love and sing.

  • Mazz0

    21 July 2011 1:55PM

    Did either of the first two posters read the whole article? He's not a killjoy, he's pro human space exploration, but for adventure, not science.

  • jaimie123

    21 July 2011 2:05PM

    i do not have to go to space as found 200 million to 500 million year rock at beach 3 weeks ago in oban but nobody interrested so why go too space when you have fantastic things on earth

  • cyberquill

    21 July 2011 2:08PM

    If, as you say, you believe the future of the human race will be in space, then learning how to survive in space seems crucial rather than a waste of money.

  • siener

    21 July 2011 2:11PM

    I was not yet born when the Apollo program was running. There's a fairly good chance that no human will set foot on the moon again in my lifetime.

    The space age for my generation is just an old history lesson.

    Prof Krauss is quick to deny younger generations the same kind of experiences that inspired him and his generation to such great heights.

  • occamrazor

    21 July 2011 2:16PM

    While I can respect this as an opinion piece, I simply cannot agree with it. This robot versus human space program debate has raged for decades now and the demise of the shuttle program does not add weight to the argument for excluding humans from space exploration.

    As with all things the right tool should be used for the right job and space exploration is no different. Sometimes the right tool is a robotic one and sometimes it is a human being.

    The space shuttle is (was?) a first generation attempt at a reusable space vehicle and it was a relative success considering that space exploration is less than a century old. It is still in its infancy.

    Should we have abandoned human aviation given the cost and failure rate of early flying machines? After a century of improvement has the failure rate not been significantly decreased?

    Financial cost is also not a sound argument. In the long term the financial cost simply does not matter.

    The human exploration of space will continue because it will evolve and improve. Less humans will die in accidents, the scientific gains will be improved and in turn the robotic tools will develop at an increased rate.

    Humanity has always striven to tame the environment and bend it to our will and space is no different. Consider also that unless we learn how to expand into the surrounding solar system the problems we face here on Earth will eventually come to a head in the form of overcrowding, famine or a lack of natural resources.

  • JR20111

    21 July 2011 2:22PM

    Speaking of disasters. Remember the Columbia disaster on Feb 1, 2003 ???? the shuttle disintegrated upon reentry into Earth's atmosphere. Very tragic. George W Bush thought it was fine to underfund NASA heavily that year. NASA was such in drie need of funds that they went looking on E-Bay for the heat absorbing foam rubber tiles for the Columbia shuttle.....NO LIE!!!!

  • Chronos

    21 July 2011 2:33PM

    Spot on Lawrence, great article.

    I love the work that NASA has done but the last few decades of manned 'exploration' have been a joke. We already knew about living in space from work done on Salyut, Skylab and Mir more than 30 years ago. More of the same isn't going to change any of that but NASA can't admit the the ISS really exists to give the Shuttle somewhere to go (and keep rocket scientists out of military work) and the Shuttle exists to go to the ISS. It's a staggeringly expensive, unscientific piece of circular reasoning that has drained resources from the really valuable unmanned projects.

    Most of the reasons for humans in space comes from the very early days (predating Vostok) when their presence was thought to be necessary to operate and maintain equipment. An early vision of a communications satellite was basically an orbiting telephone exchange and ideas for spy satellites revolved around the notion that they would be crewed to operate the surveillance equipment. The advent of minature computers meant that none of this was necessary or desirable and we have been left with people in space just for the sake of having people in space.

    Humans as we know them will never leave Earth in significant numbers. Machines, yes, cyborgs and transhumans, maybe, but nothing like us. It just doesn't make sense. It's far more likely that we would adapt ourselves for the hostile environment of space than try adapting space for our fragile bodies.

  • murraw

    21 July 2011 3:05PM

    @Chronos, so your argument is that human space travel isn't viable (on basis of cost) unless we engineer a race of augmented superhumans to undertake it, with all the cost and ethical quandaries that would entail ...

  • Contributor
    fanningtheflames

    21 July 2011 3:15PM

    we will send frozen black female embryos into space with automated growth and delivery systems to nurture them and educate them, we may then need to send them semen to grow the next generation on their new planets but after that they will be left to develop - we will not send any significant number of living humans to the stars.

  • Chronos

    21 July 2011 3:21PM

    @Murraw

    @Chronos, so your argument is that human space travel isn't viable (on basis of cost) unless we engineer a race of augmented superhumans to undertake it, with all the cost and ethical quandaries that would entail ...

    Human space travel mainly isn't viable in terms of energy or timescales, never mind cost.

    Humans who have elected to be modified in some fashion (I'm not suggesting anyone needs to engineer a super-race) might make more sense.

    More likely still is machines exploring and colonising the cosmos. They can be engineered to actually thrive in space and make use of what materials are out there.

    As for fanningtheflames idea of having machines raise humans from embryos, that is basically arguing for surrogate 'parents' that would effectively be artificial intelligences indistinguishable from humans. If we could do that, why not just send these thinking machines in the first place and not bother with fragile organic payloads?

  • JackFalstaff

    21 July 2011 3:22PM

    I can understand Lawrence Krauss kicking the space shuttle program: he's never been part of it professionally, as far as I know, and therefore has never had to decide that it's worth defending. One could say the same about any outsider with a beef.

    But criticising the space shuttle program because one can't see the scientific significance is like criticising your car because it doesn't teach you anything new. The primary remit of the space shuttle program has always been transport, not research; and the criticism that the shuttle didn't live up to the transport claims originally made for it are 20/20 hindsight.

    The space shuttle was not only an intermediary in the larger program of the utilisation of space, it also remains a mediator of meanings more complex and subtle than the simplistic labels "science" and "adventure." It was a token in the network that links politics, engineering, public science and mass romance. Boring? Only if your imagination is dead.

  • Swakker

    21 July 2011 4:12PM

    While it is sad that the NASA shuttle era is over, I am excited to see what happens to the private sector of space exploration. I think the same competition that fueled our desires to go into space will be recreated by the private companies determined to go into space. I think that the new NASA will continue to make some remarkable discoveries.
    I am glad the Atlantis made it back safely. Those astronauts made some great progress on the ISS and are a huge part of history. I wish them the best of luck with their future endeavors.

    Share your thoughts on the new changes to NASA with Swakker Shuttle for Iphone! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHrBhtNCvgY

  • terranidea

    21 July 2011 6:07PM

    At last, a voice of sanity. thank you Prof Krauss - btw I immensely enjoyed your book 'Physics of Star Trek'.

    Manned space flight is a pointless and expensive anachronism, dating from the fantasies of the 19th century, and 1950s comic books. The shuttle was just an overpriced pickup truck to nowhere. If you need to be heroic, be a firefighter. Future generations will think us crazy, for sending air-breathers to pointlessly goof around in low orbit, while a billion people have no clean drinking water. The International Space Toilet is a breathtakingly useless boondoggle. Humans cannot live on other planets in our system. Fantasies of 'space colonies' are juvenile nonsense. Robot missions will explore the universe for us. If, in unknown thousands of years, humanity is carried to the stars, it will be unrecognizable to us today, ie not in its present form.

    ##The first rovers went to Mars for what it would cost to make a movie about sending Bruce Willis to Mars.##

    Priceless! And so true.

  • fulmin8or

    21 July 2011 6:15PM

    "For the first time in 30 years Nasa has no immediate programme for human space travel in place."

    Incorrect.
    NASA's immediate HSF plan it to recoup some of the investment it has made in building the ISS. Apart from the various anticipated medical breakthroughs in osteoporosis; vaccines; protein crystals;... and whatever the Japanese are up to in their largely commercial Kibo Lab?
    The ISS now has a secondary function: to perfect the technologies and engineering of the next iteration. By 2028 our experience of repairing and maintaining the ISS will have provided salutary lessons in how to build its successor. Hopefully something in the mould of a mobile ISS like NAUTILUS-X.

    Just as the thirty years of Shuttle operations has lead to its successor: the X-37.
    (The latter is soon to get a reusable first stage and then perhaps an upgrade into a giant economy size capable of HSF. That is if Skylon doesn't reformulate the Rocket equation. And usher in the age of a true SSTO!)

    As to the primary ISS function? Well that has already been a success. Answering the the question: "Can we build something that big in space?"

    Yes we can!

    Furthermore NASA has stated time and time and time again that it is now focusing on promoting COMMERCIAL travel to LEO. Whilst developing a capsule capable of resisting the re-entry velocities of a returning Mars mission.

    "a failed programme that has been a colossal waste of resources, time and creative energy"

    Incorrect.
    The shuttle program and its fleet were always experimental craft and have provided a multiple lessons in how to design and operate a reusable spacecraft and also how not to design and operate a reusable spacecraft.
    None of this has been a waste. Your ill informed diatribe also insults every single person who has ever worked on the Shuttle program and the memory of 14 astronauts. Words fail me. (Well actually they don't but would get this comment deleted!)


    "The space shuttle failed to live up to its primary goal of providing relatively cheap and efficient human space travel."

    Incorrect.
    Congress and the Administration failed.

    Many authoritative figures in the 1980's and '90s pleaded with Executive and all layers of Government that,once built and tested, the Shuttle fleet be handed over to private hands. Then NASA could go on to the next big thing. An orbital space tug and a space station. Originally also parts of the Space Transportation System.

    The rest, as they say, is history and NASA metamorphosed from a design and research organisation into what I can only describe as a State Transportation System. An agency dedicated to just operations. On the way: losing the ability to design and even procure rockets! DC-X, X-33, X-38, Cx; etc.

    But it was worse than that.

    Rather than a streamlined operation contrained by government shareholder and commercial need and fixed price contracts the STS turned into the a chimeric three headed monster: gross inflation by the primary contractors busily sucking at the government teat; a second monopolistic echelon of contractors operating the Shuttles (ditto) and then a third of NASA (state) personnel checking the work of the checkers.

    " human space travel is risky"

    Incorrect.

    All the evidence is to the contrary. From the Soyuz which as an exemplary record; Shenzhou still an experimental vehicle and even Apollo.

    Even the Orbiter (Which is, de facto, the only part of the STS that will not make the transition to the SLS. That is if ATK and their Lobbyists have their way with Congress to continue to keep sucking at the govermnment teat...) is the safest RLV in the world and would have been safer if the original design had not been compromised by government, the military and the corporates. And safer still if NASA management had launched and operated the STS within its published launch parameters. The blame for Columbia and Challenger disasters was managerial not technical.

    "While Nasa managers had estimated the odds of a shuttle disaster to be microscopic, engineers estimated the loss rate at about 1 in 100 flights, which is close to the actual disaster rate."

    To be charitable; whilst I know that this too is incorrect, I offer the author to proviide references to back these assertions before I provide a more authoritative refutation.

  • fulmin8or

    21 July 2011 6:45PM

    @guardian I have been so incensed by the content of this piece that I did not note that it was filed under "News!?!" And "Science?!?"

    It should be in the Comment section IMHO.
    At the back, buried between an advert for pile cream and support stockings!

  • terranidea

    21 July 2011 8:00PM

    fulmin8or, old bean, here you are again with your senseless babble of acronyms, now 'incensed', by an eminent professor who dares to insult your fantasies with reason, and can actually write clear English. As with your fellow Flash Gordons, most of your assertions are wrong or imaginary. Unlike your beloved space fireworks, you seem to have a very short fuse. Calm down, dear! It's only a bit of vacuum. Isn't the Student Union bar open?

  • Chronos

    21 July 2011 8:26PM

    @fulmin8tor

    Just as the thirty years of Shuttle operations has lead to its successor: the X-37.

    If anything the X-37 is closer to the designs that pre-dated the shuttle like Dyna-soar and the X-24 before the military got their paws on the programme and spoiled it.

    Also it shows that space planes work better without humans - much cheaper to fly and easier to do long duration missions.

    That is if Skylon doesn't reformulate the Rocket equation. And usher in the age of a true SSTO

    I'd bet good money that Skylon will never fly and will certainly never make economic sense. I love it as a piece of pure technology but pouring $10 billion dollars or more into a medium lift system that has to compete with tried, tested and very cheap disposable launchers makes little sense. Demand for launches has remained static over the years and if you want to get things into space cheaply then short of a space elevator or Orion, the low cost way to do it will remain mass produced, simple launchers whose costs have long been amortised.

    As to the primary ISS function? Well that has already been a success. Answering the the question: "Can we build something that big in space?"

    There are two problems with that idea:

    1. Mir showed us we could already do modular assembly in space.

    2. It's a bit like building a chocolate skyscraper to answer the question of whether you can build a chocolate skyscraper. The real question is whether it has any value in the first place.

    As for whether the orbiter is the safest RLV in the world - isn't it the only RLV in the world? That's not much of a boast.

    Capsules are far better.

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