The Space Shuttle Atlantis landed back on earth Thursday, bringing an era to an end. For the first time in 30 years, NASA has no program for human space travel. While many are mourning this loss, the end of the space-shuttle program provides an opportunity to rethink space exploration, and to cut losses from a failed program that has been a colossal waste of resources, time and creative energy.
The space-shuttle program failed to live up to its primary goal of providing relatively cheap and efficient human space travel. There is good reason for this.
As the engineers made clear to the physicist Richard Feynman when he was investigating the cause of the Challenger explosion in 1986, human space travel is risky. While NASA managers had estimated the odds of a shuttle disaster as microscopic, engineers had estimated the loss rate at about one in 100 flights, which is close to the actual loss rate of two shuttles in 135 flights.
Not only has the shuttle program been costly—some $5 billion yearly over the past decade—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 $100 billion space-station boondoggle orbiting no farther from Earth than Washington 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 to keep them alive up there. 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 emerged from a generation's worth of round trips in near-earth orbit.
Yes, there have been highlights, and such things as the Hubble Space Telescope launch and repair missions were not only exciting, but useful. However, the real question is whether they were necessary to achieve the science goals. The initial repair mission was required because of poor engineering on the ground, which may be the fault of the decision to deploy the telescope from the space shuttle.
Compare the multibillion yearly price tag for the shuttle program (leading to estimates ranging between $500 million and $1.5 billion per launch for the 135 missions) to the total cost of, say, $5 billion to $7 billion over more than a decade for the Next Generation Space Telescope. It makes one wonder, as the University of Maryland's Robert Park 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 manned ship to repair the old one.
Certainly, the shuttle program can't be justified on the grounds that it helped us build the International Space Station. The station is a largely useless international make-work project that was criticized by every major science organization in this country. All that can be said for its scientific justification is that it now houses a $2 billion particle-physics experiment that managed to avoid serious scientific peer review early on; 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 small 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. I believe the future of the human species is, eventually, in space, and that we will one day colonize 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 stayed home from school during every Apollo moon mission just so I could follow it, and dreamed of one day walking on the moon myself. The lure of problems as immense as those associated with sending humans away from their natural environment into the hostile reaches of space has in turn produced a host of scientists and engineers who might otherwise have pursued other careers.
Yet if we are going to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on human space travel, 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 or inspiration. 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."
Mr. Krauss is a professor and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. His most recent book, "Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science," was published in March by Norton/Atlas.