Was the Space Shuttle Program a Success?


Each week, Death by Science sends out an all-points bulletin for the latest science and technology news, tracks it down and beats a confession out of it. This week, we wake up, rub the sleep out of our eyes, roll over in bed and ask the Space Shuttle, “So, now what?”

(We had sex with the Space Shuttle.)

Now that the Space Shuttle Atlantis has lifted itself off its haunches and thrust into low orbit, our space program has its first ever “what now?” moment. Today’s launch marked the 135th and last time an American Space Shuttle and her crew attempted a mission. Said crew only consists of four members, not the usual six or seven, because if something goes wrong with the Shuttle after docking with the International Space Station, the astronauts will have to live there for a year.

The ISS would only be able to accommodate four American refugees and they’d have wait for Russian capsules to rescue them one-by-one. There aren’t any Space Shuttles waiting on standby anymore; if necessary, the rescue mission will have to be outsourced.

If everything goes to plan from start to finish, however, STS-135 will be one of the 133 successful missions NASA’s Space Shuttle program has performed. While Challenger and Columbia tragically were lost upon launch and reentry, respectively, that completion rate easily outshines the Apollo program, widely considered the peak achievement in the history of space exploration.

Still, people seem uneasy about deeming the program a success. The celebration and pomp surrounding today’s launch is like the graduation ceremony of an undergrad finishing their course load in six years; nobody is sure how to react.

Many are disappointed and see this as a sign of our once-proud space program in retrograde motion. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted the following:

But what was the purpose of the Space Shuttle in the first place? If NASA said that they wanted to make four multi-billion dollar museum pieces, then mission accomplished. Instead, their vision for the Space Shuttle was much more opaque.

Originally, when the program started under Richard Nixon, NASA had lofty plans to send a crew into space once a week. Their goal was to make space travel commonplace, for astronauts to slip the surly bonds of Earth and touch God in the face about as often as you go to the supermarket. Despite falling well short of their weekly-jaunt-to-the-stars projection, they achieved their goal of making space travel routine.

Space Shuttle missions never conjured the excitement of the Apollo missions. As Jerry Brown, then-Governor of California (and recently-elected third non-consecutive term Governor of the Golden State; they just can’t quit you, Jerry!) said in a New York Times Op-Ed after the first Shuttle mission in 1981, “The Apollo venture to the moon achieved its highly specific goal and then terminated from sheer success. It was an ends-based project: The shuttle by contrast is means-based – its ends are not known. We must create them.”

Some of the ends we created were successes. The Hubble Telescope and its repair mission were the two most notable, but most Americans would be hard-pressed to think of any others.

Building the International Space Station was an astonishing example of multi-national cooperation that will never be fully appreciated in America because other countries had to muck it up with their involvement. The Gemini and Apollo missions were thrilling and captivating because they served as a rocket-boosted “Fuck You” to the Soviets.

Even during the build-up to the Space Shuttle’s maiden voyage, an experiment dubbed by the New York Times on the day of its scheduled launch as “the riskiest, most technologically challenging space mission yet,” people weren’t fully impressed.

The Wall Street Journal said NASA’s biggest hurdle wasn’t a shoestring budget or technological resources, but rather “public apathy.” The only thing that really rallied national interest was when NASA officials received bonuses in 1980 despite the Shuttle program’s perceived failure. The Washington Post chronicled the fervor:

[The] thing that irritated House members is that the awards went to numerous executives in charge of various aspects of the space shuttle, now more than two years late in getting off the ground and more than $4 billion over budget. Editorials were written questioning the wisdom of this. Letters littered the halls of Congress demanding explanations.

Gerald Ford named the first Shuttle the “Enterprise” as homage to the ship in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. The Times called it a public relations “coup,” but anytime you have to name a real spaceship after an imaginary one in order to drum up excitement, it’s not a good sign.

The Shuttle’s inherent problem is hinted at during the title sequence of Star Trek:

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

The Shuttle was never meant to “boldly go where no man has gone before.” Its clearly-stated purpose was to go where man has already been and keep going there until we run out of money.

Well, we’ve run out of money and there are no concrete plans with funds pledged for a new manned American space mission.

George W. Bush promised to go to Mars, but that was more of a sleight of hand trick to distract people from every single other aspect of his administration.

It fought apathy and disinterest for decades, but Space Shuttles still managed to take off and land 133 times and make 37 trips to the International Space Station. Most importantly, every launch served as a reminder that for as long as we are here on Earth, we’re going to try our best to leave it.

The New York Times column that ran on the day of the first ever delayed Space Shuttle launch, a piece draped in uncertainty and full of questions, still closed with optimism:

Centuries from now, historians will not care whether the space agency’s budget was balanced. But they will certainly take note if the shuttle puts man in space for good.

What note will they take of a pretty decent 30-year run?