Did you know that two significant events in spaceflight took place in 1969? The first was the first manned landing on the moon, on July 20, 1969. The second is a little less known. Buoyed by the success of the space program, President Nixon made the fateful decision to launch the Space Shuttle program in that same year.
The cost for the project was estimated to be about five billion dollars to deliver stuff to orbit at $118 per pound. The “space shuttle” was intended to fly much like a plane – cheap and easily serviced, with flights every few weeks and massive cargo capacity.
When the Shuttle was finally completed in 1981, the reality was a bit different. First, the shuttle was 20% too heavy, so it couldn’t actually deliver the military payloads it was designed to fly. That left the civilian market. Unfortunately, the actual cost was $27,000 per pound delivered to orbit. Finally, the overhaul after each flight actually took many months and cost $1.5 billion, making regular “shuttle” service impractical. Compounding the cost was the fact that the shuttle tends to explode with cargo and crew every decade or so, and thus costs years of idleness and a dozen billion or so in redesign costs. In other words, the program was a total failure before the shuttle ever got off the ground.
If a car maker tried to sell a car that cost 228 times what was promised, could fit only half the advertised passengers, and had to be refurbished after every drive, they might not do so well in the market, especially when a much cheaper alternative was available. The Soviet Soyuz launcher designed in 1965 costs under a tenth of the Shuttle and has now in fact replaced it.
When the government was faced with the same problem, it decided to “invent” a market for the shuttle instead. Thus came about thousands of useless space experiments and a useless $160 billion space station, which is scheduled to be demolished in 2016. In other cases, satellites which used to be launched by cheap expendable rockets were redirected to the shuttle, actually delaying the launch and ballooning the costs.
Finally, after 30 years of flying a 1970′s era design, the shuttle has flown its last. Imagine if other technologies had been likewise monopolized by the State. We’d still be driving rusty gas guzzlers with giant fins and after-burner tail lights, computing on enormous mainframes with punch cards, calling from home on rotary phones, and listening to music on LP’s. And forget about microwaves and calculators! (Of course, even these things were created by the market.)
The best hope for the next 30 year of spaceflight is that a private company such as SpaceX takes over. But with the government as their biggest customer, I wouldn’t plan a vacation to the moon just yet.