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July 06, 2011

Space Shuttle Program was a $209 billion mistake

MIT Technology Review - The Space Shuttle program's benefits weren't worth the cost—and now the U.S. is in jeopardy of repeating the same mistake, says a leading space policy expert.

* 135 shuttle launches since 1981
* Other, simpler designs were considered in 1971 in the run-up to President Nixon's final decision; in retrospect, taking a more evolutionary approach by developing one of them instead would probably have been a better choice.
* The program cost $209.1 billion (in 2010 dollars)
* NASA administrator James Fletcher told Congress in 1972 that the shuttle would cost $5.15 billion to develop and could be operated at a cost of $10.5 (1972 dollars) million per flight.

So actually it was (1972) $278 million per flight ($200 billion with 5.33 times inflation factors and 135 flights so 26 times more than the $10.5 million.)



The Space Shuttle was not able to create a serious legacy of infrastructure in space and did not advance a technology base to enable cheaper flights. The launches and science could have been achieved at less than 10% of the cost.

The space program was really a government pork program with a label of space. Most of the money went to facilities and jobs on the ground in the districts of powerful congressmen and senators. It also kept the main defence/aerospace contractors fully budgeted. NASA was only about one third of it. The military and spy agency space programs were twice as large.

The collapse of the cold war saw Russia degenerate into a kleptocracy.

Klebnikov's Godfather of the Kremlin, by contrast, is well-documented. Klebnikov, who covers Russia for Forbes magazine, taps intelligence sources as well as interviews with the tycoons and their enemies, getting them to spill the dirt on each other. The result is a colorful--and, I would guess, accurate--portrait of the corrupt world of Russian politics and business.

Klebnikov's main subject is Russia's most prominent crony capitalist--Boris Berezovsky, the mathematician-turned-tycoon who insinuated himself into the top echelons of power. Klebnikov lays out Berezovsky's modus operandi: He doesn't create wealth. He destroys it by looting virtually every business he touches. These include Aeroflot, Russia's national airline, and ORT, the Russian public-television channel. Klebnikov presents Berezovsky as a power-hungry, manipulative, ruthless person. ''Berezovsky's success was due in part to his relationship with some of Russia's strongest gangsters,'' the author writes. ''He was a man of big ideas, drawing up a grand strategy and leaving his subordinates and intermediaries to deal with the execution.''

Klebnikov criticizes the Clinton Administration for failing to recognize that the Yeltsin regime was a ''kleptocracy.'

The lack of real competitor in space and a true military competitor let the United States be massively wasteful with its spending. The United States had a moderately less blatant kleptocracy. There was no accountability in terms of delivering true benefits or really advancing capabilities.

How many space-DARPA's, Spacex's, Bigelow Aerospaces should have been funded and developed ?

DARPA gets about $3-4 billion per year.

List of DARPA achievements.

1) Stealth Technology for Aircraft
2) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
3) The Internet

SpaceX developed and launched the Falcon 9 heavy lift rocket booster for $390 million.

By 2010, Bigelow had invested US$180 million in the company. Bigelow has stated on multiple occasions that he is prepared to fund Bigelow Aerospace with about US$500 million through 2015 in order to achieve launch of full-scale hardware.

Hopefully a new era with Spacex, Bigelow Aerospace, VASIMR and other companies and systems will get some real advances happening with space.

Hopefully real economic competition from China (and then later India) will force greater efficiency and effectiveness with all United States spending and development.




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