The US Space Shuttle Program, developed by NASA, undoubtedly sparked the imagination and rekindled humanity’s flame for space exploration. It was a spacecraft that could be partially reusable and capable of traveling to low Earth orbit.
But after 135 missions between 1981 and 2011, the launch of dozens of satellites, interplanetary probes, the Hubble Space Telescope and participation in the construction of the International Space Station, the United States ended the space shuttle program.
What was the reason that NASA decommissioned the space shuttles? The decision cost the United States the inability to launch its own astronauts into orbit from 2011 to 2020, when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon managed to transport four crew members to the International Space Station.
The 30-year space shuttle mission
Introduced to the public in 1972 as a “truck for space,” NASA’s goal was to have a reusable, high-rotation shuttle capable of carrying humans and cargo into low-Earth orbit. It was also intended to be used to develop a space station and later to be replaced by a new generation ship.
But plans to make an American space station evolved into the International Space Station, a joint effort between NASA (USA), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada). The changes led to long periods of delay and consequently the extension of the space shuttle program.
NASA planned to end shuttle flights in 2010, after the STS-132 mission. But after the delay of the last two flights to 2011, they decided to keep it. It even led to discussions in Congress to allocate more budget and extend the life of the program. Unsuccessfully.
Finally, on July 21, 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis landed at the Kennedy space station in Cape Canaveral, Florida (United States), marking the last flight of the program, STS-135.
His replacement, to date, has not materialized. And all efforts by NASA to jump-start a space shuttle program have suffered significant delays of up to five years.
Why did the United States cancel the space shuttle program?
Contrary to what many believe, the accidents of the Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, although they played a crucial role in the decision, they were not the only motivation to end the program. A series of broken promises around the space shuttle that could never materialize also came into play.
Many of those expectations were catapulted around the time plans to build a space shuttle began, back when the United States was still carrying astronauts to the moon.
At that time, the program was planned with a much higher budget and much more ambitious goals. But as the space shuttle’s first test flight approached using the prototype Enterprisereality loomed: the costs would be absolutely crazy.
The average budget for each space shuttle launch was about $450 million. Significantly greater than original plans during the planning phase of the program. NASA’s goal was to save space travel enough to make it a normal activity. But the operating costs were so huge that they were never able to reduce them enough.
Furthermore, the theory was that the space shuttle would end the era of disposable rockets. In practice, that never happened: it was always much cheaper to send things—and even humans—into space the traditional way, that is, using rockets. This happens to this day, except for SpaceX which has found a way to reuse them.
2. Calendar and launch frequency
The sheer fantasy of the original space shuttle launch schedule also came into play. The original plan was to achieve a high rotation, that is, that the time between landing and take-off of the next shuttle is short. In reality, the shortest time achieved by NASA was 54 days, with a much higher average. Especially after the Challenger tragedy, when they started averaging 88 days between launches.
The harsh reality is that the inspection, transportation, and logistics processes involved in each launch were grueling. One of the weak points of the program, in terms of time and safety, were the thermal tiles in the lower part of the ship, necessary to re-enter the atmosphere. They were much more fragile than initially believed and required individual inspection after the landing of the space shuttle.
Each tile is unique, so it was not possible to replace one with another that was in a warehouse. An exact replacement had to be manufactured. That required time and immense amounts of money.
The plan was also to have the space shuttle always take off and land at Cape Canaveral, Florida, which practically never happened. Many times the shuttle landed in Texas and needed to be transported for its next launch at the Kennedy Space Center using modified Boeing 747 aircraft, which further increased costs and turnaround times.
Fewer liftoffs meant fewer flights, reducing the actual usefulness of the space shuttle and the program’s capitalization opportunities to increase its lifespan.
And finally, yes, security. What at one point in the mid-1980s began to be considered routine, both by American society and government, proved not to be so with the catastrophe of the Challenger in 1986. Major structural flaws in the ship were revealed, and a significant series of negligence during the construction process, especially in the search to reduce unexpected exorbitant costs.
17 years later, in 2003, with the disintegration of the Columbia, during its return to the atmosphere, the worst fears of the US government, NASA and any enthusiast of the program, materialized. As routine as it sounds, the space shuttle launch is an extremely complex process and much more dangerous than anyone realized. In both cases, all the crews died.
In a speech made by George W. Bush in 2004, the start of the process of finalizing the space shuttle program was announced. He made no mention of the future of the space program or the next generation of shuttles — or any other way of getting humans into space.
That forced NASA to rely on the Russian space program to put humans and objects into space. Between 2011 and 2020, every time an American astronaut went to the International Space Station, he did so on a Soyuz rocket. The landscape has changed since SpaceX demonstrated that it can put men into space with the Crew Dragon.
Are there plans for a new NASA space shuttle
NASA has the Artemis program through which they want to put a man back on the Moon in 2025. It would be the first time that the United States has achieved this since Apollo 17 in 1972.
As part of these efforts, the Space launch system, which in turn arises from the canceled Constellation Project. It is a shuttle for space exploration to replace the shuttle.
The other component of the Artemis program is the ship Orion designed by Lockheed Martin, although its service module is the responsibility of the European Space Agency, which in turn derived its development to Airbus.
Orion’s big advantage is its ability to support a four-person crew beyond low Earth orbit. They can survive up to 21 days completely independently, and up to 6 months if docked to another ship or station.
The problem is that the first launch of the SLS has been delayed no less than 16 times. At the same time, private initiatives to go out into space, reach the Moon, and even Mars, are becoming more and more numerous, achieving ever greater achievements. Endangering the future of space exploration by NASA.
Rachel Maga is a technology journalist currently working at Globe Live Media agency. She has been in the Technology Journalism field for over 5 years now. Her life’s biggest milestone is the inside tour of Tesla Industries, which was gifted to her by the legend Elon Musk himself.