My understanding is the shuttle was designed as cost-effective workhorse, a space-van to ferry cargo up to the ISS, conduct zero-G experiments and put satellites into orbit.

So why didn't NASA take money from the private sector to do these later two on the behalf of corporations? Or even restock the ISS on the behalf of other government organizations such as ESA and RFSA? I don't feel the public would have objected, if all the money had all gone on future space exploration. Maybe NASA could even have become a self-sustaining government organization, shutting up all nay sayers who think space exploration is a waste of taxes.

Or was the space shuttle program a huge financial failure, considering Russia scrapped their shuttles, the ISS gets restocked by capsules launched by traditional staged rockets (Soyuz and Falcon 9?) and private companies launch their new satellites with staged rockets?

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    $\begingroup$ "..if all the money had all gone on future space exploration." Logically, only the profit could have been assigned to other uses. (And I doubt there would have been much, if any, of that.) $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ Also bear in mind that endeavors like Space X have the advantage of decades of research that preceded it, including incalculable benefits learned from the space shuttle program (even excluding whatever information about that program is still classified). $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 20:30
  • $\begingroup$ What does "financial failure" mean? "Failure," I can understand, but I did not think that the space shuttle program was intended to finance any other program. I thought it was an end in itself. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 24, 2019 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – called2voyage
    Commented Nov 9, 2021 at 14:58

7 Answers 7


Your question is based on a false assumption namely:

So why didn't NASA take money from the private sector to do these later two on the behalf of corporations?

NASA did take money from the private sector to do these things. The STS-5, STS-7, STS-8, STS-41-B, STS-41-D, STS-51-A, STS-51-D, STS-51-G, STS-51-I, STS-61-B, and STS-61-C Space Shuttle missions all launched comsats for paying customers. The original plan, ridiculous as it was in hindsight, was for STS to be the sole US launcher of all payloads.

However, after the loss of the Orbiter Challenger only seconds into mission STS-51-L, US policy was changed to only allow the Shuttle to launch scientific and military payloads that required human presence. This destroyed any economic rationale for making STS self supporting or a revenue generator.

The first 4 missions were test flights, so omitting them, you can see that 11 of the 21 "operational" missions before the policy change carried commercial satellite payloads, often multiple, up to 3 comsats per mission. A total of 18 commercial satellites were deployed from the Shuttle. Commercial payloads were very important. Coke and Pepsi even paid to fly their products on STS for promotional purposes.

photo of an experimental Coke machine flown on the shuttle

Now, did the planned economics make sense? Almost certainly never. Cost projections were based on unrealistic flight rates so the efficiencies of scale were never going to happen.

Data on early comsat launches culled from Space Shuttle Missions Summary

Shuttle commercial launch pricing policy, circa 1985:

(Text on page before scanned page:)

The price charged to a customer is based on the percentage of the Orbiter's weight or length capability that the customer's payload uses. To determine these load factors, the total weight (including all support equipment) and the total length (including 6 inches for

page from the cited document showing that payload pricing was a function of the "load factor" - the fraction of available payload bay size or throw weight the payload consumed

Source: STS Customer Accomodations JSC-21000-HBK

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    $\begingroup$ Imagine an STS catching fire because the "experimental coke machine" had a fault in it... Oof... $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 25, 2018 at 23:11

The Space Shuttle was designed to be inexpensive, but in the first launch, it was actually found to be quite a bit more expensive than it was thought. The shuttle was supposed to take only a week or two to turn around, in which case it would have been a very effective launch vehicle. Instead, the tiles ended up needing replacing after every flight, which ended up taking months, instead of a week. If you can't launch the Shuttle very often, then the cost goes up enormously. As it stands, the cost to launch the Shuttle was about $450 million per mission, far higher than even the most expensive rocket today.

Post-Challenger, there were additional restrictions on what items the Shuttle could carry into space. This became an issue for the Galileo mission, for instance, that originally intended to have another stage on board, that was removed because of potential issues. There are many material limitations on what the Shuttle would carry, due to it's requirement to protect the humans on board. Also, the cost of life of an Astronaut had to be considered any time the Shuttle was launched.

As for the zero g experiments, NASA was willing to host some of those, with the request that the science all be returned to the public. Feel free to take a look at the partners that NASA had with the shuttle experiments.

In the early days of the Shuttle, as @OrganicMarble mentioned, NASA did launch some commercial satellites. Post-Challenger, it was deemed too risky to do so, and instead focused on scientific and military payloads. Afterward, NASA did occasionally launch some satellites, but mostly only for schools as a means to inspire people to the future.

NASA might some day be able to take funds, but it isn't set up right now. And I don't think anyone would actually pay NASA to launch anything, it's costs are far higher than any rocket launch provider.

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    $\begingroup$ The Shuttle was initially conceived to have been inexpensive. It was designed to be expensive by the time the congress critters got through with interfering with the design. The never-used ability to launch from Vandenberg, snatch a Russian spy satellite, and return to Vandenberg one orbit later resulted in those oversized wings. The never-used ability to launch a KH-9 resulted in a very large cargo bay (although NASA did put that to use). $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 22:31
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    $\begingroup$ Really what added to the expense of the shuttle was the tiles, which had to be inspected and many of them replaced. Each tile was unique as well. They didn't realize that until the first Shuttle landed. And there were all those other expenses as well... $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 23:15
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    $\begingroup$ "They didn't realize that until the first Shuttle landed."....umm, not so much. Hundreds of tiles (40%) blew off Columbia on the first ferry flight from Palmdale to KSC and delayed the first launch significantly. Tiles and the SSMEs were always recognized as cost and schedule problems. nytimes.com/2003/02/03/us/… $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 0:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Luaan - NASA never has been and probably never will be the only space capable agency in the US. That the Shuttle was a joint NASA / Air Force project was something foisted on both by Congress. The US military space program (Air Force Space Command and others) is comparable in size to its civilian space program (NASA). $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 7:01
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    $\begingroup$ Launching from Vandenberg, delivering a classified satellite and coming back to Vandenberg in one orbit -- that was DRM 3A. DRM 3B involved going up empty from Vandenberg and coming back to from Vandenberg one orbit later with a classified satellite in one orbit. Both scenarios share a common problem. In one orbit, Vandenberg has rotated eastward by 1200+ miles. Those two DRMs are the singular reason why the Shuttle had such big wings. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 23:02

One perspective from "Stonekettle Station: Pie in the Sky" (via the glorious Project Rho), edits and emphasis mine:

The objectives of our space program are many and varied, but none of those objectives will ever lead to the kind of self-sustaining commercial ventures visualized in the popular speculation of the Golden Age.

The Shuttle is a perfect example. Government cannot build a spaceship—at least not a very efficient one. The Shuttle as first designed was supposed to make access to space simple and cheap. Getting out of Earth’s gravity well and into LEO is the hardest part of space travel. That first step is a doozy, but once you’re in orbit, you’re halfway to anywhere in the Solar System. The Shuttle was supposed to do that for us. And even with 1970’s technology, the Shuttle could have made access to space relatively cheap and easy and a whole lot safer.

Instead we got just exactly the opposite.

Why? Because NASA engineers didn’t build the shuttle, Congress did.

And the lawmakers on Capitol Hill don’t give a fart in a spacesuit about exploration. To them, the Shuttle meant, and still means, jobs and pork and votes. By the time Congress got done redesigning the Shuttle it was astounding that the damned thing could even clear the pad. Gone were the safety features like air-breathing engines that would have let the ship abort a landing and make a once around on final approach, gone was the piloted reusable main booster, gone was the simplicity that would have gotten rid of much of the previous Apollo infrastructure. Gone too was the once-a-week turnaround time from recovery to relaunch that would have made efficient use the economies-of-scale and reduced ground-to-orbit costs to dollars a pound instead of tens of thousands of dollars per pound. To this day parts are manufactured all across the country, many as far from the launch and assembly site as it is possible to get and still be on the same continent, because Senators and Representatives from powerful states like California insisted that it be so. The ship does nothing well, it’s too complicated and it requires far too much infrastructure, it’s a poor lift vehicle, it’s a poor science platform, it’s a poor crew vehicle and it falls short of the original design and concept in almost every way. Everybody got a piece of the Shuttle and as a result it shudders into orbit like Frankenstein’s Monster and the fact that it’s only blown up twice in 30 years is a minor miracle in itself.

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    $\begingroup$ The Challenger Disaster was a direct consequence of this: The launch failed because of a of a faulty O-ring in the SRB. The SRB had O-rings because it was assembled from multiple parts instead of one long tube. It was assembled from multiple parts because one long tube was too big to be transported from the factory to the launch site. It had to be transported because the factory was in Utah. Why was the factory in Utah? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 31, 2015 at 11:30
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    $\begingroup$ @OwenBoyle - the factory was in Utah because it's where the government placed solid rocket plants soon after WWII. It's not bad if you make use of existing facilities and experience of engineers at an already existing plant. You can't manufacture everything near the pad. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 1, 2015 at 8:00
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    $\begingroup$ @OscarBravo The factory was in Utah because Thiokol bought land there to use as a test range. Presumably, they bought land in Utah because it was relatively cheap (you need a lot of it) and wasn't full of people who lived there. They presumably put their factory there because it's useful to have your factory near your testing grounds. And Thiokol was a reasonable choice to build the SRBs because they already had a lot of experience doing exactly that (e.g., the Minuteman missile motors and the Atlas solid fuel boosters). $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 13, 2017 at 18:56
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby Thiokal was the 4th place bidder in the competition to build the SRBs. They were awarded the contract because NASA needed Utah's congressional votes. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 18:16
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    $\begingroup$ @jean I mean, no? The question asks "Why didn't NASA use the shuttle to make a profit?" The answer is that the shuttle was not profitable. And the reason it was not profitable was that "NASA engineers didn’t build the shuttle, Congress did."¶ This isn't an argument against government (in-particular NASA is part of the government), but against Congressional pork-barrelling. The 2010 article also predates most of e.g. SpaceX's commercial success. $\endgroup$
    – geometrian
    Commented Apr 25, 2019 at 18:16

Beside the good answers (I like this) you already have, there is still an important fact left uncovered:

All the answers I read are just about launch costs, but there is also the factor price of the payload.

When taking a payload to space with the space shuttle, the payload has to be certified for human space flight having effects on every nut and bolt and raising massively the payload's cost. So beside the "how expensive the launch is" part, it also ends up with higher costs for the payload, which one would not have using an unmanned launcher...

  • $\begingroup$ do you have a source for how much more expensive the commercially launched payloads were as a result of having to be man-rated? $\endgroup$
    – user20636
    Commented Sep 4, 2020 at 8:15
  • $\begingroup$ I have this information from someone who build a payload (it was nothing special but a reentry-experiment for my university in the 80ties) for a space shuttle flight, so nothing I can share, it was an oral information. Things he mention, driving cost where e.g. x-raying every metalpart, stricter outgassing-restrictions for every plastic part. He specially mention the screws and bolds, which had to fullfill higher standards. If he mention a factor, i do not remember it, but he said costs were significant higher. $\endgroup$
    – CallMeTom
    Commented Sep 4, 2020 at 9:08
  • $\begingroup$ @JCRM: I tried to find a source for my statement, couldn't find a short "certified for human spaceflight" but instead I found the space shuttle payload requirements, a massive bunch of paper. I once worked with the requirements for the (unmanned) Mitshubishi H-2A and the Delta4 rockets, the structural part were two A4 pages from which one page was only figures. After reading the second document how to secure structural integrety of the shuttle payload, I figure out that it is not so important for me to proof I am right... But that is already proofing, there a more requirements for the payload $\endgroup$
    – CallMeTom
    Commented Sep 5, 2020 at 7:41
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    $\begingroup$ that sounds like a great reference $\endgroup$
    – user20636
    Commented Sep 5, 2020 at 9:59
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    $\begingroup$ As a start I found (Chapter 6.1) spacecraft.ssl.umd.edu/design_lib/STS21492.PL_users_guide.pdf . There are a lot of references on other documents. As a valid source for my statement, it would be neccessary to get deep in all this reference documents and compare it with the requirements of other unmanned lauchers (as I said, I once had the H2-A and Delta4 one). But I am honest: I am not keen on doing this work nor have I time for that. I also do not have a source for university students for which this would be a perfect homework/assignment (I do not think it is enough for a BA Thesis). $\endgroup$
    – CallMeTom
    Commented Sep 5, 2020 at 10:20

NASA isn't in business; it's a branch of government. Governments don't exist for the purpose of turning a profit like most corporations do. The primary goal of the Space Shuttle was cheap and reliable access to space. Unfortunately, for various reasons as covered in other answers, it failed to deliver on that promise. While the Shuttle was in service, other launchers were delivering commercial payloads to space because they were more cost-effective, capable, or available for the mission required. In other words, the Shuttle would have been incapable of delivering a profit from a commercial launch business because it would have been out-competed on price or unable to perform the mission required.

However, the Shuttle did offer some unique capabilities, which made it the vehicle of choice for certain missions. For one thing, only the Shuttle could recover an object from orbit and bring it safely down to Earth - such as a faulty satellite or experiment package not designed/equipped to re-enter/touchdown/splashdown on its own. When you're the only option for a niche service where the job must get done, cost takes a back seat. But, with no charter to deliver a profit, you just charge out at cost anyway.


The Space Shuttle could have made money as technically it performs very well at delivering large payloads to the ISS (Falcon 9 rockets cost 1.39X more to deliver people and payloads to the ISS according to my table below). The Space Shuttle is probably is not as nimble and adaptable as other smaller systems - both technically and from a pace-of-business perspective. For smaller business opportunities, it would be like trying to use an A380 airliner to serve numerous small rural communities.

Comparison of Costs - Space Shuttle to Falcon 9


In response to @user20636 and @user3049's request for better references, while I do not have additional references for the above table, I do have some newer and more up-to-date sources of information that might be helpful.

The new sources may help answer the original poster's question, "Why didn't NASA use the shuttle to make a profit?" These sources provide some perspective on how much it costs NASA to pay other companies for transportation services to and from the ISS. With that perspective, it becomes apparent that the Shuttle may have been a cost-effective solution to the problem. While I don't think that it was NASA's mandate to "Make a Profit" in the traditional sense, it certainly was their goal to stretch their budget as far as it could go.

If we think of space transportation services as a make-versus-buy decision, then they chose "make". They perhaps profited handsomely (in the sense that they got a lot done with their budget) by making that decision - although I will certainly acknowledge that this is a debatable point. They also partnered up with the DoD which helped them to achieve even more with the same funds.

Ok, the new sources that I'm aware of that are relevant to the table above are...

Adjusting for Inflation

U.S. BUREAU OF LABOR STATISTICS is the traditional method.

NASA has its own way of adjusting for inflation called the NASAs New Start Inflation Index.

It is important to adjust for inflation if the goal is an accurate apples-to-apples comparison over decadal timescales. It is also important to use a common reference mission. That is, be careful not to compare the cost of resupplying the ISS using the Space Shuttle to the cost of launching satellites to LEO using modern rockets. ISS resupply involves a round-trip that includes additional cost and mass for deorbiting, reentering, safely touching down, etc. It's best to use the same mission for both systems when comparing them.



For accountants: This approach involves a lot of work but it's more likely to give you ground-truth results if you don't make any accounting errors. You will need to find the ISS resupply contracts including NNH15CN76C, NNH15CN77C, NNJ16GX08B, NNJ16GU21B, NNJ16GX07B, NNJ09GA04B, NNK14MA74C, NNK17MA01T, NNK16MA58T, NNK16MA03T, and 80KSC019F014. (There may be more.) With these spreadsheets in hand, you can tally up where NASA has spent or is spending money on ISS commercial resupply services.

Office of The Inspector General (OIG)

Audit Of Commercial Resupply Services To The International Space Station

Lots of good data in this 2018 report including:

"Dragon 1 maximum combined pressurized and unpressurized upmass is 3,310 kg" (footnote 31 on page 9)

"Dragon 2 Upmass Per Mission ... 3307 kg" (Table 1, page 12)

"Cost Per Kilogram ... $71,800(Projected)" (Table 3, page 21)

NASA Press Release

"NASA Awards SpaceX More Crew Flights to Space Station"

In this press release, NASA says that Crew-10, Crew-11, Crew-12, Crew-13, and Crew-14 flights will cost USD 1,436,438,446, which works out to roughly USD 287,287,689 per flight, or USD 86,873 per kg if you assume the maximum payload of 3307 kg from the OIG report above.

Final Thoughts

It's probably worth noting that in a big-picture sense, NASA pays more per kg because they also award contracts to other launch providers, such as Boeing and Sierra Nevada. As of Dec 2023, these other providers' launch systems are not in service the way SpaceX's system is. There is also the cost of operating the Kennedy Space Center to consider. I do not have information on how this cost is accounted for but it should be included in a truly comprehensive cost analysis.

  • $\begingroup$ rather late, but those appear to be maximum payloads per flight. There were some STS resupply flights and have been Dragon resupply flights - could you also do a table of actual payloads (excluding the container) delivered (for crew dragon, I would suggest taking the contracted three(?) people per launch) $\endgroup$
    – user20636
    Commented Sep 4, 2020 at 8:24
  • $\begingroup$ Could you please include the source for the data from the table? $\endgroup$
    – user3049
    Commented Sep 4, 2020 at 11:08
  • $\begingroup$ For Falcon, oig.nasa.gov/docs/IG-18-016.pdf#bi, Table 1: CRS-2 Contractor Capabilities. Shuttle's cost reference formula was "=450/224.939*256.092", so probably Wikipedia's $450M number for 2011 converted to 2019 currency. $\endgroup$
    – phil1008
    Commented Sep 6, 2020 at 2:15
  • $\begingroup$ I was unsure about whether to use the contracted 3 people per Dragon or the design target of 7. I figured that the mission defined here is to send a total of 56 people and 112350 kg of cargo to the ISS. I figured that if SpaceX were contracted to do that without constraints, they would probably choose to send 7 people per Crew Dragon flight. But if NASA said "SpaceX, your claim of 7 crew per Dragon is BS. In practice it can transport max three.", then it would better to update the table and increase the number of Crew Dragon flights. $\endgroup$
    – phil1008
    Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 18:31

The shuttle was conceived as a cost-effective launch vehicle, but by the time they actually had built one they could launch, it had been designed to do so many other things that it was no longer actually cost-effective. They stayed true to their original plans to sell satellite launch capability, however their costs were so high that this was an enormous money-loser for NASA. Worse, by charging low prices, they put would-be cheaper companies (such as Starstruck) out of business.


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