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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    $\begingroup$ It wasn't really that cost effective, and post-Challenger restrictions made it even more difficult, limiting fuel on spacecraft that were taken to orbit by the Shuttle. $450 million per launch is very expensive... The costs ended up being a lot higher than they were supposed to be. As for the laboratory, well, one could make an argument for that, but even then, it would be expensive. $\endgroup$ – PearsonArtPhoto Jul 29 '15 at 13:31
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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.) $\endgroup$ – Andrew Thompson Jul 29 '15 at 13:32
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    $\begingroup$ "Space X is making a booming trade though. I guess the shuttle really was just a colossal waste of money." I don't think one follows from the other. Don't forget, Space-X was established as a commercial entity from the get-go (and decades later). They had access to technologies that weren't available when creating the shuttle, and perhaps even access to tech. that would not have existed if not for the shuttle. Part of the decision to create the shuttle was to test and prove new technologies & new ways of doing things. Some of those things were highly successful, others, less so. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Thompson Jul 29 '15 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ The real value of the Space Shuttle was to bring humans and large amounts of cargo together into orbit. There is nothing that replaces it. The ISS can kind of do some of the things that the Space Shuttle could. Still, there are few commercial missions that require the things that the Space Shuttle could do. $\endgroup$ – PearsonArtPhoto Jul 29 '15 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ Shuttle was designed from the beginning to construct and service space stations. Reference Wingo's book Space Shuttle, 1992 edition, page 66, first paragraph. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Jul 29 '15 at 18:14

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.

enter image description here

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 NASA TM-2011-216142

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    $\begingroup$ Imagine an STS catching fire because the "experimental coke machine" had a fault in it... Oof... $\endgroup$ – Magic Octopus Urn Jun 25 '18 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). $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Jul 29 '15 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 Jul 29 '15 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/… $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Jul 30 '15 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). $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Jul 30 '15 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. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Jul 30 '15 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? $\endgroup$ – Oscar Bravo Jul 31 '15 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. $\endgroup$ – Deer Hunter Aug 1 '15 at 8:00
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    $\begingroup$ While I take the point of this, it's kind of silly to say that Congress "built the shuttle". $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Aug 2 '15 at 16:33
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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). $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Aug 13 '17 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. $\endgroup$ – SafeFastExpressive Feb 5 '18 at 18:16

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 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.


protected by TildalWave Aug 2 '15 at 16:03

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