The American space shuttle program was, from what I understand, a radically different approach to space exploration at the time of its inception. With the enormous changes in technology and knowledge accrued in the 30+ years since then, I want to know: is the space shuttle program considered a financial success compared to other programs?

To be more explicit: looking back, would it have been more cost-effective to use other technologies and approaches to explore space rather than the 'reusable' Space shuttles? Did they enable us to do anything we could not do with "conventional" technologies? Were conventional tactics any cheaper to manufacture/launch?

To cite an example (Why didn't NASA use the shuttle to make a profit?) - the shuttle's primary advantage was "cost efficiency", but apparently this was proven to be a fiction after only one launch. If the greatest advantage of a program disappeared after just one launch, one would imagine the program would become worthless, yet it continued for thirty years.

What made NASA shut down the Shuttle program?
Wikipedia's article on space shuttle criticisms

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    $\begingroup$ I would drop the "by modern standards" part of the question. STS was not an economic success as measured by its own stated goals on program acceptance. STS' non-financial success is a bit more debatable. $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Feb 5, 2016 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ You have IMHO too many questions here. Was it a financial success? Would alternatives have been more cost effective? Was it an enabling technology? $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2016 at 17:56
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    $\begingroup$ What alternatives? $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2016 at 22:09
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    $\begingroup$ Forcing Soviet Union's ailing economy into the equally economically unfeasible Buran program, totally bogging their space industry budget with it... I'd say that was pretty successful :) "Show us you can make something just as awesome and pointlessly expensive." $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Feb 6, 2016 at 22:09
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    $\begingroup$ I believe that any attempted answers to this question would be primarily opinion-based. To start with, what is the definition of "financial success" with regards to what is essentially a government research and exploration program? Complicating matters is the reality that NASA was not particularly good at tracking costs during the early days of the Shuttle program (no citation here, just personal experience and memories, particularly during the period when the agency's leadership was transitioning to Sean O'Keefe, who had a "bean-counter" rep). $\endgroup$
    – Digger
    Feb 7, 2016 at 17:24

1 Answer 1


The Shuttle had some unique capabilities that would have been difficult or expensive to replicate using expendable rockets. The combination of accommodation for 8 people plus the ability to carry ~20 tons of cargo enabled missions like Spacelab and the Hubble service missions. The Shuttle also served as a construction base for the ISS.

Other missions (satellite launches) would have been cheaper to do on an expendable rocket.


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