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Comments on the Shuttle Program


In response to my recent article, “Was the Space Shuttle Worth It,” I received an interesting e-mail from George S. Giles, who’s written several times for LewRockwell.com, including this on NASA aspirations toward Mars. With his permission, I’m posting parts of it here, edited somewhat for clarity and length.

I worked on the Space Transportation System [shuttle] for several years. Any economic calculation of pound into orbit is ridiculous. I am old enough to remember that when the project was announced “it would be too cheap to measure,” but it was impossible to measure as NASA accounting is miasma of doubletalk, doublethink and lost money. Kennedy Space Center was the only place I have ever seen that allowed pillows to be brought into work. The irony is that half of NASA does brilliant work: unmanned missions and has done true science.

It would be harder to think of a more expensive way to put payload into orbit. A good friend of mine was on the main engine reliability team that calculated and monitored reliability of these beasts. He said the odds were more than 100,000 to 1 for failure. Richard Feynman said “One of 25, 4% would fail catastrophically.” I worked with Jack Lousma, STS pilot, in 1985 and he told me that the post flight on the orbiter of his mission found that a small fleck of paint had gone half way through the wind screen. Windows are useless on the STS because a) it cannot be flown like a plane even though it looks like one and b) the only thing the pilots actually do is drop the wheels on landing. These things cost more than $1 billion so it was all left up to the capable hands of IBM to build the flight control computers.

A little while after the Challenger blew up Congress came to NASA and said, “Let’s go back to building the Saturn V because it is cheaper, more reliable, and lifts more payload into a higher orbit.” The response was, “We can’t because we threw the plans away.” A Saturn V cost about $10,000,000. Probably the only good thing Nixon did was cancel moon missions because he knew what they were for and that they were a waste of money. In a pique of political correctness, Saturn Program Manager Arthur Rudolph was deported because under Hitler he worked in a plant where slave labor was used. This was silly because everyone in Germany was slave labor.

Going to the moon was never the goal. When John Kennedy announced the plan to go to the moon it was much more palatable to the tax paying public than saying the truth: we want to put nuclear weapons the size of a greyhound bus in Red Square. Not very Camelot.

The STS set the American space program (civilian) back 30 years. It was so bad that the USAF took over the design of propulsion, payload, controls, etc., because they knew NASA was going down the wrong street. A rocket is a ballistic projectile, not an airplane.

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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