Why did Americans stop flying shuttles?


For thirty years, the Space Shuttle program has been a symbol of American manned space exploration. The astronauts on the shuttles performed many extremely complex and unique tasks, including, for example, launching into orbit and assembling the nodes of the American segment of the ISS, launching into orbit, commissioning and repairing the Orbital Telescope. Hubble and more. Why, after 30 years of faithful service, were the shuttles sent to the museum? Let’s figure it out.

When the shuttle project first appeared, NASA had Napoleonic plans: the construction of a huge (several times larger than the ISS) orbital base, the construction of a circumlunar orbital base and a laboratory on the lunar surface, the launch of a large number of scientific equipment and satellites into orbit, manned flights to Mars and etc.

Space Shuttle — a space truck with a high payload and a spacious cargo hold was, obviously, an integral part of these plans and a prerequisite for their implementation, since it would require a huge amount of cargo to be delivered into orbit.

However, when these plans laid down on the table for the President of the United States (at that time it was Richard Nixon), he was slightly saddened to see the estimate and hacked everything down in the bud, since it was too expensive.

Then NASA decided to abandon most of the plans, but decided to keep at least the Space Shuttle. To do this, they rebranded it and presented it under the guise of a program that will pay for itself by launching commercial satellites into orbit. Suddenly, the shuttle program was supported by the military, who also needed the means to launch reconnaissance satellites into orbit.

All this led to the fact that in April 1981 the shuttle made its first flight and remained the flagship of American astronautics for three decades, until the shuttle program was finally phased out in 2011.

The problem with the shuttles was that they did not meet the expectations of self-sufficiency and did not become economically viable. Moreover, the further, the less profitable they became. If in the first ten years of the program, the Shuttles were doing very well and they beat back their value, plus or minus, then with the beginning of the 90s, and then zero, the profitability of the shuttles fell dramatically.

This is due to the miniaturization of electronics in general and satellites in particular. If in the 60s and 70s (when the Shuttle was being designed) a satellite could easily weigh several tons and have a dozen meters in diameter, then the dimensions and mass of modern satellites are much more modest. Many modern orbiters generally have a maximum cross-sectional area of less than a meter and a mass substantially less than a ton.

But the dimensions of the shuttle cargo compartment (18 meters long, 4.5 meters in diameter) were the dimensions of the then reconnaissance satellites. As a result, if in the 80s the shuttle could put a couple of satellites into orbit per flight and go into profit, then in the 90s and 2000s the vast majority of shuttle launches turned out to be unprofitable.

After the completion of the construction of the ISS, it turned out that there were no more direct tasks for the delivery of heavy cargo to orbit for the shuttles, and it was unreasonably expensive to drive them for the sole purpose of delivering people to the ISS. One launch cost an average of $ 450 million.

It’s like driving a Belaz as a personal car around the city. It is possible, but expensive and impractical. By the way, for similar reasons, our project «Buran» was canceled. When the system was already, in principle, ready, it turned out that there were no tasks for it (there is simply no such number of satellites that would have to be constantly put into orbit), and it is too expensive to operate.

As a result, the shuttle program was terminated and for 9 years American astronauts, under an agreement with Roscosmos, flew to the ISS on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, until finally, a few days ago, the first manned flight to the ISS of the Dragon-2 spacecraft was completed, which marks a new stage of American manned astronautics.