With this morning’s final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour, the second-last shuttle launch, here’s a question to ponder: Has the space shuttle program, which commenced with its first manned flight in 1982, been worth it? The 135 flights have produced some science and lots of technological advances from experimenting in low Earth orbit. But would the cost of the shuttle program (estimated to be $170 billion through 2008) have been better applied to scientific probes to the planets, orbiting research satellites, and telescopes that arguably could have produced many times the scientific results?
This question cant be looked at simply from the point of view of the total cost of the program or even a science per dollar perspective. Planetary probes, research satellites, telescopes, and manned programs like STS share some objectives objectives but there are also some things that each can achieve that the others cant.
We must have a well balanced approach to space. Even in the planetary probes, money and effort is divided among small (Discovery), medium (New Frontiers) and large (Flagship) missions to maintain a good balance. We must have a manned program to compliment the other programs.
The space shuttle has a cargo capacity far behind that of other vehicles. While each mission has a primary cargo , if you look at the manifests over these 134 missions, especially those bound for the ISS, you'll find that multiple payloads traveled aboard. Some were left at the ISS, some were left in orbit, but many returned to Earth where they where further study was conducted. That along with the science that can be performed by astronauts on orbit give the shuttle a unique capability.
The scientific community is going to miss the shuttle. Even with the ISS continuing in service and the science opportunities there, Soyuz and other ferry flights dont have the same capability the shuttle has.
The money could have been better spent, but that is water under the bridge (at least we hope that it is UNDER) as they say. Your readers might want to visit the excellent web site of SpaceX and see what the genius behind PayPal and Tesla Motors, Elon Musk, is up to. Hint: he has his own space program! The videos of the launching of the world's first private space capsule is worth watching, as is his press conference announcing his new Falcon Heavy rocket, which will have half the lift of the Saturn V Moon rocket. He is building a plant to produce 400 rocket engines per year. So we won't be grounded for long. Mr. Musk doesn't fool around.