06 April 2011

Space Shuttle Costs: 1971-2011

In this week's Nature, Rad Byerly and I have a short correspondence on the overall program costs for the Space Shuttle program (see figure above and data table below).  The sources for the data are my 1994 paper on costs (PDF), the 2004 CAIB report and NASA annual budget submissions.  The data are adjusted to 2010 values using OMB GDP price deflators (XLS).  Obviously the information for 2011 is an estimate.  The shuttle has been launched once this year's planned total of 3 missions.

Here is an excerpt from our correspondence:
Some 20 years ago, we found the programme to be slightly over budget and severely short in capability (R. A. Pielke and R. Byerly in Space Policy Alternatives Ch. 14, 223–245; 1992). We used 8 years of cost and schedule experience to predict performance for the subsequent 20 years of the shuttle programme.

The US Congress and NASA spent more than US$192 billion (in 2010 dollars) on the shuttle from 1971 to 2010 (see ‘A costly enterprise’). The agency launched 131 flights; two ended in tragedy with the loss of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. During the operational years from 1982 to 2010, the average cost per launch was about $1.2 billion. Over the life of the programme, this increases to about $1.5 billion per launch (R. A. Pielke Space Policy 10, 78–80; 1994).

For the period 1991–2010, we originally projected an average cost per flight of about $800 million. The actual cost was about $1 billion. We overestimated both the flight rate during this time (8 predicted flights versus 4.7 actual) and the annual costs (about $6.2 billion predicted versus $4.7 billion actual).

The actual cost for each flight of the programme falls squarely in the middle of the envelope we constructed, with projected uncertainties.
Here is the figure that shows that envelope of uncertainties from our 1992 paper with the red star indicating how things actually turned out.
Here is how we end our correspondence:
The shuttle is the costliest US spaceflight programme ever undertaken. As it comes to an end, we should celebrate its successes, and draw lessons to inform future human spaceflight ventures.
For further information see:

Pielke, Jr., R. A. (1993), A reappraisal of the space-shuttle program. Space Policy 9 (2) 133-157.

Below is the data table that was used to generate the figure that appears in Nature and at the top of this post.  Note that costs are for fiscal years and flights are for calendar years.


  1. You didn't compute the net present value of any of these expenditures, right? I.e. you just added up the real expenditures per year? If that is so, the $192bn would be an underestimate of the total cost of the program by a very large margin. My guess is that the true total costs of the program would be at least twice as large, probably even larger.

  2. -1-dave

    The $192B is constant 2010 dollars.

  3. Has anyone looked at the portion of the NASA budget devoted to the shuttle over it's lifetime? I recall once sitting in an airport talking with a scientist for JPL who sarcastically referred to NASA as the national aeronautics and shuttle administration because of all the resources it consumed. Space science got the short end of the stick during the shuttle era AND shuttle's high cost created an opportunity for the Europeans to successfully develop and market the Arriane rocket family. I'm old enough to remember when the shuttle was sold as the low cost way to space. Guess that did not work out so good.

  4. Scientifically, its successes were limited. The launch of, and maintenance missions to, Hubble were valuable; the rest of the 'space science' was pretty uninspiring stuff. It drained money from the scientifically far richer unmanned exploration program. It seems to have been a dead end as far as the future of manned exploration is concerned.

  5. -2-Roger

    Yes, I understand that you deflated everything to 2010 price levels. That is the first step if one wants to compute the cost of a project that has expenditures in different years. But then just adding up those expenditures (now all expressed in 2010 dollars) is wrong, one should then as a second step compute the net present value of these expenditures before adding them up.

    If I do this quick and dirty, using a social discount rate of 5% per year, I get total costs of $543bn. Obviously one should use historic discount rates instead of the 5%, but I would think that the 5% should be in the right ballpark.

  6. Of course, in addition to the stuff we know about, there was other things that were done secretly for the military and intelligence services. Satellite launches could, of course, have been done other ways, though the cover of a shuttle maybe obscures exactly how much was going up (or down) to a certain extent.

    No way to know how easy or expensively those tasks could have been done in other ways.

  7. The shuttle program may be an example of government's inability to pick winners.

  8. We can celebrate the successes until we look at what costs would have been for the same level of success without the shuttle program. If we look at what was promised, the thing appears to be an unmitigated failure, if you discount the fanboy 'we're in space' factor.

    Next, we look at that grotesque money pit known as the Space Station. Neither could be justified/carried out if not for the careful spreading out of jobs to the right Congressional districts.

    So you want to invest in energy research? Hows' about shutting down manned space flight, and using that money for something that is at least potentially productive?

  9. @mark b

    "So you want to invest in energy research? Hows' about shutting down manned space flight, and using that money for something that is at least potentially productive?"

    I agree.

  10. Congrats on getting this excellent article posted in the Houston Chronicle Sciguy blog.

  11. @ dave

    How might you construct an NPV analysis of this expenditure, given that there is no expected profit margin? What's your "earnings"?

  12. Patrick,

    You can do NPV on costs as well. What you calculate is how much money would you have needed in 1971 to pay for the entire shuttle program. Perhaps you could use the 10 year T-Bill rate for the interest rate applied to the unspent money in any given year. Another way would be to assume you borrowed it all and calculate how much money had been borrowed plus interest at the end of the project. But I don't think that's NPV, more like future value.