Space: November 27, 2002

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Even the slow learners are picking up on the fact that the Space Shuttle is obsolete and too expensive to continue putting American payloads into orbit. The cost per shuttle mission is approaching $600 million, meaning it costs you $25 million a ton to put a satellite into orbit with the Shuttle. Western rockets can put satellites into orbit for $10-15 million a ton. Russia will do it for six million dollars a ton, and China for about three million dollars a ton. So the shuttle has to stress unique capabilities. These include very heavy loads (over 20 tons, about twice what any rocket can lift), the ability to repair or refurbish satellites in orbit and carrying humans who can build things. None of these capabilities has proved to be essential. Satellites have gotten smaller and more efficient as technology has improved, so there is no real need for a satellite weighing over five or ten tons. Refurbishing and repairing satellites proved to less useful than first thought. Sending people into space has always been more of a publicity stunt than a useful exercise. Robotic devices could do anything people do up there, and do it a lot more cheaply. The Space Shuttle is kept going largely because of a determined NASA bureaucracy and national pride. The Shuttle uses 1970s technology and keeps getting more expensive to operate. Commercial satellite users rely exclusively on rockets to put their satellites up, and even the U.S. military, initially seen as a major Shuttle customer, relies almost completely on rockets. 

 


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