space shuttle

What Was The Most Expensive Space Mission?

The Space Shuttle Program was the most expensive space mission ever completed. In total, this program cost NASA an estimated $209-billion. Space shuttles were a different kind of rocket than had previously been used in the Apollo missions. In the Apollo missions, the rockets would be launched with a small capsule attached to the tip that would then detach into space. They were designed to then crash into the ocean. Space shuttles were different, in that they are built aerodynamically so they can glide to the ground in a plane-like fashion, allowing astronauts to land on a runway. This also made space shuttles partially reusable, unlike the rockets used in the Apollo mission. The primary purpose of the Space Shuttle Program was to build the International Space Station (ISS). Space shuttles were also used for the construction and repair of the Hubble Space Telescope. Five of these shuttles were constructed and they were named Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. Two of these shuttles experienced a technical failure resulting in 14 astronauts losing their lives. 

Why was it so Expensive?

Space Shuttle launch
The final space shuttle launch was in July 2011, which saw the space shuttle Atlantis launch from Earth's surface. Image credit: NASA

Since parts of the space shuttle can be reused it would make sense to assume that they were a cheaper alternative to the rockets used during the Apollo era. This, however, was not the case. Not every part of the space shuttles were reusable. With each launch, NASA would have to rebuild the external fuel tank, which would burn up upon leaving the atmosphere. NASA has said that each launch had a cost of an estimated $450-million. However, some find this estimation extremely low. Throughout the program, launches ranged from $1.2-billion per launch early in the program, to $1.5-billion later on in the program.

The space shuttle program spanned from 1972 to 2011, however, the technology within the space shuttle had not been updated since the 1980s. The age of the equipment also limited supply chains of replacement parts. Some companies that sold parts required for the space shuttle had only one customer: the government. Other companies went out of business in the thirty years the space shuttle program was active. This caused prices to go up as there was high demand from the government for parts accompanied by low supply from the manufacturing companies. While they might have been an expensive mode of space travel, the space shuttle was responsible for the building of the International Space Station as well as the launch and repairs of Hubble Space telescope.

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