The space shuttle program costs each taxpayer $93 each year. (Adjusted for inflation and averaged). If that seems like a small price to pay in the name of science and adventure, you are most likely sad to see the space shuttle program retired. If it's money that you could spend on more important items, then the farewell to the most visible piece of NASA is probably a welcome sight. (To learn more about taxes, check out The History Of Taxes In The U.S.)
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The Space Shuttle program has fallen victim to a lack of funding. As that is largely unpopular among Washington politicians, it still remains a source of national pride. A recent survey found that 55% of Americans believe that the shuttle program was money well spent, while 58% feel that it is essential that the United States remain leaders in the space travel and exploration. Exactly what are the costs that America has incurred and what costs will we incur when the program is gone?
A Cash Cow
Nobody can deny that the Space Shuttle program burns through money faster than its engines burn through fuel. The United States has spent $196 billion on the space shuttle program over its lifespan. The total cost of the program over its life was supposed to be $90 billion for up to 50 launches per year. The highest amount of shuttle launches in any one year was only nine.
Michael Griffin, NASA's head administrator six years ago called the shuttle program a mistake. While the Apollo programs went to the moon, America spent $196 billion in order to orbit the Earth more than 20,000 times, but never go anywhere new. This, according to politicians, made America largely uninterested. (For more on the space program, see The Space Program: By The Numbers.)
Still Going to Space
With the United States' bill for half of the International Space Station at $50 billion, there is still an interest in sending United States astronauts to it. Without a shuttle program, NASA will spend $64 million per astronaut per trip to hitch a ride on a Russian spacecraft, but this is still a fraction of the cost of the shuttle program, and NASA sees this as money well spent to keep America in space, while the next vehicle to get the country in to space on its own is developed.
The Cost to Economies
The retirement of the Space Shuttle program will free up a significant amount of money in next year's budget. That doesn't make the city of Houston and (even more so), the space coast of Florida, feel better, as Houston is the control center for the Shuttle. In 2010, 16,613 people had jobs directly related to the shuttle, and that number is expected to drop by at least 2,000 by the end of the year. Additionally, the space program brings $6.5 billion in revenue to Houston, $2 billion of that because of the space shuttle. To add insult to Houston, the city wasn't chosen as a site to display one of the retired shuttles.
As bad as Houston will be hit, Cocoa, Florida and the larger Brevard County stand to lose much more. This area of eastern Florida, called the space coast, is home to the shuttle launch facility, Kennedy Space Center. Here, the Space Shuttle program represents 5-7% of the area's tourism. The end of the Shuttle program will take with it 7,000 to 8,000 jobs directly related to shuttle, but as many as 14,000 may be lost when tourism, restaurants and lodging jobs disappear and businesses close their doors. As much as $4.1 billion dollars may leave the local economy. Some local policy makers fear that the area around the Space Coast may end up looking like an economic ghost town until the next major ramp up in the space program occurs.
On the Horizon
All is not lost for the American space program. Although the Shuttle wasn't as successful as the original decision makers had hoped, NASA has taken its experiences from the Space Shuttle and developed a new plan to get more people in to space more often. The next phase of the United States space program will largely be found in the private sector, where the entrepreneurial and competitive spirit will get Americans to space at a fraction of the cost, and go to places where we've never been. (For more information on the private sector space program, check out 5 Billionaires With Multimillion-Dollar Pet Projects.)