When Atlantis STS-135 returns to Earth safely and on schedule, it will be the 133rd successful mission NASA’s Space Shuttle program has executed. But as humanity looks back upon the last 30 years of space exploration, will we consider the Space Shuttle program as a whole successful? Some people are uneasy deeming NASA victorious because they are disappointed with the results after having put so much money into funding it. The average citizen can only name a few missions that were successes, and therefore are quick to conclude that NASA has not been worth the 450 million dollar investment per mission.
But NASA’s Space Shuttle program has been more than just a one-hit wonder with its incredible success in the Apollo missions. Many of NASA’s achievements have been overlooked because they have not been the culmination of a clear goal. As Governor Jerry Brown said in a New York Times Op-Ed after the first Shuttle mission in 1981, “The Apollo venture to the moon achieved its highly specific goal and then terminated from sheer success. It was an ends-based project: The shuttle by contrast is means-based — its ends are not known. We must create them.”
The accomplishments of the Space Shuttle program cannot be measured on a simple cost to benefit scale. The indirect benefits of space exploration have improved the lives of each and every one of us. The world of cable television and long-distance calling is just as much a result of NASA’s research as is the ceramics we use to cook, or the epoxies and super-glues we rely on. In medicine, heart patients benefit from the remote monitoring technologies and telemetrics that were developed during the Space Shuttle’s design. Satellites have improved the science of navigation with the capability of GPS to target the position of anyone in the world and determine the weather. Satellites have also been an invaluable attribute to the military and crime fighting forces in surveillance and tracking. And perhaps the most direct influence upon all of our lives is the development of the personal computer. With the Space Race’s demand for small, lightweight electronic components, microcomputers were developed that set the precedent for personal computers.
Although most of these indirect benefits of the Space Program are often overlooked, when someone questions if NASA was worth the cost, the answer should be clear. Many of the technologies that we use in our daily lives and take for granted were developed within the Space Shuttle Program. The final legacy of NASA’s three decade long program is unknown, but will continue to take shape as the benefits continue to lead to even greater scientific advancements for mankind.