Was the space shuttle useful? Not really.
In the days since the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia, NASA officials have repeatedly reminded us that space travel is inherently dangerous. They clearly are right. If passenger aircraft blew up as often as space shuttles have (twice in 113 missions), there would be 20 catastrophic accidents every day at La Guardia alone.
The crashes of Challenger and Columbia killed 14 crew members and destroyed half of America's original shuttle fleet. President Bush, the Wall Street Journal, and others have assured us that enduring such extraordinary losses is both necessary and worthwhile. In truth, though, the shuttle program has never been either of those things. NASA's original plan was to create a vehicle that would make quick round trips between the Earth and an orbiting space station—but then Congress, in 1969, refused to pay for both programs, and space officials, forced to choose, elected to build the bus without the destination. They rationalized their toy by claiming that it would make ordinary rockets obsolete. But the shuttle has proved instead to be so expensive and undependable that virtually all satellites nowadays are propelled into orbit on old-fashioned disposable launchers. On the rare occasions when the shuttle is still used to launch a satellite, the payload is typically one that originated with NASA itself—such as Starshine, an inert, hollow, mirror-covered sphere 19 inches in diameter that the crew of the shuttle Discovery carried into low orbit in the spring of 1999 and essentially threw overboard so that high-school astronomers (who had pitched in to polish the mirrors) could track it with telescopes and predict when it would plummet back to Earth, as it did a few months later.
NASA officials and their supporters have often claimed that the shuttle program has produced a "six-fold return" on our staggering investment in it. For that number to be accurate, though, each shuttle mission would have to have generated something like $4 billion in economic benefits—an impossibility. In fact, it's tough to identify any significant benefits at all. NASA annually produces a publication called Spinoff, which claims to document "successfully commercialized NASA technology" from the preceding year, but almost all the shuttle-related claims are strained in the extreme: A sports bra made from a material also used in shuttle spacesuits helps to reduce "mammary bounce"; a type of synthetic netting used in shuttles has also been used in the decks of racing catamarans; a composite material developed by Babcock & Wilcox for use in certain kinds of tubing on the space shuttle was later also used for "improving golf clubs" by providing "maximum distance."
It is almost impossible to find a shuttle spinoff that is the product of an actual shuttle-based experiment or project rather than a result of the design, construction, operation, or maintenance of the shuttle itself. For example, NASA boasts that leftover fuel from shuttle missions is used "to save lives—by destroying land mines." But any incendiary substance could be used to blow up land mines; employing excess shuttle fuel for that purpose does not make land-mine destruction a "benefit" of the space program. Almost all alleged shuttle spinoffs are of this type.
When a commercial product or application truly is developed on a shuttle mission, the shuttle's real contribution usually has to do only with marketing. For example, in 1998, International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. sponsored a shuttle experiment in which buds of a certain variety of rose were allowed, under the supervision of John Glenn, to blossom during a shuttle flight. According to IFF, exposure to microgravity during blooming led to an unspecified "shift in the scent" of the blossoms. "Essential oils" supposedly similar to those produced by the shuttle roses were later included, among roughly two dozen other ingredients, in a perfume (called Zen) made by Japan's largest cosmetics company. The IFF press release announcing the breakthrough said: "This heavenly scent has come down to Earth in a product designed to enhance mood as well as to delight those who smell it. It also serves to remind us that reaching for the stars can result in down-to-Earth delights." Last year, Unilever became the second company to use the fragrance in a product by adding it to a deodorant called Impulse, which "caters to the energetic and vibrant girls who believe in living life to the fullest!" but isn't sold in the United States.
On that same shuttle mission in 1998, Glenn took part in a series of experiments that NASA said had been inspired by apparent similarities between space travel and old age—both of which cause "bone and muscle loss, balance disorders and sleep disturbances." The investigation consisted of monitoring Glenn's temperature at night, collecting samples of his blood and urine, and asking him questions about the quality of his sleep, among other things. NASA hoped that these data might lead to the creation of "a model system to help scientists interested in understanding aging"—although no such model resulted from the mission, and no earthbound scientist not connected with the program ever asked NASA to produce one. (Besides, if the apparent similarities between aging and space travel really are meaningful, wouldn't it have made more sense to conduct the experiment in reverse, by observing Earth's plentiful supply of old people and then applying any lessons learned to the comparatively small population of shuttle passengers? After all, we earthlings have been generating data about the effects of aging for several million years, and we know exactly how the experiment ends.)
The scientific investigations undertaken during Columbia's final voyage were similar to those conducted during Glenn's mission five years earlier; indeed, they were similar to the experiments conducted on nearly every manned American space voyage that has ever taken place. For example, eight Australian spiders aboard Columbia added to our understanding of weightless web-weaving, a subject NASA first studied aboard Skylab in 1973. (According to an Australian wire-service report filed three days before the accident, the spider experiment "could result in scientists mimicking the structure of spider silk for use in aerospace structures and space stations"—proving that NASA isn't the only hyperbolic self-promoter in the world.) And International Flavors & Fragrances was back on board, in partnership with the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics, to grow a few more fragrant plants in one of the shuttle's standard glove-compartment-sized experiment drawers.
There were more serious experiments on Columbiaas well, of course. But all of those experiments could have been performed more easily, economically, and safely aboard an unmanned spacecraft (as in the case of the dust-storm observation experiment); or addressed questions that NASA had already answered years, if not decades, before (as in the case of all the experiments designed to measure the effects of microgravity on living things); or had no chance whatsoever—assuming that NASA's long history in this area provides an accurate guide—of leading to any truly useful discovery or breakthrough (as in the case of all the experiments aimed at creating new drugs, growing proteins, curing cancer, and the like). In the end, Columbia's main contribution to human knowledge will likely be yet another candidate for Spinoff magazine, though it will be a big one: By the end of this year, we will know more than we ever did before about how to collect, catalog, and analyze the debris of a space-flight disaster.
David Owen is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His most recent book is The First National Bank of Dad.
Photograph of the space shuttle on Slate's home page by Corbis.