NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Cost of Space Shuttle Program Tough to Pin Down

July 12, 2011

Now that the space shuttle Atlantis has lifted off, NASA is closing the books on its shuttle program, prompting a final reckoning.  One piece of the history is surprisingly elusive: the price tag, says the Wall Street Journal.

  • Some media outlets have pegged the total cost of the shuttle program, and its 135 launches, at between $115 billion and nearly twice that amount, demonstrating the challenge of tallying a bill over such a long time span.
  • Among the difficulties are properly accounting for inflation and imprecise budgeting in the program's early years.
  • Furthermore, none of the figures include about $18 billion, in today's dollars, spent by the Defense Department on the shuttle program, by one estimate.

Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, first estimated the shuttle's cost to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration through the early 1990s.

  • Tracing the program since 1971, when the first significant outlays were made, Prof. Pielke came up with a total of $83.7 billion through fiscal year 1993.
  • Earlier this year, he and Dr. Rad Byerly reported in Nature an updated total of $193 billion in 2010 dollars, including an estimate of this year's shuttle spending.

NASA prefers to count the spending differently, mainly by not adjusting for inflation. 

  • That yields a far smaller figure: $115.5 billion -- which amounts to $860 million per launch, far more than the $7 million the agency projected in its early days.
  • Adding to the confusion, NASA also has released an inflation-adjusted figure, despite its preference for a figure representing cash outlays.
  • That number is even higher than Prof. Pielke's: about $211 billion.

Source: Carl Bialik, "As Shuttle Sails Through Space, Costs Are Tough to Pin Down," Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2011.

For text:


Browse more articles on Tax and Spending Issues