Did investment in the shuttle program pay off?

After 133 missions, 14 astronauts lost in two tragic accidents and almost four decades of work, NASA's space shuttles will head to museums once this year's final two missions are done.

So what did we get for the $113.7 billion that NASA says was spent on the shuttle?

A century-long dream, the reusable, winged space plane was sold by the space agency as the logical successor to the Apollo missions of the moon-race era in the early 1970s. Budget cuts and compromises such as enlarging the shuttle payload to hold military satellites limited the promise of making space travel cheap, frequent and easy, says historian Roger Launius of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

"The history of the space shuttle is one of biting off more than we can chew," says policy analyst Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado. In a recent Nature journal estimate, Pielke put the true cost of the program at $192 billion from 1971 to 2010 (more than the space agency estimate partly because of adjustments for inflation), or about $1.5 billion per launch. In 1972, NASA estimated each launch could be done for $10.4million.

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