Trying to identify the biggest mistake in American History is a tough game. Identifying our great mistakes is tough because ideology, personal prejudice, politics, and sentiment cloud our judgement.
However, my choice for the biggest mistake in America history is the Space Shuttle. Yes, the Space Shuttle, the gleaming white albatross that Peter Thiel and other intellectual technophobes mistakenly worship as a symbol of progress and power.
I think the Space Shuttle was a mistake because it set America’s space program and space exploration back 25 or 30 years. I believe America could have returned to the Moon and possibly landed astronauts on Mars by now if we had not wasted money and resources on the Space Shuttle.
The Deadly Space Shuttle
The Space Shuttle was a mistake because it diverted resources from a safe, proven, and effective technology. Then wasted those resources on a dangerous alternative.
There have been 19 spaceflight fatalities in history, the Space Shuttle caused 14 of those deaths. Without the Shuttle Shuttle, there would have been just five spaceflight fatalities.
In detail, seven astronauts died when the shuttle Challenger blew up after launch on 28 January 1996. Another seven astronauts died when the shuttle Columbia broke up in reentry on 1 February 2003.
The non-shuttle fatalities were three cosmonauts killed when Soyuz 11 lost air pressure in orbit on 30 June 1971, cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov who died when a parachute failed on reentry on Soyuz 1 on 24 April 1967, and astronaut Michael J. Adams who died when the X-15 plane broke up on 15 November 1967.
Thus without the Space Shuttle, America could have suffered just one spaceflight casualty instead of 15. Notably, the Russians who never built a space shuttle have not had a cosmonaut fatality since 1971. The Chinese space program, which also relies on capsules, has suffered no fatalities.
Note: accidents on Earth killed 11 astronauts and cosmonauts. Thus, the total fatality count for the world’s space programs is 30.
Why the Space Shuttle was a Waste of money, lives, and resources
The Space Shuttle set the US Space program back three decades because it diverted money and resources from a safer, proven technology. The technology is space capsules.
There have been dozens of space capsule launches since 1971 with no fatalities. Notably, the Russian/Soviet manned space program; which relies on space capsules, continued uninterrupted even by the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Meanwhile, the US manned space program stalled after the abandonment of the Skylab space station in 1974. In fact, most of today’s astronaut corps’ space experience comes from Soyuz trips to the International Space Station (ISS). In the 21st Century, NASA faced the ultimate humiliation of having to pay the Russians to haul astronauts into orbit.
Finally, when NASA turned to private companies for spacecraft. Those companies did not even consider building a new shuttle. Instead, SpaceX, Boeing (NYSE: BA), and Blue Horizon (Jeff Bezos’s space technology company) build space capsules not shuttles.
On 30 May 2020, NASA launched astronauts into orbit for the first time in a decade on the SpaceX Crew Dragon. The Dragon is a basic space capsule that resembles the Russian Soyuz and American Apollo space capsules.
Why did America Waste Money and Resources on the Space Shuttle?
Thus, space capsules are a proven technology that safely took Man to the Moon and back. Yet NASA abandoned them for a more dangerous alternative.
There are a few explanations for the $49 billion mistake known as the Space Shuttle. Those explanations include:
1. National Pride and Cold War Hysteria
Space capsules were a Russian and Communist technology first developed in the Soviet Union. Relying on Communist technology hurt some Americans’ pride.
During the ideological madness of the Cold War, there was pressure in the United States to develop a capitalist American alternative to the Red Space Capsules. Tellingly, pressure to keep the Space Shuttle going faded after the Cold War.
One rationale for the Space Shuttle was to create a glittering symbol of American power to humiliate the Russians. Now that Russia is a third-rate power, that rationale no longer exists.
2. The Cool Factor
The Space Shuttle is a cool-looking piece of technology with enormous sex appeal. It even appeared in a James Bond movie, Moonraker. In comparison, space capsules are a boring workhorse technology.
Thus, it was easier for NASA to sell the Space Shuttle to Congress and the American people. Moreover, the cool Space Shuttle attracted far more media attention than space capsule launches.
During the 1970s, NASA administrators became worried when they did not get enough TV airtime. Space launches had become such a routine event TV executives were no-longer interrupting programming to broadcast them.
A sane person would have welcomed such normalcy and lack of media coverage as an achievement. Unfortunately, the politicians who ran NASA saw a lack of TV coverage as a problem. Thus, one sick reason for the Space Shuttle was to get TV coverage with spectacular launches.
4. The Military
The military had no use for space capsules during the Cold War. Remember, the Red Army was in Europe and Cuba, not on Mars.
Thus, NASA had a hard time getting Pentagon support for its space capsules. Similarly, NASA critics in Congress could claim the space program was diverting money from Cold War military preparedness.
Conversely, the military had some use for the Space Shuttle. There were a handful of classified (possibly military) shuttle missions, Space.com reports. The US Air Force had plans for polar orbital Shuttle Missions to map the world for military purposes that never became a reality.
In fact, they designed the shuttle to haul large satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), Air & Space magazine claims. The NRO is the secret agency that operates America’s spy satellites.
History, however, shows that old-fashioned rockets were a better means of launching NRO satellites. Thus, the shuttle’s military use was limited, but it was a selling point.
5. Preventing Space Exploration
During the 1970s and 1980s, America’s space program had many critics and opponents on both sides of the aisle.
Conservatives believed space was a waste of money, while many leftists thought NASA diverted money from social programs. Similarly, many Americans believed NASA diverted money from the Cold War and the Defense Department. Many scientists preferred unmanned probes, which sent back enormous amounts of data to astronauts.
Shutting down NASA, however, was a political impossibility after the success of the Apollo Program. Most Americans supported the space program and admired the astronaut corps.
Diverting resources from space exploration to a vehicle that could only reach orbit (the Space Shuttle) was a simple way to throttle the space program. By supporting the shuttle NASA opponents could pretend to back space exploration while throttling it.
As long as the Apollo equipment, the capsules and Saturn V rockets, was in use, there could be a return to the Moon. However, scrapping Saturn in favor of the shuttle ended lunar exploration, but gave the appearance America was pressing forward in space when it was not. There were still space launches on TV to fool the voters into thinking America was doing something in space when it was not.
If the Space Shuttle was a conspiracy to throttle America’s space program, it was a success. Today, in the year 2021, America’s progress in space is about where it was in 1967. We’re testing space capsules and planning a return to the moon.
The Lesson of the Space Shuttle
The true lesson the Space Shuttle can teach us is not to let politics, emotions, ideology, patriotism, pride, and hysteria drive decision making.
Had reason drove decision making, America could have kept using the Apollo space capsules and improved them. More importantly, we could have avoided the needless deaths of 14 brave astronauts.
Americans could have returned to the Moon and traveled to Mars. If we had kept politics out of decision making.
Therefore, politics led to the greatest mistake in American history. I think the Space Shuttle could be the greatest mistake in American history because our descendants will remember it for centuries.
A Symbol of American Arrogance
I think people will talk about about America’s abandonment of space in the 1980s for centuries. Meanwhile, mistakes 21st Century Americans obsess over; such as the Vietnam War, will only interest historians in a few decades.
Understanding the Space Shuttle could teach us how not to spend money on technology. Unfortunately, I do not think we could learn that lesson. Instead, Luddites will glorify the Space Shuttle as a symbol of American greatness for many years to come.
Had President Ronald Reagan (R-California) scrapped the shuttle after the Challenger catastrophe in 1986, America could have done far more in space. Thus, the Space Shuttle is a symbol of American arrogance, incompetence, and impotence, not a symbol of American greatness.