Former astronaut Story Musgrave is a veteran of six space shuttle flights on five different orbiters. He has seven academic degrees, including a doctorate in medicine. During his 30 years with NASA, he worked as a part-time trauma surgeon. As a pilot, Musgrave has logged 18,000 hours in 160 types of aircraft. He is the author of The NASA Northrop T-38: Photographic Art from an Astronaut Pilot.
Air & Space: How do you feel about the retirement of the space shuttle program?
Musgrave: Well, I have my own purely personal affection for it. I never wanted to do that particular machine in the early 70s—I thought it was the wrong idea. But, my goodness, American engineering pulled it off, and it did what it did magnificently. A lot of new technologies, new science, and new ways of doing things in space, but as you know at massive cost, and with massive fragility and vulnerability. It’s had an awful long run. And everything has its timing. The timing now is rather strange, when you have the only way to get to the space station, and you’re doing away with it. After flying for as long as it did, it really is time to move on to the next one. So I feel affection for it, I feel sentimental about it. But it’s time to move on. It turns out, though, we’re moving on to nothing.
A&S: Do you think the space shuttle program was worth the money spent on it?
Musgrave: No, it was not worth the money—it ended up being a billion [dollars] a flight. And people might question my accounting: My accounting is to look at the Congressional budget that says how much money goes to the shuttle, and divide that by the number of flights. That kind of accounting is hard to argue with, and so it was a billion a flight, which is a massive amount.
The whole thing is very complicated. I would have joined the robotic programs and the human programs instead of having them separate into either/or. People always used to try to get [Carl] Sagan on one side of the fence and me on the other, and have a little debate. Well, when the moderator talked to us, he found out I was on Sagan’s side. We need to join the robotic and the human programs so that they optimize each other. Send robots first to mine the materials you need, and they build the habitats. And then humans can get low-cost reliable access to space.
All in all, I do have to give American engineering unbelievable credit that they were able to pull off this thing, as difficult as it was. [The shuttle] ended up having the best possible team in the world to make the most of it. But they’re not able to do anything with cost, of course. So the question is: Was it worth it? No, it was not worth it. But this is hindsight, you see.
A&S: From a financial standpoint, not worth it?
Musgrave: Well, I’m looking at what we could have done for the same money. The cost of the space station is 300 Voyager-class satellites. I could have a dozen or more satellites, Voyager-class, on every planet, and on every moon of every planet. I could have had satellites transmitting high-resolution, multimedia data back from 30 different bodies out there in the solar system. I could have the space station up there doing another truss, another module, another connection, another resupply--that’s what it is to the public. Or I could have had 30 simultaneous transmissions covering the entire solar system. Now that’s what people need to understand we gave up.
The space shuttle opened up spaceflight. It opened it up in a massive way. It was also a laboratory, and it was a great laboratory. And it did all kinds of things. We made huge progress in spaceflight with the shuttle.