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Was the space shuttle worth it?

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NASA TV / Reuters

(Read caption) Astronaut Mike Fossum works outside the International Space Station during his spacewalk in this image from NASA TV July 12, 2011. It's difficult to calculate an exact cost of the space shuttle program over the years, but it's high enough that it may have held back other areas of American progress, writes guest blogger Timothy D. Terrell.

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The final flight of the space-shuttle program, in progress as this is written, has prompted a number of retrospectives on the program's costs and benefits. Saturday's Wall Street Journal reported that the price tag on the US space-shuttle program has been difficult to pin down. One NASA estimate — on the low end, because it does not account for inflation — is $115.5 billion, or around $860 million per launch. That's still far higher than NASA's original projection of $7 million per launch, predicated as it was on far more frequent launches. Two more recent estimates are $193 billion (in 2010 dollars) and $211 billion. For the program's 135 launches, that's $1.43 billion and $1.56 billion per launch, respectively.

Economists will find still other problems with these per-launch cost estimates. Whether the average cost per launch is $0.86 billion or $1.56 billion, those are still average costs, and not marginal costs. The additional costs of any particular shuttle launch could have been larger or smaller than the average, and were likely to have been smaller. Some significant portion of the shuttle program's costs were sunk costs, meaning that the costs of developing the shuttle were up-front, irrecoverable costs and therefore irrelevant to the decision to launch a particular mission. Marginal costs would have included the cost of preparing an existing shuttle for a mission, the fuel, the astronaut training and other scientist training specific to that mission, the equipment to be deposited in orbit by the mission, and similar costs.

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