Space Shuttle's Legacy: Soaring in Orbit and Costs

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Byline: Seth Borenstein Associated Press

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The space shuttle was sold to America as cheap, safe and reliable. It was none of those.

It cost $196 billion over 40 years, ended the lives of 14 astronauts and managed to make less than half the flights promised.

Yet despite all that, there were some big achievements that weren't promised: major scientific advances, stunning photos of the cosmos, a high-flying vehicle of diplomacy that helped bring Cold War enemies closer, and something to brag about.

Former President George H.W. Bush, who oversaw the early flights, said the shuttle program "authored a truly inspiring chapter in the history of human exploration."

NASA's first space shuttle flight was in April 1981. The 135th and final launch is set for July 8. Once Atlantis lands at the end of a 12-day mission, it and the other two remaining shuttles are officially museum pieces -- more expensive than any paintings.

America has done far more for far less. The total price tag for the program was more than twice the $90 billion NASA originally calculated.

The nation spent more on the space shuttle than the combined cost of soaring to the moon, creating the atomic bomb, and digging the Panama Canal, according to an analysis by The Associated Press using figures from NASA and the Smithsonian Institution and adjusting for inflation.

Even its most ardent supporters concede that the shuttle program never lived up to its initial promise. The selling point when it was conceived four decades ago was that with weekly launches, getting into space would be relatively inexpensive and safe. That wasn't the case.

"But there is no embarrassment in setting the bar impossibly high and then failing to clear it," said former astronaut Duane Carey, who flew in 2002. "What matters is that we strived mightily to do so -- and we did strive mightily. The main legacy left by the shuttle program is that of a magnificent failure."

Of the five shuttles built, two were lost in fiery tragedies. …