NASA spent $10.6 billion to develop the Space Shuttle and its related components, including the solid rocket boosters, external tank, and the RS-25 main engines. This also includes $444 million in construction costs to build out the shuttle's production, launch, and processing facilities.
Adjusted for inflation to 2020 dollars, NASA spent approximately $49 billion to develop and launch the first space shuttle.
|STS Component||Original $||2020 $|
|RS-25 Main Engines||$1,398.9||$6,482|
|Solid Rocket Boosters||$582.3||$2,563|
|Launch & Landing||$1,079.1||$4,132|
|Construction of Facilities||$443.9||$2,134|
All values in millions of dollars. R&D program inflation calculated using NASA's New Start Index (NNSI). Construction of Facilities inflation calculated using the Production Workers Compensation Index. Source data available as a Google spreadsheet.
The Space Shuttle project was approved by President Nixon in early 1972. The development phase ended in 1982, when the Reagan Administration declared the start of regular operations after the fourth test launch of orbiter Columbia.
Though NASA continued to invest in development and upgrades to the Shuttle fleet in the following decades, these 11 years constitute the primary research and development period where the Space Shuttle transformed from a concept on paper into a spacecraft in the real world.
The Space Transportation System
The "Space Shuttle" is a colloquial term for the Space Transportation System (STS), which consists of the orbiter, the reusable RS-25 engines, the external fuel tank, and the solid rocket boosters. "Launch & Landing" activities accounted for the necessary ground equipment and procedures to prepare the Shuttle for launch and refurbishment for reuse.
Another critical component, generally omitted in the discussion of spaceflight development, is the construction of the ground elements necessary to support launch, landing, and post-flight processing—all of which had to be designed and built specifically to the needs of the STS project.
The costs to develop and build the Shuttle were not all spent at once. It takes time to design, refine, and build reliable flight hardware, and the Shuttle was no exception. The project displays a classic aerospace development cost curve, with the project starting modestly, rapidly increasing as it gains steam, staff, and complexity as a result of moving from paper design to testing physical hardware, and peaking in resource needs a few years prior to its first launch. Costs begin to decline when most of the challenging engineering problems have been solved and the project moves into regular operations.
NASA's obligations for Space Transportation System development, per year. Development was declared completed after the 1982 fiscal year, at which point the program was considered in production/operations. This chart omits costs obligated for the 1976 transition quarter, a product of a one-time budget restructuring by the U.S. government. For more detailed information, see the Google spreadsheet source data.
Methodology and Caveats
Dollar amounts reflect actual obligations reported in NASA's budget requests between the fiscal years 1972 and 1984. Obligations reflect contracted amounts, and actual expenditures may vary somewhat in both absolute terms and in timing.
All total costs reported here include obligations made during the 1976 transition quarter—a 3-month period that accommodated a shift of the start of the U.S. fiscal year from July 1st to October 1st of each year. For clarity, these data are omitted from charts.
During the period of the Space Shuttle's development, NASA's budget was divided into three major accounts: Research & Development (R&D), Construction of Facilities (CoF), and Research & Program Management (R&PM). Project development was primarily a function of the R&D account. Shuttle-related facilities construction amounts were reported and identified in the CoF account.
R&PM represents civil servant salaries and other administrative overhead. While there is certainly a portion of R&PM budget applied to the Shuttle program, public reporting is opaque throughout this period and a closer examination of the data and additional research is needed to properly attribute the costs of overhead for the Shuttle project.
Inflation for the R&D component was calculated using NASA's New Start Index, a product of the agency's Office of the Chief Financial Officer, which is tuned specifically for aerospace projects. Inflation for the construction of facilities used the Production Workers Compensation index, which attempts to normalize wages of non-salaried workers in construction-related jobs.
For additional consideration and analysis of Shuttle development costs, see this table of expenditures provided by NASA in Humboldt Mandell's Ph.D. thesis analyzing the accuracy of the project's cost estimation efforts. The total amounts are the same, but the component costs differ by varying degrees, with additional costs (likely out of the Orbiter account) ascribed to NASA center management.
A rich data set tracking the costs of Project Apollo, free for public use. Includes unprecedented program-by-program cost breakdowns, facilities construction, salaries, and related programs.