Posted by: Jeff Rhodes | July 21, 2011

Lessons For Corporate Aviation From The Space Shuttle Program

Today saw the end of the Space Shuttle era.  As I watched the Atlantis fly from Australia to Florida in thirty minutes this morning and land, unpowered, in the pre-dawn darkness as (seemingly) routinely as any aircraft arrival, I couldn’t help think of the lessons that business aircraft operators might take from the shuttle program. 

Flight operations are risky, regardless of how routine their nature – the losses of both the Challenger and Columbia occurred, not really because of mechanical flaws, but because of complacency and normalization of risk. 

You may not fly as much as you think you will – The original goal for the shuttle program was to launch once a month.  In reality, maintenance requirements, weather, and scheduling issues often got in the way.  We find the same problems in our corporate flight departments.

Flights are very expensive, but sometimes it’s the only way to do the job – the construction of the International Space Station, the Hubble Telescope, and many large satellite programs were possible only with the lift capability and human presence that the Space Shuttle allowed.  Our corporate flight operations, likewise, often serve businesses in ways that are possible only through private aircraft.  It’s expensive, but the value ratio is what’s important.

It takes good people and professionalism – There have been many quality people associated with the space program over the years.  NASA has always attracted the best engineering, science, and aviation talent into its ranks.  The procedures, standards, and professionalism that they implemented made the program the success that it was. 

Good people and professionals sometimes aren’t – Like any large organization, bureaucracy often ruled the day at NASA.  The political and organization hurdles often held the organizing back from realizing its full potential, and led to errors that cost lives and property. 

Money and costs are relative – It cost about $21 Billion to build a space shuttle.  It costs $10,000 to put one pound of anything into orbit, and $100,000 to put a pound on the moon.  Each shuttle flight cost about $1.5 Billion and the International Space Station cost $100 Billion.  The total cost of the US Space Shuttle Program, adjusted for inflation, was about $210 Billion.  A LOT of money!  But the DOT spends more than that on the federal highways in three years.  And the “stimulus” in 2009 cost over $800 Billion. 

Flight inspires passion and excitement – Arguably, nothing that the United States government has ever done has inspired more interest in education, and in science and engineering than the space program did.  When children dream, they dream of being astronauts.  General aviation can also inspire that kind of passion and bring benefits to you that you’ll never consider on paper. 


  1. Great post! Your points are well-made.

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