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There are the magnificent photos from the Hubble Space Telescope, which helped pinpoint the age of the universe and demonstrated the existence of mysterious dark energy; the ongoing labwork on the International Space Station; a multitude of satellites for everything from spying to climate change; and spacecraft that explore the solar system. All owe their existence to the space shuttle.

The Hubble was not just launched from the shuttle _ it was repaired and upgraded five times by shuttle astronauts. They also captured and fixed satellites in orbit.

Earlier this year, shuttle astronauts installed a $2 billion particle physics experiment on the space station that may find evidence of dark matter and better explain aspects of how the universe was formed. Add the intangibles of near continuous American presence in space over three decades and a high-flying venue for both international diplomacy and school science lessons.

Like a real life version of the television show “Star Trek,” the shuttle was a United Nations in space, carrying representatives of 16 other countries. The U.S. and Russia became close partners in space and Russian rocket scientists after the breakup of the Soviet Union found new employment. NASA’s current boss said all that is not something that should be ignored. The shuttle also diversified space to make it seem more like Earth, sending the first American woman, the first African-American and teachers, lawmakers and even a former migrant farmworker into orbit.

“The space shuttle program reaffirmed, once again, American dominance in space and laid the foundation for the United States to continue its long-standing leadership beyond our home planet,” NASA Administrator and former shuttle commander Charles Bolden wrote in an email. “The shuttle program evolved over its lifetime and gave us many firsts and many proud national moments, along with painful lessons.”

University of Colorado science policy professor Roger Pielke Jr., who studies shuttle costs and policies, said there are probably other ways the country could have spent several billion dollars a year on a human space program and gotten more.

Launching like a rocket and landing like an airplane, the shuttle was the ultimate hybrid. It acts both as a space taxi, carrying astronauts, and has the muscle of a long-distance trucker, hauling heavy machinery. That versatility translated into higher costs.

When spaceships carry people, extra safety requirements add hefty expenses. Rockets that haul big pieces of equipment _ like station segments or a giant telescope _ require more power and fuel, which means more cost. The shuttle has both of those problems that escalate the price.

When the shuttle succeeded, it did so in a spectacular way. But its failures were also large and tragic.

Seven astronauts perished when Challenger exploded about a minute after launch in 1986 and seven more died when Columbia burned up as it returned to Earth in 2003. One out of every 67 flights ended in death _ a fatality rate that would make the most ardent daredevil cringe.

Based on deaths per million miles traveled, the space shuttle is 138 times riskier than a passenger jet.

Former astronaut and past NASA associate administrator Scott Horowitz said, “While the shuttle is the most magnificent engineering feat, its complexity and the naive belief that it would be as safe as an airliner was its Achilles heel.”

One problem is that the shuttle was a compromise from start to finish, said Howard McCurdy, a professor at American University and author of several books on the space agency. The shuttle had to satisfy both NASA and the Department of Defense, which dictated the exact shape of its wings and the size of its payload bay, said Roger Launius, senior curator at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

The concept behind it was based on a three-step space plan, ultimately ending on Mars, said George Mueller, the former top official who is credited as the father of the space shuttle program. To get to Mars, NASA needed a space station circling Earth as a jumping-off point. To get to the space station, NASA wanted a completely reusable space shuttle.

In 1971, President Nixon gave NASA only the shuttle. It had no place to go. The space station wasn’t built until 1998.

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