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updated 7/5/2011 8:12:26 AM ET 2011-07-05T12:12:26

At $196 billion, the amount of money taxpayers spent during the lifetime of the space shuttle program seems astronomical.

But the entire federal government spends that much in just three weeks. In big bucks Washington, even $196 billion is relative.

The space shuttle is a bargain compared to wars, health care, tax cuts and budget deficits. But compared to the Apollo program and even some of the banking, auto and insurance industry bailouts, the price for going into orbit seems a tad high.

For that $196 billion, America got five space shuttles and what will be 135 flights, when the last launch scheduled for July 8 is included. That figure includes design and construction spending dating back 40 years to when the program was first conceived. When all of that's included, the cost per launch is about $1.5 billion. If you exclude those early expenses and costs for upgrades and so forth, the average operating cost of a shuttle flight is $847 million.

So even at the cheaper calculation, each shuttle launch on average costs more than the $800 million that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration spends in an entire year on food safety.

The overall $196 billion is also slightly more than the $182 billion bailout of failed insurance giant AIG and much more than the $45 billion apiece that went to Bank of America and Citigroup to shore them up in 2008 when the nation's financial system was teetering on the brink. It dwarfs the $49.5 billion rescue of General Motors and the $12.5 billion bailout of Chrysler.

Compared to other big engineering concepts, even when adjusted for inflation, the space shuttle program may have gotten less bang for more bucks. The Apollo program to the moon cost $156 billion, the Manhattan project that created the first nuclear bomb cost about $29 billion, and digging the Panama Canal cost $8 billion, according to the Smithsonian Institution. America got the moon, the bomb, and the canal for a total of $193 billion — $3 billion less than the space shuttle.

But compared to other federal spending, the space shuttle barely gets off the ground in terms of big money.

In 2010, Medicare spent $196 billion in about five months. The 40-year lifetime price tag of the space shuttle program is less than one-sixth the government's $1.2 trillion estimate for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars so far. The current federal budget deficit is heading for about $1.4 trillion — seven times the shuttle program's overall cost. Experts put the cost to federal coffers of the 2001 tax cut at somewhere between $1 trillion and $2 trillion.

For a more down-to-Earth comparison, the space shuttle doesn't quite measure up to the family car. It costs about 59 cents a mile to drive a car on average, according to AAA. The cost of the 535 million miles flown by the space shuttle is about $361 per mile.

AP news researcher Judith Ausuebel in New York contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: It's the final countdown for US shuttle program

  1. Closed captioning of: It's the final countdown for US shuttle program

    >>> this week, marks the beginning of the end of an era. the final countdown for america 's space shuttle program . the shuttle "atlantis" is scheduled to lift off on friday with a crew of four on a resupply mission to the international space station . tonight, nbc's tom costello looks back at three decades of stunning achievement and tragic setbacks.

    >> reporter: ask anyone old enough to remember april 12th , 1981 , and chances are, they do.

    >> the shuttle has cleared the tower.

    >> reporter: columbia rocketed to the space with its crew of two. settle i think we've got something that's really going to mean something to the crew and the world.

    >> reporter: after two days of orbit it landed safely in the california desert. "atlantis's" crew of four is preparing for the final countdown .

    >> we want to make sure that the thousands and thousands of people that put their hands on the space shuttle are honored by this mission and the legacy of the space shuttle .

    >> reporter: for three decades, the shuttle program has brought incredible triumph. the launch of the hubble telescope , john glen 's return to space, the construction of the international space station , and the hubble repair mission. but also, tragedy. the loss of "challenger" and columbia. and lingering questions about whether spending 14 years in low- earth orbit has been worth the financial and scientific investment.

    >> it's been remarkable in what it's been able to accomplish. it's been stunning in what we've been able to learn from it.

    >> reporter: with the launch of the shuttle program , tens of thousands of workers across the country are losing their jobs. many in florida. until commercial rockets are ready, american will rely on the russian space program to carry astronauts into space. but the head of nasa insists america is not giving up its leadership.

    >> some of my best friends died flying on the shuttle. and i'm not about to let human space flight go away on my watch.

    >> reporter: meanwhile, the burden of the final mission falls on commander chris ferguson .

    >> i hope that i paint nasa in the finest light, that we pull off the cleanest mission that is possible. because we want to finish on the strongest note.

    >> reporter: a strong close as america turns the page in space exploration . tom costello, nbc news, washington.

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