The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

The ISS, seen here after the recent STS-127 shuttle mission, is nearing completion: what have gotten, and what will we get, from the investment into it? (credit: NASA)

The ISS: a very expensive education

Within the space industry few projects have be the subject of more scorn and derision than the International Space Station. It has been accused of what may be the greatest cost overruns in the history of US government contracting, from an original estimate of $8 billion in 1984 to over $100 billion today. The benefits in science and medicine that were supposed to flow down to Earth have been slow in coming—to put it charitably—and there is no sign that the station has played the role in earth science that some of its supporters claimed it would have.

Thanks to the Marshall Institute’s National Security Space Project’s publication of Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents, we now have, in one convenient book, all of the most significant unclassified papers on US executive branch space policy. So it’s fairly easy to compare what was written in the high-level planning documents with what actually happened.

Seen for the perspective of 2009 the station is just barely beginning to fulfill some of the goals laid out 15 years ago.

In August 1984 the Reagan White House team wrote, “NASA will develop a permanently manned Space Station within a decade. The development of a civil space station will further the goals of space leadership and the peaceful exploration and use of space for the benefit of all mankind. The Space Station will enhance the development of the commercial potential of space. It will facilitate scientific research in space. It will also, in the longer term, serve as the basis for future major civil and commercial activities to explore and exploit space.”

Seen for the perspective of 2009 the station is just barely beginning to fulfill some of these goals. There is no plan and little hope that it will serve as a base for future trips beyond low Earth orbit (LEO); the decision to put it in an orbit that could be reached from Russia’s launch facilities in Kazakhstan effectively killed that possibility. By serving as a destination for the first “space tourists” it has helped create a new industrial sector that was undreamt of by 1984’s officialdom. It has slowly begun to serve as a world-class laboratory and as long as it can maintain a six-person full-time crew, the scientific information derived from work done on the station will only grow in importance. It has also certainly given the US the lead role in building and funding a major international space project.

In 1993 the station came within a single vote of being cancelled along with the Superconducting Supercollider. As Senator Barbara Milulski (quoted in Donald Beattie’s book “ISScapades”) wrote at time, “The mood of the Congress with respect to space is tenuous. With respect to the space station it is downright cranky.” Yet the station survived, justified in part by the Clinton administration’s desire to reach out to Russia. When the first element was launched by Russia in November 1998, the program was still deeply troubled, but it was at least underway. By the standards of most space programs the five years between the ’93 decision to go ahead with the program and the arrival on orbit of the first elements was lightning fast.

NASA had done more than $11 billion worth of preparatory work under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, but it was Bill Clinton who made the final decision and who got to see “his” station put into orbit. His successor, George W. Bush, saw no reason to make any major changes, though budget cuts forced the cancellation of the US Crew Rescue Vehicle (CRV) and the US hab module. Other elements, such as Node 3 and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, were once threatened but are now going to be part of the complex.

Was this worth it? The ISS was unlike any construction project ever attempted. The only thing comparable was the ill-fated Soviet Mir Space Station. So far building the station has required 130 spacewalks and hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours of robotic work. It may be that never again will anyone build a large structure in space using so much human labor. On the other hand, there are limits to what robots can do by themselves. This will depend largely on what one wants to build.

The experience gained with the ISS will influence decisions on space construction projects for many decades to come. If the US and its partners do decide to go ahead and build the Lunar Outpost, the expertise gained building the ISS will influence what mix of robotic and human activity will be needed, as well as how to handle the mission control side of things. Of course private space facilities, such as those planned by Bigelow Aerospace will benefit from this body of knowledge.

There is no question that the debate over the wisdom of the whole space station project will go on for years, well beyond the lifetime of the actual existing station.

As part of the Vision for Space Exploration the station’s use by NASA was going to limited to helping to future trips to the Moon and eventually Mars. The 2005 decision to designate the US part a “National Laboratory” changed this. It opened the way for the ISS to be used for research by non-NASA parts of the federal government and by private industry. It is too early to see any results, but there is at least a glimmer of optimism within the space industry that this may lead to something resembling true commercialization.

There is no question that the debate over the wisdom of the whole space station project will go on for years, well beyond the lifetime of the actual existing station. This is perfectly normal: argument is one of those things that makes us human. No one should be surprised when space industry people, who are in truth, no different from any other crowd of homo sapiens, indulge themselves in it.

Meanwhile, the ISS orbits overhead and we on Earth can occasionally get a glimpse of it. The thing is the only one in existence for at least the next few years, until Bigelow or perhaps the Chinese get the ones they are working on up there. If all goes well the station will be more of less complete in January or February next year when STS-130 delivers Node 3 and the Cupola; the missions after that will be essentially devoted to moving the last bits of furniture into place.

It has cost at least $100 billion, enough to run a small war for a few weeks. The value of the program, like any government project that costs this much, will only be known a long time in the future. Even then the historians will be going at each other since they are, after all, far better at quarreling than even NASA and its critics.