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Houston, we have a problem.
That’s the way boosters of the International Space Station (ISS) see reports that the forthcoming Trump administration budget essentially eliminates NASA funding for the orbital ISS after the current authorization ends in 2024. Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz is leading the attack, blaming the “numbskulls” at the Office of Management and Budget. “As a fiscal conservative, you know one of the dumbest things you can do is cancel programs after billions in investment when there is still serious usable life ahead,” he said.
This shows 1) the term “fiscal conservative” has probably lost all real meaning, and 2) Cruz is trying to blame bureaucrats for a decision they’re not empowered to make rather than take on his own party.
“We were supposed to be having space odysseys by 2001,” said director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University Lawrence Krauss. Instead, we got a “boondoggle orbiting in space closer to Earth than Washington D.C. is to New York.”
Steven Weinberg, a particle physicist at the University of Texas at Austin and a co-recipient of the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics, labeled the station “an orbital turkey.”
Yet soon enough the U.S. and other countries were adding their modules to the Russian ones, and by 2014, according to NASA, the agency had paid about $75 billion for the space station—the lion’s share of the total. NASA now spends about $3 to 4 billion a year to maintain the station, with the rest kicked in by Russia and 14 other countries. By comparison, the entire National Cancer Institute research budget for FY 2018 is just over $4 billion.
Initially, the ISS was supposed to shut down in 2020, but four years ago Congress extended its life to 2024. So it’s still getting four more years of funding than was originally intended.
Yet for all of its building and operating costs, the research returns are essentially nil. Sure, NASA has a huge list of experiments performed aboard the ISS with very impressive sounding verbiage. But the fact is, despite the gravity on the space station being slightly less (it’s called “microgravity”: while people seem to think there’s no gravity on the ISS, it’s actually about 0.88 percent that of the earth), you can’t do anything aboard the ISS that can’t also be done far more cheaply on earth.
So when we read that ISS experimentation has produced “novel robotic surgical techniques that may allow the successful removal of tumors previously thought to be inoperable,” we should wonder how a microgravity atmosphere could possibly have played any part in that achievement. Answer: it couldn’t have.
Meanwhile, many microgravity experiments can be done on the reduced gravity aircraft that NASA has been using since 1957 to train astronauts, charmingly dubbed “Vomit Comets.”
When Cruz talks about the station’s “serious usable life,” he seems to be referring to the structure itself, which, admittedly, can stay in orbit a long time before its orbit decays. But so what? The U.S.S. Constitution has been afloat since 1798. The best explanation for Cruz’s actions is that his state is home to the Johnson Space Center—which NASA labels the “heart of” its “human spaceflight program”—and that he’s chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science, Space, and Competitiveness, which (surprise!) oversees the NASA budget.
There’s nothing a politician hates more than losing control of a purse string. At least the ranking Democrat on the committee, Bill Nelson of Florida, was more honest in saying he would fight the shutdown simply because “such a move would likely decimate Florida’s blossoming commercial space industry.” Florida über alles!
When will taxpayers stop footing the bill? Leaked NASA documents make reference to a possible privatization of the ISS, which may be a White House ploy to show up anyone who says the space station has any real value. But such a proposal won’t get off the launching pad. Short of making it a “Galaxyland” for the ultra-rich (hosted not by Mickey Mouse, but Pluto, of course), private industry can’t make any more use of the space turkey than governments have.
They just don’t make basters that big.