The International Space Station continues, amidst politics and its own Arthur Andersen accounting mess, to inch forward.

The current mission of the Space Shuttle Atlantis will add a key element to the station — a truss to provide the backbone for assembly tools and the additional solar panels and radiators needed to provide adequate power for the scientific research envisioned for it.

The Space Station program started formally with an announcement in President Reagan's State of the Union address back in 1984 (though millions had been spent on conceptual studies for years prior to that). Its stated purpose was to perform scientific research but its true purpose was to give NASA something to do as the Shuttle development wound down, (just as the development of the Shuttle kept NASA centers occupied and maintained the jobs base in critical congressional districts after the end of Apollo a decade earlier.)

Later, its purpose transmogrified into promoting "international cooperation" (and in the 1990s, providing "midnight basketball" for the Russian scientists who might otherwise be working for Saddam Hussein or North Korea).

And because requirements were never defined very well, and changed almost every year, and it wasn't necessary to actually build hardware and launch it into space in order to meet any of the above true program goals, the program spent a lot of money for many years without a lot of results. The original hope was for a station in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the New World. Instead, the first piece of hardware didn't go into orbit until almost the end of the century.

But now we have a space station, of sorts. Much is made of how large it is. And if you simply put a yardstick on it, or count miles of plumbing or wiring, it is certainly the largest structure we've ever put in space.

But this is misleading. For all of its supposedly gargantuan attributes, it remains unable to support more people (three) than our first space station — Skylab — launched over a quarter of a century ago.

Indeed, the crew size is so small, in a facility so complex, that almost all available crew time will be spent in constructing and maintaining the space station itself, rather than in doing any actual science. So on a dollars per manned-space-science basis, we've gone backwards since the 1970s.

I've previously discussed the economics of the Space Shuttle, and why it's so expensive to operate for reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that it's a space vehicle. When you need a multi-billion dollar infrastructure to operate a vehicle, and only fly that vehicle a few times a year, every flight is going to be wallet-achingly expensive. The ISS has the same problem; it has no economies of scale. It all comes down to the difference between fixed and variable costs.

In the first 15 years of the program, a billion or two was spent year after year in designing and redesigning and planning and building mockups and prototypes  — and eventually tooling to actually build space station components.

If they had cut the program off a couple years before they had actually launched the first component, they could have spent upwards of $20 billion without building anything. The cost of the actual hardware itself, in comparison to this expenditure, is quite small. That means that, at least in theory, the cost of building the station much larger, or multiple stations, wouldn't be that much more.

Here's a real-life example (though the numbers will be approximate). Back in the late 1980s, when I worked on the program, the estimated cost to completion was about $30 billion. The people at NASA were told that due to budget constraints, they had to cut 5 billion out of it. A program manager at NASA (who will remain nameless) told me, "that's the cost of the hardware!"

In other words, in terms of actually building a space station, they could spend $25 billion and get nothing, or spend $30 billion and get what they planned. And this implies that they could spend $35 billion and get twice what they planned, for an increase in costs of only 17 percent. Another way to look at it is that for a doubling of the budget, they could have a station five times the size. (This is a little oversimplified, but you get the idea.)

Why do we have such a penny-saved, pound-foolish space program?

Because space isn't important. It doesn't matter whether the space station is as large as it is, or half that size, or 10 times that size or doesn't get built at all, because the people making the funding decisions don't really care how big it is. The only thing they care about is how many jobs (not how much wealth) it creates, or how much international cooperation it promotes.

No one will ever lose an election because we don't have a good civil space station. That's why, if we really do care about having useful and cost-effective space stations, and other things, it's important to get space activities out of the Big Government Program mode that they've been in since the Cold War and into the private sector. Because private enterprise will care about actual outputs and marginal costs, and value for the dollar, in a way that governments never do.

Irony

A Palestinian woman received a kidney donated by a Jewish victim of a suicide-bombing. Can anyone imagine the reverse occurring? A Palestinian government (modeled after the current Palestinian Authority) allowing a Jew to receive an organ from a Palestinian who was killed by Israelis?

Compare and contrast two cultures: one that celebrates murder and destruction, and another that offers life to the innocents of its enemies, born from the deaths that they deliberately cause.

Really Stupid White Man

Michael Moore a plagiarist? I'm shocked, shocked.

He could now join the ranks of Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose, except that unlike him they actually plagiarized things worth reading.

And the notion that he's being accused by a San Francisco activist of stealing her material? That's rich. Since when does such a person care for such bourgeois notions as intellectual (or for that matter, any private) property?

(Link is to the summary; full article only available from Salon Premium.)

Letters

On the Gagarin anniversary piece, Dave Landgraf notes: 

...he landed short of where he took off. He did not complete one full circumferential path about the planet. Thus, he is not the first to orbit the earth. ...This so-called orbit was not a stable one; a better term would be "extended sub-orbital flight..."

...Yuri did some brave stuff that day. The Russians accomplished a major milestone in human spaceflight. But Gagarin was not the first man in orbit...

I thank Dave for his comments, and I stand corrected. As he points out in his email, the facts in this were obscured throughout the Cold War, and only came to light in the last few years as Soviet-era documents became available. However, it doesn't change the basic fact that the Soviets beat us in a major milestone, and the history as I described it followed. 

On the subject of a new Jewish homeland, Walter Callahan cautions:

Ken Layne's comments may have been intended as humorous but it just shows how easy it is to be anti-Semitic.

Well, why move the Jews!! Move the Palestinians instead. They're the ones without a country! They're the ones blowing people up! They're the dangerous ones. Get them as far away as possible.

I don't really want to discuss creationism any more, since I never really intended to poke that anthill in the first place, but I'll publish just three more emails (and no more).

Timothy Bowman asks:

How can we place our human limits on the one entity that has existed from the beginning? Taken in that context, why can't we say that there was an intelligent design to the universe?

We can say that. We can say whatever we want. That doesn't make it science.

Scott Bell says:

I am a professing Christian of the evangelical stripe, and I have no problem with evolution. I find beauty in the Creation, regardless of the method.

Finally, Andrew Ward comments:

Your Creationist mail reminds me of a line from footage of a Creationism/Science debate broadcast some years ago. The Creation defender took the stage for his opening remarks and intoned of his opponent, "This man would have you believe that hydrogen is a colorless, odorless gas that, when left alone long enough, forms people."

I had never even considered that such a concise statement of modern cosmology was possible.

Thanks for the entertaining text.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Webblog, Transterrestrial Musings.

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