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Can't We Just Stop Getting Along?

There's a forum tonight in our nation's capital to discuss the benefits (and I hope, the pitfalls) of international cooperation in space.

There are two traditional arguments for it. The first is that cooperation in space promotes cooperation on other levels, and promotes world peace in general. The second is that it saves money and makes projects affordable that wouldn't be if carried out alone.

There are also some other reasons, particularly in the case of the space station, that international cooperation is favored by the bureaucrats at the State Department.

It offered a means of providing foreign aid to Russia, without having it counted against the foreign aid budget. In the early 1990s, there were also some national security aspects to this — the hope was that by paying Russian engineers to build space station hardware, it would deter them from taking pay from countries in the "Axis of Evil" to build nuclear weapons, and missiles with which to deliver them. Think of it as "midnight basketball" for the Russians.

But despite this, the money came not from the defense budget — it came from NASA. And, unfortunately, it didn't always work.

Another benefit, that few appreciate, is that it keeps our allies' space programs under our control. We've learned well the lesson of Ariane, in which the Europeans developed their own launch system because we placed many conditions on flying a payload for them back in the 70s. The European system has since grabbed much of the commercial launch market.

It's much easier to jerk the Japanese and Europeans around, and prevent them from going off on their own and potentially doing something that will actually put them ahead of us in space (not very difficult, if one wanted to make a little investment), if we inextricably entangle them in our own space policy mess. It allows us to hobble them, instead of just ourselves.

But assuming, just for the sake of argument, that our goal is to actually make serious progress on the high frontier (though there's little available evidence that that's actually the case), then cooperative efforts are probably counterproductive.

As I already mentioned, there is a myth that it makes space activities more affordable. In fact, it probably increases costs.

It certainly does for the program as a whole, due to the intrinsic management inefficiencies of such a program, and the vast increase in political influences on program decisions. But it probably increases them for the U.S. as well, compared to an efficient program designed to meet technical and cost goals (as opposed to the existing one, aimed at creating jobs in Texas, Alabama, Florida, France and Russia).

Certainly the many delays caused by failure of the Russians to deliver hardware on schedule in the 90s were a significant contributor to the billions of dollars in overruns currently plaguing the ISS program (though certainly not the only one). Unfortunately, much of the money went to dachas, yachts and off-shore bank accounts of crooked Russian politicians, rather than to the engineers to build space hardware (which may explain why some of them still sold missile guidance systems to Iran), but Al Gore never seemed to mind.

And of course, it reduces, and even eliminates any prospect (however small) of actual competition, which might show up our activities for the overpriced welfare for engineers that many of them, sadly, are.

But even if, in defiance of history, it actually did save us money to join with other nations, the notion that we can't afford it on our own is silly. The NASA budget is less than one percent of the federal budget. As a nation, we spend about as much on pet food as we do on space. We can easily afford it--we simply choose not to.

While it sounds lofty and enobling, like the Outer Space Treaty, this mindset of "going to space in peace for all mankind" is an outdated Cold War relic that has not served us well in expanding into space. Historically, there have been two primary fuels for human progress — fear and greed. Fear got us to the Moon in the 1960s, and we did it alone.

Now, to have a sustainable effort, we must harness greed, and that means, at least in part, competition. Consider: we made more progress in space in the eight years that we were racing the Russians than we have in the two decades in which we've been engaged in an "internationally cooperative" space station. As another example, consider how rapidly, and ahead of schedule, we decoded the human genome, once there was competition from the private sector.

With only one player in the race, there's no way to judge progress — if a space station that was supposed to launch in 1992 isn't up until 2002, it's too easy to simply say, "it's just hard — no one else could do any better." When someone else beats you to it, though (especially when they have comparable, or even less funding), it's a lot more difficult to make excuses.

I wish other nations well in their space efforts, and hope that they will be vigorous and successful, but I don't want to hold their hands (in space, no one can hear you sing "Kumbaya"). I want to compete with them, so that we all are motivated to do our best. That is how we progress in every other sphere of life, and it's the most promising route for progress in space as well.

New Judging Scandal

Well, it's no wonder Miss Russia won the fraudulently-named Miss Universe contest — they restricted the competition to earthlings. This is even more egregious than the so-called "World Series" of baseball. After the Olympic skating scandal, I'm surprised that this hasn't gotten more media attention.

Hmmm...on second thought, based on the picture of Miss Mars and description of Miss Venus, I suspect that Ms. Fedorova would have won anyway, at least if competition was restricted to this solar system.

Letters

Because of the Denial of Service attack on Fox last Thursday, not that many people read my column about space station lifeboats. However, I did get a few disagreements, and have responded to them at my weblog.

I also got an email from Lyle Jenkins, who is doing some interesting work to figure out how to use space to tame weather on the earth. Cool.

Rand, I agree with your article on the "lifeboat". It is another case of NASA management's flawed judgement, like the single stage to orbit program.

I guess that you have relapsed if you were trying to recover from aerospace.

I'm recovering from engineering, Lyle — not aerospace...

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 Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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