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Wasted space

$100 Billion Clunker
Space Station Follies

The Reagan years, falsely known as a conservative revolution, produced three of the most profligate boondoggles ever: The $140 billion missile-shield initiative better known as Star Wars; the $100 billion International Space Station best known as a low-orbit clunker; and the $150 billion savings and loan crisis. That last is being retooled as the costlier and madder housing bust of the moment. Bush has rebirthed Star Wars as the equally absurd “missile shield.” But the space station, thanks to Russia ’s basement-variety computers, may soon be history. Not a moment too soon.

Maybe one or two vaguely accurate tests aside, the missile shield continues to be an abject failure, and continues to devour about $10 billion a year. The space station was supposed to redeem itself and the shuttles it has devoured along the way. Not anymore: “Three Russian computer systems essential to the operation of the International Space Station failed last night, leading NASA to begin making contingency plans that include potentially abandoning the $100 billion facility,” the Post reports. That $100 million figure is, of course, a wild understatement that doesn’t include the costs of the American space shuttle program, which since the mid-1990s has been pretty much earmarked to the space station. The thing itself was never scientifically defensible. As Timothy Ferris wrote in the Times almost ten years ago, just as the first shuttle was lifting off to begin the clunker’s assembly, “the space station is little more than a Motel 6 in low earth orbit, and it marks a step toward the stars only in the sense that cleaning out your attic gets you closer to the Moon.” He went on:

Scientists are almost unanimous in declaring that little can be accomplished in its planned "scientific laboratories" that could not be done in other ways for far less money. Indeed, almost anything could be done for less money than the space station, which has already consumed tens of billions of dollars and is expected to wind up costing anywhere from $40 billion to $100 billion. With NASA's annual budget unlikely to swell much beyond its current $13 billion to $14 billion level any time soon, scientists have good reason to fear that the space station's bills will be paid by curtailing or canceling the "better, faster, cheaper" unmanned missions that can, among other things, help us learn how planetary atmospheres work and thus assess the dangers that may be posed by global warming here on Earth.

Nothing that has happened in the intervening years changed Ferriss’s assessment. The latest failures aboard the space station prove its absurdity. “The computers,” the Post reports, “appeared to be stuck in a rebooting cycle.” Without them, the space station’s gyroscope are no better than gyro sandwiches, and the station’s capacity to produce oxygen is about as good as a DuPont plant, although the station’s three-person crew is said to be in no immediate danger. Somehow, as repairs go on, none of this has the inspiring urgency of an Apollo 13 story. It’s more like watching overfed patricians fix their gilded horse carriage in a suburban garage.

“But as a precaution,” we’re told, “NASA was looking into options to further extend the shuttle's stay, since its power and thrusters could be used to keep the station properly situated to keep the solar panels facing the sun. Returning the station's crew to Earth would be the worst-case scenario.” The worst-case scenario was thinking up the unimaginative, low-orbit thing in the first place. It was letting Ronald Reagan think he was onto something, just as he would think space-based missile warfare could protect the planet from nuclear Armageddon. Imagine instead of those two projects had never been launched, and the money they’ve devoured diverted to more useful, more humane, more earthly needs.

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