On Tuesday, the space shuttle launched once again on a mission to add another piece to the International Space Station (ISS). As I have said before, it is a needlessly dangerous, unjustifiably expensive, and rather pointless venture. The science could be equally well done by robots, without risking human lives, and without spending about $1.3 billion per launch (plus emitting all the greenhouse gasses from the solid rocket boosters and related activities).
More and more, the ISS looks like a hopeless boondoggle. The lifetime cost is being estimated at $130 billion, all to serve a self-fulfilling mandate: we need to put people into space to scientifically assess what happens when we put people into space. Furthermore, the window between the completion of the ISS in about 2012 and the potential abandonment of the station as soon as 2016 is quite narrow. Robert Park may have summed up the whole enterprise best when he remarked that:
“NASA must complete the ISS so it can be dropped into the ocean on schedule in finished form.”
Normally, I am a big supporter of science. I think funding the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor and Large Hadron Collider is wise; these machines will perform valuable scientific research. Likewise, I support the robotic work NASA does – especially when it comes to scientists looking down on Earth from orbit and providing valuable research and services. I support the James Webb telescope. I also support the idea that NASA should have some decent plans for dealing with an anticipated asteroid or comet impact. The ISS, by contrast, is a combination between technical fascination lacking strategic purpose and pointless subsidies to aerospace contractors.
Of course, the Bush plan to send people to Mars is an even worse idea with higher costs, more risk, and even less value.