The foolishness of the International Space Station

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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.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

23 thoughts on “The foolishness of the International Space Station”

  1. Methodology for the 1.3 billion dollar per Space Shuttle launch figure:

    Per-launch costs can be measured by dividing the total cost over the life of the program (including buildings, facilities, training, salaries, etc) by the number of launches. With 115 missions (as of 6 August 2006), and a total cost of $150 billion ($145 billion as of early 2005 + $5 billion for 2005, this gives approximately $1.3 billion per launch. Another method is to calculate the incremental (or marginal) cost differential to add or subtract one flight — just the immediate resources expended/saved/involved in that one flight. This is about $60 million.

    It does seem fair to include all the related costs in the figure, though it is also fair to recognize that the overall program costs per launch decrease as the number of launches goes up.

  2. Money gets wasted on far less useful things than spaceflight, and astronauts are happy to face the risks involved. They are certainly qualified to make the choice.

  3. So the total cost of the ISS will be what? Enough to cover the Iraq war for three, maybe 4 months? On the other hand, money wasted on the ISS and other manned spaceflight is usually money taken from more productive research.

  4. Neal.

    If you use the Iraq war to assess opportunity cost, virtually everything looks like a good investment.

  5. NASA ponders space station power problem
    Reuters Canada – 8 hours ago
    By Irene Klotz CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) – Two spacewalking astronauts on Sunday found metal shavings inside a huge gear that spins a pair of the International Space Station’s solar wing panels, raising concerns about power supplies and the …

  6. The World Meteorological Organization has issued an appeal at the Bali climate change conference for more satellites and weather monitoring equipment.
    CBC Radio – World Report
    Tuesday, December 4, 2007 – 08:00 EDT
    The World Meteorological Organization has issued an appeal at the Bali climate change conference for more satellites and weather monitoring equipment. It says there are large gaps in the forecasting picture they can create on any given day. And as Michael McAuliffe reports, most of those gaps are in developing countries.

  7. Obama Team Considers Cancellation of Ares, Orion

    “US President-elect Barack Obama’s NASA transition team is asking US space agency officials to quantify how much money could be saved by canceling the Ares 1 rocket and scaling back the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle next year. … The questionnaire, ‘NASA Presidential Transition Team Requests for Information,’ asks agency officials to provide the latest information on Ares 1, Orion and the planned Ares 5 heavy-lift cargo launcher, and to calculate the near-term close-out costs and longer-term savings associated with canceling those programs. The questionnaire also contemplates a scenario where Ares 1 would be canceled but development of the Ares 5 would continue. While the questionnaire, a copy of which was obtained by Space News, also asks NASA to provide a cost estimate for accelerating the first operational flight of Ares 1 and Orion from the current target date of March 2015 to as soon as 2013, NASA was not asked to study the cost implications of canceling any of its other programs, including the significantly overbudget 2009 Mars Science Laboratory or the James Webb Space Telescope.”

  8. Russia ‘to save its ISS modules’
    By Anatoly Zak
    Science reporter

    Russia is making plans to detach and fly away its parts of the International Space Station when the time comes to de-orbit the rest of the outpost.

    Industry officials told BBC News of plans to keep the Russian ISS modules flying around a decade from now.

    ISS partners are optimistic they will be able to extend funding for the project beyond a current 2015 deadline.

    But most observers agree that most of the International Space Station will have to be scrapped around 2020.

    According to the plans, the remaining Russian modules will form the core of a new orbital outpost, which would serve as a haven and assembly shop for deep space missions heading to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

  9. I disagree with how you’ve characterized the space station, especially the part about robots being able to do it in place of humans. Robots can do a lot of things in place of humans. They could be made to ride a bike, take a stroll in the park, etc. Where’s the adventure in that? How would that inspire an interest in science? I don’t know how you could quantify it, but I would think the ISS has inspired an interest in science in many children, which is invaluable in and of itself. Certainly when I think of my own childhood I had an absolute fascination with the Space Shuttle (not station) which has likely influenced to some extent my choosing a science oriented field.

    The science could be equally well done by robots, without risking human lives…

    If individuals are willing to risk their own lives, why not let them? I think that’s probably the worst argument of all. For instance Challenger and Columbia both were big loses of life for the space program, but in the end the risk was the crew’s to take. If you look at the cost-benefit of the Space program in terms of human lives lost vs science gained, I’d say the science gains have outweighed the losses.

    I think the issue has been presented far too black & white here. You can make the argument the money would be better spent elsewhere for almost anything. Somethings have been better investments and somethings worse, but I think the space program is valuable. Even if the ISS is a total waste of time itself, the support of it at least retains engineers and scientists with a certain skill set needed for working with things in space who are of use for other things, too.

  10. Here is a link from TED for Burt Rutan’s talk about spaceflight. It’s not the best talk in my estimation, but he touches on the point I brought up about inspiring people. He also talks a lot about NASA wasting money, as well as human danger which supports the premise of the original post.

    Some (opinonated) background:
    Burt Rutan used to be one of my idols. From an engineering aspect, he still is . His contribution to unique, efficient, innovative aircraft design is absolutely vast, and he’s a testament to what individuals and small companies are capable. On the other hand, more recently, a lot of his technology has gone to the US war machine, so when he rails against government wastefulness it is with a great deal of hypocrisy, seeing as a lot of his funding comes from them.

  11. How would that inspire an interest in science?

    I agree that manned spaceflight does generate interest in science, but I question whether it does so to a degree that counterbalances the opposing costs. Robotic missions can also be inspirational, particularly if they go to previously unexplored places that humans may never reach, such as the outer planets and their moons.

    If individuals are willing to risk their own lives, why not let them?

    Astronauts are definitely qualified to assess the risks they face and make an informed choice. The real argument against manned spaceflight is that it is costly (taking away funds from more scientifically useful projects) and that the only real aim it serves is learning how to do more manned spaceflight, a field of knowledge with little usefulness in the foreseeable future.

    Even if the ISS is a total waste of time itself, the support of it at least retains engineers and scientists with a certain skill set needed for working with things in space who are of use for other things, too.

    Couldn’t these people otherwise be working on more useful space programs, such as climate modeling, or pure scientific research into astronomy, cosmology, physics, etc?

  12. Couldn’t these people otherwise be working on more useful space programs, such as climate modeling, or pure scientific research into astronomy, cosmology, physics, etc?

    I think one can make the argument that if manned spaceflight hadn’t been a priority, a lot of spin-off technology (satellites and their support systems) would be decades behind where they are now. Remember, a lot of the heavy lift rocket technology in use would have had its research beginnings in manned spaceflight.

    For similar reasons, I don’t think we can know exactly what the consequences of not currently having an ongoing manned space program. I know that’s not a very strong line of debate, to say that we’re probably benefiting from the ISS in ways we don’t know yet, but I think it’s the case.

    Furthermore, there is real science to be done in microgravity that I believe is done so much easier by people rather than robots. Preparing and monitoring biological experiments in space, for example, is a task humans are better at than robots. Of the experiments (to cite a modern example, stem cell research) that require microgravity, what better a venue than a permanent station?

  13. I don’t deny that there are some useful spinoffs and some important science is done, the question is whether that justifies the costs, given the other things we need to do as a society.

    There are certainly even less productive activities that I would scrap first, if I had the influence.

  14. NASA Plans to De-Orbit ISS in 2016

    By CmdrTaco on everybody-duck

    NewbieV writes “The international space station is by far the largest spacecraft ever built by earthlings. Circling the Earth every 90 minutes, it often passes over North America and is visible from the ground when night has fallen but the station, up high, is still bathed in sunlight. After more than a decade of construction, it is nearing completion and finally has a full crew of six astronauts. The last components should be installed by the end of next year. And then? “In the first quarter of 2016, we’ll prep and de-orbit the spacecraft,” says NASA’s space station program manager, Michael T. Suffredini.”

  15. “Overall, the report is a healthy dose of reality for NASA. It warns that the agency’s goals need to match its budget, and that it needs to internationalise its efforts, in order to make the most of its investments. For similar reasons the report tells NASA to extend the life of the space station. Abandoning the station in 2015, as is now the plan, would probably impair America’s ability to lead international partnerships in the future. Spending a quarter of a century building something and then scuttling it looks bad, even if the useful science that has been done on board could be written up on the back of a postage stamp.”

  16. U.S.: The Ares and the Future of Manned Spaceflight
    October 28, 2009

    The Oct. 28 launch of the Ares I-X, a test vehicle for a new design that may one day replace the space shuttle for putting humans in orbit, comes as the White House is examining the direction for NASA. Whatever decisions are made about that direction will have considerable consequences that will be felt well into the 2020s.

    The credibility of the U.S. ability to put humans into orbit is at stake. As many, including STRATFOR, have already noted, the retirement of the space shuttle could leave a gap in the American ability to put humans in space of five to seven years until the late 2010s. (The last shuttle missions are scheduled for 2010, but may well slip into 2011.) For the remainder of the International Space Station’s (ISS) scheduled service life — currently set to end in 2016 — Russia will be the only country with a proven system capable of taking humans into low-Earth orbit (though some commercial prospects and potential alternatives are under development in the United States). Thus, by the time Ares I is scheduled to become operational, the only place humans would go in low-Earth orbit, the ISS, is slated for decommissioning.

    For our part, STRATFOR considers space and space access to be of critical strategic importance. But the key assets in space at present are unmanned satellites. The implications of a lack of nationally controlled U.S. manned access — though it is certainly noteworthy that the second nation to put a man in space and the first to put a man on the moon will be without it for the first time since then — are not necessarily of immediate strategic concern.

  17. Yet none of this was the Space Age as envisaged by the enthusiastic “space cadets” who got the whole thing going. Though engineers like Wernher von Braun, who built the rockets for both Germany’s second-world-war V2 project and America’s cold-war Apollo project, sold their souls to the military establishment in order to pursue their dreams of space travel by the only means then available, most of them had their eyes on a higher prize. “First Men to a Geostationary Orbit” does not have quite the same ring as “First Men to the Moon”, a book von Braun wrote in 1958. The vision being sold in the 1950s and 1960s, when the early space rockets were flying, was of adventure and exploration. The facts of the American space project and its Soviet counterpart elided seamlessly into the fantasy of “Star Trek” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Other planets may or may not have been inhabited by aliens, but they, and even other stars, were there for the taking. That the taking would begin in the lifetimes of people then alive was widely assumed to be true.

    No longer. It is quite conceivable that 36,000km will prove the limit of human ambition. It is equally conceivable that the fantasy-made-reality of human space flight will return to fantasy. It is likely that the Space Age is over.

    Today’s space cadets will, no doubt, oppose that claim vigorously. They will, in particular, point to the private ventures of people like Elon Musk in America and Sir Richard Branson in Britain, who hope to make human space flight commercially viable. Indeed, the enterprise of such people might do just that. But the market seems small and vulnerable. One part, space tourism, is a luxury service that is, in any case, unlikely to go beyond low-Earth orbit at best (the cost of getting even as far as the moon would reduce the number of potential clients to a handful). The other source of revenue is ferrying astronauts to the benighted International Space Station (ISS), surely the biggest waste of money, at $100 billion and counting, that has ever been built in the name of science.

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