Space Pork: It's the $96 billion space station no one seems to want. So why won't Congress kill it?

July 24 2000

By Jeffrey Kluger,

When you spend 16 years and billions of dollars designing a new home, you'd think everyone would get a place to sleep. Last week, however, when the Russian space agency launched into orbit the 22-ton Zvezda service module--the latest, $320 million addition to the much delayed International Space Station--officials conceded they had overlooked something. Though the school bus-size pod will be home to three astronauts for four months at a time, it has been outfitted with only two tiny sleeping berths--leaving one crewman no place to bunk.

It's possible no one aboard Zvezda will be sleeping much anyway, since the ship was built with so little noise muffling that the crew has to wear earplugs to shut out the din of onboard equipment. Then there's the temporary lack of shielding to protect the module from a rogue meteor hit--a potential calamity that could keep any astronaut awake at night.

Despite such obvious design glitches, the launch of Zvezda was greeted with jubilation--and for good reason. The U.S.-led, 16-nation ISS had been on hold for two years while the cash-poor Russians tried to scare up the funds to get the module built and launched. It was only with an infusion of dollars from Washington--as well as from so capitalist a benefactor as Pizza Hut, which bought advertising space on the side of the Zvezda booster--that the job was completed. Zvezda now joins the Zarya and Unity modules, which have been in orbit since 1998, forming the centerpiece of a massive 360-ft.-long, 460-ton space liner, set to be completed in 2005.

Remarkable as the ISS may one day be, it's a ship that never should have set sail, critics say. Its cost is at least eight times the initial estimates, and the hardware is nearly a decade behind schedule. And after the ISS is built, there may be nothing for it to do. Many of the medical studies NASA hopes to conduct have been performed aboard Russia's Mir space station; other work on materials manufacturing could be performed by unmanned ships.

Despite all these problems, the ISS is probably here to stay. In the years the station has been in the works, it has become that rarest of Washington creations, the politically indestructible extravagance. How a project that has sparked so little interest and so much skepticism has taken on such an aura of inevitability is a case study in how good bureaucratic ideas turn bad--and bad ideas stick around. "The only way we're not going to have the station," says Chris Mehl, spokesman for Indiana Representative Tim Roemer, "is if pieces fall out of the sky."

The ISS, like so many of Washington's big-ticket programs, was a creature of the cold war. In 1984, President Reagan, smarting from the Soviet Union's long line of successful space stations, announced that the U.S. was getting into the station game. The American entry would measure a whopping 500 ft., cost a frugal $8 billion and go online by 1992. Dreaming up so grand a machine turned out to be a lot easier than designing it, however, and over the next eight years, NASA spent a staggering $10 billion drawing and discarding blueprints, without a single piece of metal ever getting cut. "The space agency has no clue how to develop anything large anymore," says James Muncy, a former staff member on the House Space and Aeronautics subcommittee.

With the public cool to the pricey project, sentiment grew to pull the plug on it. But history stepped in. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, U.S. spending on cold war weaponry began to dry up, threatening to push the defense industry into a recession. A way was needed to help keep aerospace contractors busy without relying on the Pentagon, and the space station was just the thing. In 1993, President Clinton ordered NASA to come up with a slimmed-down station that could include Russia as a cost-sharing partner. Even in a Congress raised on pork, such seeming make-work did not go down easily. In June 1993, Roemer introduced an amendment to cut off station funding. The measure failed, but only by a whisker, 216 to 215. In a partisan Congress, a one-vote margin is a tenuous thing, and in order to widen the gap, NASA turned to a time-tested budgetary strategy, spreading the wealth.

ISS supporters had not failed to notice that as close as the 1993 vote was, the delegations from Alabama, Florida and Texas were almost unanimous in their support, since it was in their states that much station work would be done. As early as 1992, NASA lobbyists had been descending on Washington with cheery charts and maps making the point that as the project grew, the money would seep out in countless directions. BUSINESS GETTING BUCK$, one map read, promising a "procurement constituency" of 40 states. After the 1993 vote, this hard sell only increased. "NASA approached this the way a defense project is approached," says Mehl. "I don't think pork necessarily changes minds. It's just an insurance policy."

If so, it's a policy that's paying off. The space station's prime contractor is Boeing, with offices in Seattle, Houston and Huntsville, Ala. In recent years, however, NASA has distributed the goodies to 67 other prime contractors and 35 major subcontractors in 22 states. Much of the most important work is being done on the home turf of some of Washington's key lawmakers. Boeing's Huntington Beach, Calif., facility, for example, is located in the district of Republican Dana Rohrabacher, chairman of the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee. The Alabama district of Democrat Robert Cramer Jr., of the VA, HUD and Independent Agencies subcommittee, is home to the Marshall Space Flight Center. Whether scattering space-station work this way has changed individual lawmakers' minds is impossible to say, but Congress has clearly grown to like the project. In 1994, the station's one-vote funding margin grew to a comfortable 278 to 155. In 1999, it was a landslide 337 to 92.

NASA administrator Daniel Goldin bristles at the idea that there is any cunning behind the selection of ISS contractors, insisting that the choices are dictated by economic realities--and his point has merit. With a project as big as the station, there's no such thing as one-stop shopping, and NASA must go where the companies are. "Under this administrator," Goldin says, "we actually streamlined the program."

Streamlined or not, the station is costing more than ever. The Clinton Administration promised that U.S. spending on the ISS would be capped at $17.4 billion--on top of the $10 billion already spent, that is. But production problems and periodic bailouts of the Russians have pushed that figure closer to $25 billion. Boeing and others stress that up to 90% of the hardware has been built without busting the federal budget. That money, however, does not include the dozens of shuttle flights that will be necessary to ferry the ISS components into space, adding $15 billion to $20 billion to the bottom line. Even after the construction work is done, many contractors will stay on board to support the ISS over its 20-year life-span. "We need the contractors so that if problems arise, we can get to the right people," says Greg Martin, a Boeing manager. Adding two decades of this high-priced consulting and repair work could push costs upwards of $96 billion.

Whether such a jaw-dropping figure is worth it for so scientifically dubious a project is unclear. Goldin--who has made "better, faster, cheaper" NASA's operating refrain--insists it is. "This is about America's quest to go to Mars and back to the moon," he says.

It's too early to tell if the space station can help the country accomplish anything so ambitious. In October a shuttle will deliver the first piece of the enormous truss that will hold the ISS's solar panels and modules in place. By November the first three-man crew may be aboard. NASA's latest budget has been stalled in Congress as lawmakers debate new ISS spending caps. But if history is any indication, the differences will be resolved, and the spending will go on. When taxpayers get the final bill, the Zvezda astronauts may not be the only ones losing sleep.

The Bottom Line
INITIAL DESIGN -- $10 billion
HARDWARE -- $25 billion
SHUTTLE COSTS -- $20 billion
MAINTENANCE -- $41 billion
GRAND TOTAL -- $96 billion

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