INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION

by David Hartgrove

I want to address the controversy about the International Space Station (ISS); the largest construction project ever attempted in space. If NASA has its way, by the end of 2003 thereíll be another shooting star racing across the sky every 90 minutes. Sixteen nations are scheduled to work on completing the station and when finished (if itís finished) itíll have a solar panel array 356 feet wide mounted above a hodgepodge collection of motor home sized labs measuring 290 feet in length; almost as long as a football field. Youíll have no trouble seeing it. Only Venus and the Moon will be brighter or more visible.

The total estimated cost is 40 billion dollars. The U.S. is supposed to pay 17.4 billion of that. Itís only because we have spent so much time wondering how our government could manage to squander so much money, that weíre able to imagine the impact these kinds of numbers have. And because weíve had so much experience watching the government waste these kinds of sums in the past, we know that these estimates will never prove accurate. Un-official estimates range as high as 100 billion. How much of that gross sum will we be asked to pony up ?

Already thereís talk that due to Russiaís continued financial and institutional meltdown, Congress will have to fund portions of the station that the Russians were scheduled to build. Much of the 100 million already sent to Russia to fund the completion of whatís scheduled to be the third segment of the ISS, the so-called service module, has apparently disappeared into the pockets of Russian Mafia. Itís said that the money paid for construction of huge, palatial homes for these new "venture capitalists". Meanwhile, the Russian contractors who built portions of the service module havenít been paid, so theyíre holding their hardware hostage. NASA has already given more than 470 million to help Russia maintain its station, Mir. In addition we paid the Russians 210 million for the first section of the ISS that was launched last November. And now NASA is asking for 660 million more over the next four years to fund hardware that the Russians committed to funding and now canít afford. The question is, can we afford it ?

Part of the strategy for NASAís funding managers seems to be to convince Congress that weíve already spent so much money that weíd risk losing more if we donít build the station. Now theyíve come up with yet another plan: privatization. Itís estimated that the station (if itís ever finished) will cost 1.5 billion a year to operate. Congress has now mandated that the station should be privatized as much as possible to help defray the cost to the taxpayers. Does this mean that the surfaces of the ISS will be plastered with ads for Coke, Budweiser and Ford ? The issue is still being studied. Ironically, Russia, that one time bastion of anti-capitalist rhetoric, pioneered the placement of ads on the sides of its space craft so they could continue their space program. And with their resources hemorrhaging at a record rate, the Russians have spent nearly 250 million to send a final mission to Mir. When I asked a NASA official whether or not this put the probability of their completing their portion of the ISS in jeopardy, he danced around the issue. And then added that the feeling around NASA was that what was really in jeopardy was Russiaís ability to get their crew back home safely. No matter how many corporate logos are plastered on the sides if the ISS; no matter how much money they charge for video and photo access to the views from space that weíve already paid for, the example of the Space Shuttle should show is that itíll come no where near compensating for the enormous outlay of funds.

Thereís also a great deal of danger involved. Complete construction will require at least 43 space flights to haul nearly half a million tons of hardware into orbit and assemble it -- 34 of these will be shuttle flights. If the Challenger accident proved anything, it proved just how risky space flight is. What are the odds that one or more of those 34 flights will end in disaster ? A statistical analysis done by a British firm estimated that the chance of at least one major failure during assembly was 73.6 %.

So, the cost is going to far surpass anyoneís wildest nightmare. The danger is so great that itís almost certain that there will be a catastrophic loss of life and property during construction. Why is the PR machine cranked to the level of a "phaser on overload" ? In spite of NASAís successes with un-manned, cheaper flights NASAís mantra is that itís essential to have a human presence in space. Knowing their penchant for secret deals with the military (in spite of all that privatization talk) I fear that there may be an ulterior motive lurking beneath the surface. The military is spending secret billions on space based weapons research. The military has always said the "High Ground" is the place to be. You donít need to get much higher than 200 miles above the Earth.

David Hartgrove
Daytona Beach, Florida


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