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ISS illustration
The ISS has been the focal point of countless debates about its utility; just how well has the station met the goals laid out for it over the years? (credit: NASA)

Twenty-five gigabucks of steel: the objectives of the International Space Station

There is an old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. A corollary to that is that the road to expensive human spaceflight projects may also be paved with good intentions—along with many other less noble intentions, not to mention mismanagement, deception, and even greed. That is certainly the case with the International Space Station (ISS).

By September of this year, NASA projects that the agency will have spent $25 billion on the ISS. In 1999 Congress established a cost cap for the program in order to force some financial accountability upon what it viewed as spiraling costs. Congress told NASA that it could not spend more than $25 billion for space station development, or more than $17.7 billion for shuttle launches in connection with space station assembly. At the time, NASA projected that it expected the ISS to be “substantially completed” by the end of 2004. Obviously the Columbia accident had a major impact on that schedule, and now NASA does not project the ISS to be completely assembled—according to the most current definition of that term—until 2010.

Long before now, in fact long before NASA even began space station construction, numerous critics were calling the ISS a failure. Normally we understand failure to mean that a program has not achieved its goals. For instance, NASA will fail to achieve the cost cap goals that Congress has established for it, but we do not know by how much. Failure, however, can also be a subjective term, because often goals are not clearly defined or agreed upon by everyone. So to describe the ISS as a “failure” requires declaring what goals it has failed to meet.

To describe the ISS as a “failure” requires declaring what goals it has failed to meet.

Certainly it has failed to meet past schedule and cost goals, although it is important to note that there exists substantial misunderstanding about what the space station was intended to cost, and critics often mistakenly claim that the program has failed to achieve cost goals that were not actually the true cost goals. For instance, the oft-quoted “$8 billion cost” for the space station that was established in the early 1980s was never intended to be the complete cost of the mission. It did not include launch and operations costs, for instance. What many critics often do, either because of ignorance or bias, is compare this limited cost estimate to the projected future total cost of the station. Additionally, the goals of the station were changed substantially after that initial cost estimate was made, which makes that estimate invalid.

Over the lifetime of the program a number of objectives, goals, purposes, and justifications have been stated for the space station by Presidents, NASA officials, and members of Congress. It is clear that the program has met some of them and will likely never meet some of them. Several objectives were considered during the planning stage but then abandoned. Some of these abandoned goals are still worth discussion because they illuminate the limitations of a human orbital station.

The objectives established for the space station program over its lifetime include:

  • demonstrating leadership in space
  • forging international cooperation with Cold War allies
  • conducting human biological research to benefit biology and medicine on Earth
  • conducting materials research to benefit Earth
  • serving as a construction platform for Lunar and Mars missions
  • supporting ex-Soviet aerospace workers and institutions, and symbolizing post-Cold War US-Russian cooperation
  • learning how to construct large structures in space
  • learning how to operate in space
  • providing an engineering testbed for space equipment
  • conducting human biological research to support future long-duration space missions
  • pork barrel politics

There has never been a single document that listed these justifications and objectives for the program. But all of them have appeared in some official form or other since the creation of the space station program—in speeches, budget documents, memos, and other records.

Leadership and America’s future in space

President Ronald Reagan approved the space station program in late 1983. The station was sold to Reagan in an early December briefing that was based upon a set of briefing points prepared within NASA. The justifications for the space station at that time were:

  • It is the logical extension of past American activities in space
  • A United States space station would:
    • dominate the space environment for twenty years
    • stimulate commercial endeavors in space
    • place in orbit an American outpost in space (an American counterpart to the Soviet space stations)
    • be a national technology laboratory in space
    • check out and launch rockets to higher orbit
    • open up, for the first time, the possibility of assembling large satellites in space
    • stake out options for the future, enabling a future president to endorse future missions to the Moon, asteroids, and Mars
    • demonstrate United States leadership in space

Some of those justifications were clearly intended to appeal to Reagan’s interest, particularly the commercial potential. Many people firmly believed that it was possible for a government-run space station to be a commercial success. But this goal was already eroding as it became obvious that the space shuttle that serviced the station was not going to succeed at lowering the costs of reaching orbit, or ushering in a new era of commercial space exploitation.

As an international cooperative effort, the space station has been a success, even though the Cold War environment that led to it evaporated long before a single piece of hardware was built.

The appeal to leadership and the symbolism of a vigorous American space program was important and genuine, however. It may seem odd now, but every major American space policy document of the 1970s and 1980s mentioned maintaining “leadership” as a primary objective. That concept is anachronistic, but this is one area where the space station has clearly achieved its original goal—it is not only the primary human space effort, it is the only space station in orbit.

Forging international cooperation with Cold War allies

Although the station was not initially sold to Reagan as an international cooperative project, it quickly became one. Although 1983 now seems like a completely different age, at the time there was substantial discord within the NATO alliance over the deployment of medium-range nuclear weapons to Europe. While many NATO governments had actively sought the deployment of the Pershing 2 and cruise missiles to their soil (so as to cement their mutual defense with the United States), their citizens expressed considerable opposition. Reagan approved the space station program as a means of demonstrating Western technology and Western unity and cooperation, and this justification appeared in many speeches and documents at the time.

As an international cooperative effort, the space station has been a success, even though the Cold War environment that led to it evaporated long before a single piece of hardware was built. The allies have cooperated successfully for over two decades. The clearest indication of success is that, despite perpetual grumbling about the costs and schedule of the space station, and complaints from America’s partners that they have not been treated with proper respect, not one partner has withdrawn from the program during its lifetime. Many other large-scale international cooperative efforts have fallen apart much more quickly.

Conducting human biological research to benefit biology and medicine on Earth

Scientific research has long been one of the primary objectives and justifications for the space station program. Certainly many members of Congress have stated that the station’s purpose was to serve as a “world class” research laboratory, and to provide measurable benefits to their constituents on Earth.

At various times NASA, members of Congress, corporations, and others have claimed that biological and pharmaceutical research conducted on the space station would have direct benefits to humans on Earth. Protein crystal growth experiments were cited as having tremendous potential. NASA Administrator Dan Goldin used to proclaim that the space station offered the potential to solve problems of human aging such as osteoporosis. These justifications existed almost from the beginning of the program, but were particularly most evident in the early 1990s when the program faced cancellation in Congress.

Despite the fact that some members of Congress still occasionally claim that space station research can or should benefit human health research on Earth, it is clear that this has not happened and will probably never happen. By this criterion, the space station has failed.

Conducting materials research to benefit Earth

Materials research was often cited simultaneously with the biology and medicine justification for the space station. The station was to be the site of research on combustion, fluid transfer, and related materials research. At one point, the station was touted as a potential manufacturing site for gallium arsenide for solar cells.

Despite the fact that some members of Congress still occasionally claim that space station research can or should benefit human health research on Earth, it is clear that this has not happened and will probably never happen.

Many of these plans were ill-conceived. The type of research that can benefit from a weightless environment is easily wrecked by exposure to humans. A manned space station could never be a pristine work environment. Humans bump things, and the systems necessary to keep them alive, such as air circulation fans, create vibrations that can wreck delicate experiments. As a result, expensive equipment had to be built in order to isolate experiments from the humans. In addition, because there is no such thing as zero gravity, only different amounts of microgravity, any object in Earth orbit will have a location inside its structure where microgravity is lowest. However, for human spacecraft, this location may be not be available for research equipment. So space stations are not ideal for this kind of research.

In the past there have been numerous proposals for “man-tended” spacecraft such as Max Faget’s Industrial Space Facility (ISF) that would have avoided many of these problems. Critics have charged that NASA actively torpedoed those proposals. At the very least, the existence of the space station project scared away potential investors. No matter what the truth is, we may not know for a long time if microgravity materials research offers great potential because it has been eliminated from the space station.

By the materials research criterion, the space station has failed to achieve its objectives.

page 2: Serving as a construction platform >>