A "Station" in Space and NASA's Deceptions on Earth
The lone remaining International Space Station Alpha will be 360 feet long and weigh 460 tons, according to plans offered by NASA in the Summer of 2000. It is already a decade behind schedule, though, and according to optimistic estimates won't be complete until at least somewhere around 2010. How much will it cost? Answers vary, and have prompted Senator John McCain to state that it seems that NASA is more of an acronym for "never a straight answer". Meanwhile, an aspiring privately-owned space station entrepreneur and hotel franchise billionaire named Robert Bigelow has said that NASA is an acronym for "no access to space for Americans," while he admirably struggles to surmount bureaucratic hurdles and compete against a self-perpetuating federal government program. It's still unclear how much Bigelow's space hotel would cost, but his figure is far, far less than the $100 billion dollar one being tossed around by NASA for the USA's share of their station. Revealingly enough, Russia's eventually privatized Mir was built for around $4.3 billion even while the technology was still new and therefore more expensive. Privatized Mir was predictably viewed with jealous hostility by NASA bureaucrats and their government contracting allies, at least in part because Mir's annual operating costs were just 3% of those of NASA's station.
Is the bureaucrats' space station little more than a jobs program, then? Staunch NASA supporters claim that their station is actually all about "America's quest to go to Mars and back to the moon." However, a growing number of critics (including the National Research Council) characterize the station's worth as scientifically dubious. For instance, many of the medical studies NASA hopes to conduct have already been performed aboard Russia's Mir space station. Meanwhile, other work regarding advanced materials research and manufacturing could be performed aboard automated and UNoccupied space vessels. It is not as if the bureaucrats' space station is particularly hospitable to humans either. Parts of the ship were built with so little noise muffling protections intact that the crew has to wear earplugs to try and protect their hearing from the constant racket emanating from onboard equipment. There's also the issue of questionable shielding to protect inhabitants from potential meteor collisions. Humanity will ultimately have to surmount such obstacles before expanding throughout space, but is NASA's current monopolistic approach the most efficient way for us to go about it?
As the bureaucrats' space station has already cost far more than initially promised, more and more taxpaying voters are asking why our elected officials did not instead simply settle for outsourcing from, or at least not rejecting, the privatized space station Mir. Knowing more about Space Station Alpha's history helps one understand why that more extravagant project has remained invincible thus far, however. First of all, it began as an instrument of the Cold War when President Reagan announced its inception in 1984. It was to have been considerably larger (500 feet) but cost merely $8 billion. Originally its anticipated completion date was 1992. However, as conducting paper studies can be a great way to keep both restless bureaucrats and government contracting sycophants employed and encouraging votes for elected officials who look out for them, a funny thing happened. NASA dedicated the next eight years to spending an astounding $10 billion dollars repeatedly producing and then discarding mere blueprints and other paper studies, all without even cutting a single piece of metal or attaching a single bolt.
Once the USSR fell in 1991, though, the Cold War justification for the program (if not NASA itself) essentially vanished. The defense industry approached a recession, and potentially unemployed aerospace specialists needed work. Thus, in 1993 former president Bill Clinton ordered NASA to "streamline" the station and also include Russia (a country where the Gore family had reportedly had very lucrative financial dealings in the past, thanks to some friends who apparently deserved some form of reciprocation).
The Clinton Administration subsequently promised a $17.4 billlion dollar cap on U.S. spending for the bureaucrats' space station, not including the $10 billion already spent on those paper studies. That bill for the USA promptly jumped to $25 billion, however, and does not even include the anticipated dozens of shuttle flights needed to transport the station's components into space. Transportation fees will add another $15 billion to $20 billion to the bottom line. Meanwhile, if the construction work is completed according to plans, many contractors will nevertheless remain involved to support the program. According to an apparently politically savvy Boeing manager named Greg Martin "[w]e need those contractors so that if problems arise, we can get to the right people." Such high priced consulting and maintenance services could boost the price in excess of $100 billion dollars.
Understandably displeased, a Democrat Congressman from Indiana named Tim Roemer formally introduced an amendment in June of 1993 to terminate funding for NASA's space station. NASA lobbied hard against the amendment, however, and the program evaded termination by a one vote margin of 216 to 215. Nevertheless, congressional disapproval of the bureaucrats' space station has diminished dramatically since then. In 1994, it went from surviving by one vote to winning by a tally of 278 to 155. Then in 1999, favorable votes outnumbered unfavorable ones by 337 to 92. What on Earth happened?
Due to the close vote in 1993, NASA promptly went to work to try and persuade more elected officials to support the project by procuring from various districts where potential political support existed. NASA suddenly started spreading the federal loot among 67 different prime contractors, as well as 35 major subcontractors, in nearly two dozen different states. One might say that NASA's motto became "share the pork". NASA of course claimed that it was striving to more equitably distribute the federal wompom in order to help small businesses. However, NASA has nevertheless enduringly lagged well behind most federal agencies in the USA in terms of the percentage of prime contract dollars awarded to small businesses (i.e. companies with fewer than one thousand employees). Due to the high profile nature of the program, however, political support nevertheless grew nationwide even as private sector opportunities outside of the NASA clique for entities like MirCorp and Bigelow Aerospace correspondingly diminished. For more information regarding how the NASA clique subsequently thwarted the U.S.-financed privatized Mir station, please click here.
Anyhow, NASA also made sure to spend bundles of tax dollars in political districts with sufficiently powerful representatives. Have you ever noticed how Congressional delegations from Alabama, Texas and even California strongly support Space Station Alpha's completion at practically any cost? This should not be surprising, considering how so much of the actual con$truction is taking place in those three states. Coincidentally, Alabama's Marshall Space Flight Center is in the district of Democrat Congressman Robert "Bud" Cramer, Jr., who serves on the powerful VA / HUD & Independent Agencies subcommittee that helps control NASA funding. Meanwhile, space station prime contractor Boeing shrewdly still maintains a prominent facility in Huntington Beach, California, which is in the district of Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher who is the chairman of the House Science Committee's Space subcommittee. As for the large Texas delegation predictably supporting the pork barrelers' space station, that delegation includes soon-to-retire Congressman Dick Armey who is a Republican that has served for several years as the influential House Majority Leader. To find out where your elected official stands on this matter (assuming you're from the USA) then please click here.
NASA is not the only entity in the USA's rapidly declining space industry engaging in such loot-sharing, however. Boeing has a corporate presence in somewhere around three dozen different states, including a new headquarters in centrally located Illinois, as well as substantial facilities in Seattle, Houston, and Huntsville, Alabama. Lockheed Martin has similarly divided its spoils among various politically significant districts, too. Is it surprising that Boeing, Lockheed and their joint venture USA get well over half of NASA's contracting dollars then? Their understandably pro-NASA lobbying machines help perpetuate NASA's post-Cold War existence, but with strings attached.
In conclusion, as of the Summer of 2000 the cost estimates for the U.S.A.'s share of the lone remaining space station were around $100 billion. This figure is broken down as follows:
INITIAL DESIGN PAPERWORK -- $10 billion
HARDWARE -- $25 billion
SHUTTLE SERVICING COSTS -- $20 billion
MAINTENANCE -- $41 billion
YEAR 2001 COST OVERRUN (disclosed immediately AFTER the presidential election of 2000): $5 billion.
Some claim that the Bush Administration is anti-space merely for trying to put an end to the wasteful extravagance taking place at bureaucratic NASA, while encouraging market-oriented alternatives. However, keeping in mind the USA's nearly $6 trillion dollar national debt, the Young Commission's November of 2001 scathing analysis of NASA management practices regarding its space station begins to expose a fundamental flaw underlying taxpayers' still empowering of Soviet-style central planners throughout NASA. Wouldn't we do better if we instead more aggressively embraced entrepreneurial alternatives such as those proposed by U.S.-financed MirCorp, or Bigelow Aerospace (etcetera)?
This scrutinizing article was originally inspired in part by an article from Time Magazine entitled "Space Pork" (JULY 24, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 4).
NASA's space station "accounting practices" recently received scathing reviews even from a NASA-assembled "review commission" (which has drawn criticism for being like a fox guarding the henhouse). Here's a relevant Oct. '01 article from Space.com. Meanwhile, the full text of the "Young Report" is maintained here.
Congress is highly displeased with the latest space station Alpha cost overruns (Feb. ´01 article from Space.com).
To read about space station Alpha's upcoming commercial competitor ("Mini-Mir"), as well as its impressive yet victimized predecessor "Mir", please click here. To learn more about additional potential competitors (such as Bigelow Aerospace), please click here.
annual budget is a little over 3 times larger than the NSF´s, but NASA
engages in nearly 9 times as much pork barrel spending. For
details, please click
Has NASA been stifling commercial space ventures that could otherwise outperform it?