The weekend launch of a Russian television satellite means that some of the billions of dollars poured into America’s International Space Station is at last actually in orbit.
It is almost ten years now since this reporter had the opportunity to visit Huntsville, Alabama, and crawl around in the wooden mock-up of what was then known as Space Station Freedom, wondering how the US could have spent so much on it and have so little to show. Now, many tonnes of hardware has been built on the ground and with the Russian venture some of it is in space.
Not so high in orbit, though, as the project’s estimated budget to completion. It has reached a figure so great as to go beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals.
The project remains politically secure, however. It stumbled badly in 1993, when Congressional pressure to cancel seemed unstoppable and The House of Representatives voted by a margin of one to keep the station.
That vote was a wake-up call to the President. Clinton saw his prospects of a second term resting on a permanent campaign to win the approval of voters in California, whose aerospace industry was suffering defence cuts, and accounted for many of the jobs supported by the space station programme.
So it came to pass that the station was reconfigured as a joint venture with the Russians. Vice-president Al Gore took the lead on the repackaging and assured leaders of Congress that this arrangement would shore up US-Russian relations and save money.
US space agency Nasa, meanwhile, was embarking upon extensive reforms under its energetic and politically skillful administrator, Dan Goldin, dedicating itself to ‘smaller, faster, cheaper’ missions. While the station was left apparently exposed by this development, Goldin knew the score. No station would mean no manned space programme, and that would mean the end of anything recognisable as Nasa.
Gore’s assurance to Congress was a deceit of considerable proportions, yet as its extent was laid bare, the response has been a muted one. James Sensenbrenner, chair of the House Science Committee, and other specialists in the topic, have complained bitterly, but the real power-brokers on Capitol Hill know the truth: the station is a jobs programme, with a dash of corporate welfare.
Typical failure rates of launches and of space walks ensure that costs will continue to multiply. However, even as further mammoth cost overruns kick in, consuming any semblance of a scientific mission for the programme in their wake, there will be no incentive to abandon it.