Wednesday, September 19, 2007

White Elephant

Steven Weinberg, a particle physicist at the University of Texas at Austin and a co-recipient of the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics was recently quoted as saying, "The International Space Station is an orbital turkey," said . "No important science has come out of it. I could almost say no science has come out of it. And I would go beyond that and say that the whole manned spaceflight program, which is so enormously expensive, has produced nothing of scientific value."

Can't disagree with him.

The Emperor entered the throne room with the pretty much the same opinion on the ISS as Weinberg. In fact, he commissioned a study seeking his options for dealing with the ISS and the international community. The study group told him he could finish the space station as intended in about 15-18 space shuttle flights and pay the associated costs for that. Or he could maintain the station at the configuration he found it in and still achieve over 90% of the objectives defined for it to support the new program of exploration. The question was how to meet the international partner "commitments?"

Pay them back!

For a little over $8B, the US government could have written checks to the Europeans and Japanese and made them whole. We could have offered in-kind opportunities to use the existing facilities on the ISS for their research programs. We could have stocked up the ISS with spares and equipment and started a real research program immediately and done so in fewer (and therefore safer) space shuttle flights (5-8). And we could have put a European and a Japanese citizen in two of the first seats on a CEV to the moon and, in doing so, we would have made everybody happy.

Let me tell you, Mitsubishi and the other Japanese space companies received their last paycheck from their government a long time ago. They'd rather see a new program get started where they could build new equipment and get new paychecks for doing that than sit around waiting for the ISS to get finished before starting something new. Conversely, why would a good old conservative government in the U.S. pass up an opportunity to quietly set back our technical competition by making it more difficult for them to carry out research in space?

Why indeed?

Well, the White House gave the Emperor the opportunity to do what he thought best. Before he was on the throne he would have taken the pay back option without remorse. Now, the Emperor found himself with the opportunity of a lifetime but ultimately caved to the internal NASA pressures to continue flying the space shuttle, sucking the NASA budget dry, and delaying the opportunity for an real research for at least 10 more years!

In addition to committing to the cost of flying space shuttles to complete the ISS, the Emperor then spread NASA thinner by embarking on the defective ESAS path to the moon. And he has provided more ammunition for the likes of Steve Weinberg. It didn't have to be that way.

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