Science & Technology

Floating Debris


The International Space Station Alpha was never going to be cheap, but mismanagement at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has assured that it might never be useful either.

A June report by Florida Today exposes how NASA piled up more than $4.8 billion in cost overruns on a space station that was, when first proposed in 1984, only supposed to cost $8 billion. Some of the reasons for NASA's excess spending include ordering parts from their contractor before negotiating prices, a problematic partnership with economically unstable Russia, building delays, and researching station parts that will never be built.

The desire for gravity-free scientific research fueled the original drive for the space station. But to absorb its overspending, NASA has abandoned plans to add a living module and an escape ship. Those are the devices necessary to increase the station's human carrying capacity from three (enough only to make sure the station stays operational) to six or seven (enough to maintain the station and do scientific research).

Congress is unwilling to bail the agency out. In July, the House Appropriations Committee approved a $300 million increase—modest, by NASA standards—in the space station's budget, contingent on the space agency enacting certain reforms. The Senate Appropriations Committee, less optimistic, voted to decrease the space station budget by $150 million.

Unless project partners Japan, Russia, and the European Union decide to spend their own public money to meet the U.S.'s unfulfilled promises, the only function of the space station, besides a minimal amount of robot-performed research, will be to float around. Though that might still seem kind of neat to hard-core space buffs, it doesn't seem worth the cost: $17.9 billion to date, $29.1 billion by 2006, and an estimated $94 billion overall.

The Alpha money pit has resulted in other casualties, such as a brand new $120 million spacecraft that Al Gore conceived after consulting elementary school students. Spacecraft Triana was to relay a constant image of Earth to Web surfers. Instead, it will have an equally purposeful existence sitting in storage, at a cost of more than $1 million per year.