The U.S. space program needs a clear purpose. Spending billions on the International Space Station isn’t it.
Almost half a century ago Americans set foot on the moon—only eight years after the Apollo space exploration program began. Today the U.S. has to pay the Russians for a ride to the international space station, which orbits a mere 250 miles above Earth. The price tag? Up to $70 million a seat.
While other countries have set objectives for their exploration programs—China plans to get people to the moon in the 2020s—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is lost in space. NASA is painting over old equipment used in the Shuttle-era of the 1980s to create a new space-launch system, though it isn’t entirely clear what the technology will be used for. This is what Congress in 2010 directed the agency to do.
Politicians have a habit of spreading NASA’s focus too thin. For instance, NASA researches archaeology from space, tests new materials for commercial airplanes and tracks the climate, most of which the private sector or other agencies already handle. NASA also has trouble managing programs and has shown a stronger desire to please key constituencies than to achieve long-term space goals.
NASA has an important role to play in advancing our nation’s interests in space, but it needs reform. The place to start is by ending U.S. support for the international space station, which at $100 billion holds the Guinness World Record for “most expensive man-made object.” Instead, Congress should direct the agency’s funding toward something more productive.
U.S. taxpayers have shelled out $75 billion to operate the ISS since 1994, according to government estimates. NASA predicts it will cost another $21 billion before 2020—a projection its inspector general called “understated” and “overly optimistic” in a September audit. There is very little to show for the investment, and no space innovation comes close to recouping the cost.
To put the cost in context, the entire Apollo program—all 17 missions and six lunar landings—cost about $108 billion in today’s dollars. Back on Earth, $100 billion could fund the National Cancer Institute for 20 years.
Some will argue that sending the ISS to a watery grave in the Pacific Ocean will doom valuable research. American astronauts have performed roughly 7,800 hours of research, meaning taxpayers have paid about $10 million for each hour of research. Much of the it focuses on how the human body responds to long-term spaceflight—an important topic, but perhaps not the pioneering work most Americans had in mind.
Some ISS research hours are spent carrying out experiments designed by elementary- and high-school students, thanks to a federally funded program started in 2010 to encourage students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. One project looked at whether microgravity affected the growth of mold on white bread. Another studied how tadpole-shrimp growth changed in space. These projects are interesting, but they can hardly justify the space station’s enormous costs. That funding would be better used to achieve a singular long-term objective, as in the days of the Apollo program.
Despite the billions of reasons to redirect NASA’s attention, some lawmakers are reluctant to let go of the past. A one-year bipartisan NASA authorization bill currently before Congress would require the ISS to be up and running through 2024. NASA would even be directed to explore funding the ISS all the way through 2028.
Congress has a record of pushing unimaginative and shortsighted space policy: The legislature foisted the Space Launch System on NASA in 2010. SLS continued Shuttle-era contracts and designs, arguably to benefit contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin . The “new” rocket’s core engines are the same ones that fired up the first Shuttle in 1981. As former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver put it in a radio interview earlier this year: “Would you really go to Mars with technology that is 50 years old?”
NASA has been trying to play down the problems with the SLS instead of admitting its aimlessness. A May report by the Government Accountability Office, conducted at my office’s request, found that NASA hasn’t been forthcoming about the long-term costs of the space-launch program. NASA told the GAO that it plans to spend $22 billion on the program before 2021—but that guess didn’t include the cost of a planned second launch.
The U.S. exploration program needs a clear purpose, followed by the design and development of novel technology, rather than the other way around. What if NASA were directed to focus solely on getting Americans back to the moon, or developing a plan for humans to reach Mars? The resulting innovation would be tremendous for the nation, the aerospace industry and educational opportunities.
Out-of-this-world spending wouldn’t be necessary. Funding for the ISS and SLS alone already totals more than $7 billion annually, similar to what the Apollo program spent every year on average. That money would be better used by working on clear, stated goals. Such steps are the only way to re-establish the American space program that was once the wonder of the world.
Dr. Coburn is a Republican senator from Oklahoma.
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