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We spent $100 billion and all we got is a space station
September 18, 2013 9:44 AM   Subscribe

As the Cygnus cargo spacecraft makes its initial demostration flight to the International Space Station, the question arises, what is the ISS for?
posted by Brandon Blatcher (108 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
The photo in the International space Stations is from this page and the caption reads:
The International Space Station (ISS) from the vantage point of a Space Shuttle Discovery observer. At this stage, the ISS is near completion. Visible is Canadarm2, "waving" from the top-most perch of the Station. September 8, 2009. (Image: NASA)
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:45 AM on September 18, 2013


$100 billion sounds like a lot but you have to put these large numbers into context. The context of the USA's annual budget, or the world's annual budget. Compare $100 billion to the bank bail outs or the defense budget or tax breaks for oil companies or other government subsidies to big business.
posted by memebake at 9:49 AM on September 18, 2013 [11 favorites]


The ultimate tax haven.
posted by Apocryphon at 9:50 AM on September 18, 2013


Now that the Shuttle is gone, we've broken the cycle.
In the thirty years since the last Moon flight, we have succeeded in creating a perfectly self-contained manned space program, in which the Shuttle goes up to save the Space Station (undermanned, incomplete, breaking down, filled with garbage, and dropping at a hundred meters per day), and the Space Station offers the Shuttle a mission and a destination. The Columbia accident has added a beautiful finishing symmetry - the Shuttle is now required to fly to the ISS, which will serve as an inspection station for the fragile thermal tiles, and a lifeboat in case something goes seriously wrong. β€” Rocket to Nowhere
posted by jjwiseman at 9:53 AM on September 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


What is the ISS for?

Taking really cool pictures and possibly Elysium v0.1 Oh! And an excuse for Elon Musk to slurp down lots of subsidy dollars while he talks about how subsidized transit is evil.

$100 billion sounds like a lot but you have to put these large numbers into context.

Heck, it's only twice the annual intelligence black budget!
posted by entropicamericana at 9:54 AM on September 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


I remember back when they let Skylab fall into the sky and my heart sank with it.

What is the ISS for? - I say there is no point in continuing spending on scientific experiments and advancement when we are heading for a crash-landing on the planet Stupid.
posted by JJ86 at 9:55 AM on September 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Hey ya'll, I'd highly recommend reading the last link.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:56 AM on September 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


I think the real idea was that it was supposed to be an example of international cooperation.

In practice it's turned out to be an excuse for governments to spend money on manned space flight. The Russians particularly like it, because now the US is spending a lot of money subsidizing the Russian space program.

(Me, I always thought it was a boondoggle. As computers become increasingly sophisticated, the argument in favor of sending people into space becomes more and more difficult to make, and don't waste my time with "you can't stay in the cradle forever".)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:59 AM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


The last link was actually really obnoxious to read, covering a lot of random facts in two-sentence newspaper story-style summaries. I honestly can't find any substantive treatment of the purported question in the link.
posted by kiltedtaco at 10:00 AM on September 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


The station has a phone number with a Houston area code.

ring

"ISS"
"Hello, are your CO2 scrubbers running?"
"Er, yes."
"WELL YOU BETTER RUN AFTER THEM BEFORE THEY GO EVA OR SOMETHING."

click

ring

"ISS"
"Hello, can you see Uranus from where you are?"
"Yes, yes I can."
"WELL PULL UP YOUR PANTS MAN"

click

ring

"ISS AND THIS HAD BETTER NOT BE A JOKE"
"ISS, CAPCOM"
"Sorry, CAPCOM"
"ISS, do you have Battletoads?"
"MOTHERF-"

click
posted by jquinby at 10:01 AM on September 18, 2013 [63 favorites]


Oh man do I not have a lot of patience for people who look at NASA budgets without the greater context of the overall federal budget.
posted by elizardbits at 10:02 AM on September 18, 2013 [19 favorites]


The purpose of the ISS?

The purpose of the ISS is to keep the dreams of young boys and girls alive. (And to inspire them into a life of Science, Technology Engineering and spaceflight woot)

(I mean shit, come on. 12 year old me bugged the f out when I heard about ISS being a real thing. The fact that it's still up there is awesome.)
posted by kurosawa's pal at 10:05 AM on September 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


$100 billion sounds like a lot but you have to put these large numbers into context. The context of the USA's annual budget, or the world's annual budget

You do have to put it in context, but that's probably not the right way to do it--it's actually pretty unfair to the ISS. You should pro-rate the $100 billion by the number of years of operation (I think about 13 years ago).
posted by dsfan at 10:08 AM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


memebake: "$100 billion sounds like a lot but you have to put these large numbers into context. The context of the USA's annual budget, or the world's annual budget. Compare $100 billion to the bank bail outs or the defense budget or tax breaks for oil companies or other government subsidies to big business."

I certainly won't disagree, but the ISS's cost should also be viewed in context of the other projects that were cancelled to pay for it.

After the cancellation of the SSC, America lost its title as a leader in particle physics research, and researchers have been flocking elsewhere ever since. Since then, we've also walked away from a number of other "big physics" projects, which has more or less doomed America's future as a hub for basic research. Science isn't a competition, but the US would have benefited tremendously from being the center of attention.

That being said, the International Space Station has a fairly simple and straightforward purpose: Diplomacy.

One only needs to look for the scrubbed-off "MIR-2" logos on the side of several of the ISS modules to grasp the fact that the station was a last-ditch effort to extinguish the final embers of the Cold War. Putting aside our current diplomatic tensions with Russia, I think you could make a pretty strong argument that it worked, even if the US ended up footing most of the bill. The global society envisioned in the 1990s never came to fruition, but we also built some pretty strong ties with a former enemy.
posted by schmod at 10:12 AM on September 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


Thank you, Brandon, for yet another awesome space-related post.

I, for one, am very happy my tax dollars are at least partially spent on SHIT THAT IS AWESOME instead of bailing out bankers or launching cruise missiles into Chuck-e-Cheeses in Baghdad.

More awesome stuff, please. Like maybe those guitars that are, like, DOUBLE GUITARS.
posted by bondcliff at 10:14 AM on September 18, 2013 [13 favorites]


What is it in context of the educational budget in the US?
posted by Napierzaza at 10:14 AM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


$100 billion sounds like a lot

It could be fully funded with funds left over by a 1 cent tax on gasoline in the US.
posted by Mitheral at 10:15 AM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


jjwiseman points out something important.

Mars To Stay needs to be the goal now rather than pouring billions more into Low Earth Orbit Bridge to Nowhere.
posted by Fukiyama at 10:15 AM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's a friggin test bed people. We blew, what, 3 trillion destabilizing Iraq while dropping the ball in Afghanistan and people are talking about waste?

Those near earth asteroids aren't going to harvest themselves! And forget the space elevator if we don't do these long term studies now!
posted by Max Power at 10:16 AM on September 18, 2013 [8 favorites]


Fun fact: when Nixon approved the Space Shuttle program, word went out to John Young, one of the last of the Apollo astronauts. He was at (on or near) the Moon when he got the news that the program was moving forward, and subsequently went on with Robert Crippen to fly STS-1.

Wikipedia further points out that Young is the only astronaut to have flown four classes of NASA spacecraft: Gemini, Apollo, the Apollo Lunar Module and the Space Shuttle.
posted by jquinby at 10:16 AM on September 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


More, much more than keeping dreams alive. It's the baby step to diversification. Let's take the economic model, if you put all your money into a great investment like a highly reputable company run by someone with impeccable credentials. Or say a SINGLE SMALL PLANET (caps for rant cred). And something happens. Oops.

We need to get off this wonderful ball of water. Diversify. Get some stuff without poisoning our nest, if we can gobble up millions of asteroids no one will have a problem.
posted by sammyo at 10:19 AM on September 18, 2013 [8 favorites]


During the cold war, both sides trained thousands of very smart people as aerospace engineers.

In the US, many of them lost their jobs. They became depressed aerospace engineers who told young smart people not to become aerospace engineers. There was a very serious risk that the US would just lose its capability to build airplanes, spaceships, and weapons as the entire field died off. ISS helped prevent that.

In Russia, many of them could have gone off to Asia and the Middle East and built weapons for rich crazy dictators. ISS helped prevent that too.

I think it succeeded pretty admirably in keeping aerospace engineers employed, at least long enough for many of them to hit retirement age and for the younger ones to refocus on civilian applications. You could argue that some other program would have been just as good -- SSC or a Mars mission -- but those wouldn't have solved the Russian half of the problem.
posted by miyabo at 10:25 AM on September 18, 2013 [10 favorites]


I haven't been able to find an objective view of the ROI of experiments done on the ISS vs. satellite vs. ground. Many of these experiments are autonomous and self-contained, or could be easily made so (besides the experiments involving human physiology, of course). This article covers the science issue in more detail.

Our robots are too good and our biology is too squishy too justify this thing solely on practical concerns. I get a pit in my stomach thinking about a future with no humans in space though.

And yeah, miyabo's brain drain argument is a valid one. You're going to have to work very hard to bootstrap an organization like JPL that can land a spacecraft on Mars, for example.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:30 AM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


"keep funding or bring it down"

Well why not just give it to the Chinese? No? It actually looks like there is a new space race heating up. China vs Japan vs US vs corporations vs everyone else. Hopefully this will remain a gentleman's contest without weapons and will be a good investment for everyone.
posted by sammyo at 10:30 AM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


What kiltedtaco said. The Washington Post article raises no questions and just relates anecdotes and a general outline and brief historical overview of the ISS along with some nice pictures. Looks like someone needed to fill column space or was told to do an article about the Space industry. If anyone's really interested in the ISS, check the NASA site. they've got lots of great information. The Washington Post has nothing at all, so just ignore them.

Nasa.gov: Benefits of ISS Research
Wiki: Scientific Research on the ISS
posted by Zack_Replica at 10:36 AM on September 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


In the US, many of them lost their jobs. They became depressed aerospace engineers who told young smart people not to become aerospace engineers. There was a very serious risk that the US would just lose its capability to build airplanes, spaceships, and weapons as the entire field died off. ISS helped prevent that.

In Russia, many of them could have gone off to Asia and the Middle East and built weapons for rich crazy dictators. ISS helped prevent that too.


It is an interesting perspective. I'll posit that American aerospace engineers are just as likely to help the tin-pot dictators as the Russian ones though--certainly the Canadian engineers have a track record in the area. I don't buy it though. It would happen more, if it was actually a thing. And, we don't plan things like that. The ISS is more about pork barrel than harm reduction.
posted by Chuckles at 10:38 AM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


$100 billion sounds like a lot but you have to put these large numbers into context. The context of the USA's annual budget, or the world's annual budget.

Ten Ford-class aircraft carriers. Or twenty Nimitz-class carriers (both classes are obsolete anyway).

Any way you slice it, $100 billion for a single asset is a lot of dough.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:38 AM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ten Ford-class aircraft carriers. Or twenty Nimitz-class carriers (both classes are obsolete anyway).

Whether they are obsolete depends entirely on what you think the aircraft carriers are for..
posted by Chuckles at 10:40 AM on September 18, 2013


Any way you slice it, $100 billion for a single asset is a lot of dough.

I'm honestly surprised it's lasted this long without Goonswarm griefing it to bits.
posted by FatherDagon at 10:42 AM on September 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


don't waste my time with "you can't stay in the cradle forever".

Why not? Earth has limited resources. The Solar System has a lot of Stuff sitting out in it that we could use as we run out of Stuff on Earth. "Strip mine the asteroid belt" may not have the romance of, say, "Terraform Mars" but it's a lot more realistic and likely, and it seems unlikely to me that we'll be able to do that kind of engineering completely remotely, given time lag for transmissions, until we get a lot better at knowing what the process is we're automating.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:43 AM on September 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


Anyway, it's cool that it's up there, and hearing about ISS always reminds me of the final scene of Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World when everyone is singing Claire Happy Birthday while she floats above the earth in a space station - how did she become an astronaut???
posted by KokuRyu at 10:45 AM on September 18, 2013


THIS.
posted by Freen at 10:50 AM on September 18, 2013 [8 favorites]


They became depressed aerospace engineers who told young smart people not to become aerospace engineers.

Yeah, no kidding. Young me took a good look at the space program back in the early '90s and concluded that I'd spend my entire aerospace engineering career sketching prototypes for a decreasingly-ambitious series of projects that would never get funded, finally dying of pure ennui at around age 55. I dropped out of college, started slinging code full-time, and here I am today...
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:04 AM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


I like this guy, and he told me things about this that I didn't know.
posted by notned at 11:04 AM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The last link was actually really obnoxious to read, covering a lot of random facts in two-sentence newspaper story-style summaries. I honestly can't find any substantive treatment of the purported question in the link.

I think you missed the point, there. A lot of those "random facts" - from zombie-lookin' sleep poses to weird mold formation to the psychological importance of a decent towel - are things we would not know about if not for the ISS. (Okay, well, the towel thing we should've known from Douglas Adams.)

I will allow as how, if you don't think the future needs to involve people traveling in space, the ISS doesn't make a lot of sense. Why set up a kiddie pool to learn about swimming if you've got no plans to swim in the grown-up pool ever? Of course if you don't believe the human race will ever need to travel through space I'd love to know what you think we should be doing aside from just killing time until the sun goes red giant and killing each other over ever-smaller pieces of a pretty small pie.
posted by mstokes650 at 11:05 AM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Because this big blue marble won't always be.
posted by tommasz at 11:06 AM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


We're eventually going to trash or out-grow our own planet, (or perhaps just figure out a way to off our own species) or if we manage not to...our sun will eventually die along with our solar system many many millennia from now. Sure that's a longer ways off, but if we are to continue to be a means to how the universe understands itself, we will need to plan ahead to survive as a species. Every foray into space allows us to further our abilities to live without dependency on this space pebble in a vast cosmic ocean we currently call home.

Sure we're no where near the ability to visit var off planets or go boldly where no man has gone before....but I think we're instinctually moving in that direction whether we like to admit it or not. We're explorers by our very nature...and even though it would be nice if an alien species stopped by to impart their interstellar knowledge...there's no hint, as Carl Sagan once said, that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

Although I don't know really...maybe I'm thinking too far out in the future...
posted by samsara at 11:07 AM on September 18, 2013


What is it in context of the educational budget in the US?

NYC schools budget is about 20 billion per year.
LA Unified school district has an annual budget of about 8 billion.
The US department of education has an annual budget of about 70 billion.
It'd be really easy to get to 100 billion in education expenses. The ISS is a drop in the bucket. Hell, a district here in Texas spent $70M on a football stadium.
posted by mattbucher at 11:10 AM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The last link was actually really obnoxious to read, covering a lot of random facts in two-sentence newspaper story-style summaries. I honestly can't find any substantive treatment of the purported question in the link.

Really? I thought it brought up several good points in an admittedly ham fisted, yet gorgeous looking manner. Namely this: Ok, we built a huge space station. Here's what it cost. Was it worth it? There's a lot of danger and risk involved in maintaing the station, could that money be better spent elsewhere?

Personally, I have few problems with the amount of money spent on the ISS, other than it's not enough. But it's vital to periodically look at manned space flight and ask "Is it worth it, at this price?" Sure, $100 billion dollars isn't a huge drain on the world economy, but it's still a $100 billion dollars that could be put to use elsewhere. Would it better to do that? Possibly. But we didn't spend that chuck of change elsewhere, we spent it here, on this. What's the return on this investment? Are we expecting one? Should we?

On that note, it's worth considering that what the ISS is. Wikipedia sums it up pretty well:
The ISS serves as a microgravity and space environment research laboratory in which crew members conduct experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology and other fields.[11][12][13] The station is suited for the testing of spacecraft systems and equipment required for missions to the Moon and Mars.[14]
We got a research lab, where we can try out numerous experiments and see what works. Along the way, various countries developed new ways of working together and numerous engineering problems were solved. The planet almost has the makings of a fleet of unmanned cargo ships, which include Japan's H-II Transfer Vehicle, Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle, Space X's Dragon, and potentially the Cygnus craft mentioned in the post. Add in Russia's Progress ship, which was around before the ISS and it's a nice collection.

Well why not just give it to the Chinese? No?

No. For one China has already built its own first generation station, sent crews to it and has a roadmap to build two more. Beyond that, it's doubtful the US would ever gift technology to a competing nation, just because. Not sure if it could, as the US segment of the ISS has various parts owned by various countries. Naturally the Russians determine what to do with their segment.

The Russians have stated that if the ISS is decommissioned, they're taking their segment to build a new station of their own. Not sure if that's a good plan as I'm not familiar with all the science and engineering. But if it is, then why isn't the US?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:15 AM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's a friggin test bed people. We blew, what, 3 trillion destabilizing Iraq while dropping the ball in Afghanistan and people are talking about waste?

I don't think anyone's claiming the tree fort in space is the only waste, or the biggest waste.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:19 AM on September 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


I don't think anyone's claiming the tree fort in space is the only waste, or the biggest waste.

No, but there seems to be an in-built assumption that if we weren't wasting it on the ISS, it wouldn't just be getting wasted on something else. Me, I think the best-case scenario for how else that $100 billion would've been spent is on tax breaks for billionaires, but obviously some folks seem to think that it would've gone directly to curing world hunger or something.
posted by mstokes650 at 11:22 AM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


If I recall correctly, during the peak of the Apollo program the entire NASA budget was approximately 3% of the federal government's annual budget as a whole. NASA is now closer to 7/10ths of one percent for its entire operations.
posted by thewalrus at 11:25 AM on September 18, 2013


Isn't NASA still an economic multiplier, too?
posted by jason_steakums at 11:29 AM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the awe and wonder inspired in children by the ISS may actually be a bug, not a feature. Awe and wonder in kids is great, but I'd rather we gently nudged our kids away from cold war-style space-oriented awe-and-wonder, and towards awe-and-wonder in other fields. Fields that are going to be more relevant to humanity surviving the next century, as opposed to surviving the death of our star. Bioengineering. Energy. Nature itself. Like, nanotech or whatever.

Humans have this innate thing about exploration and space, and, to boot, a lot of us alive today were brought up when humans seemed to be on some kind of inexorable path to the stars. I think we've got a cultural hangover from all that, and we need to start finding our wonder in the world around us again.
posted by gurple at 11:31 AM on September 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


The ISS is a symbol of forward-thinking. I know that the future is a bleak scary place for some people, but we have to plan for it. In the context of our tiny place in the universe, not having a plan is tantamount to suicide for our species and this is the beginnings of how we will see what a plan looks like.

Additionally, no matter how much you don't want to hear 'can't stay in the cradle...' arguments, they are not invalidated by your desires.
posted by Fuka at 11:32 AM on September 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


The Solar System has a lot of Stuff sitting out in it that we could use as we run out of Stuff on Earth

I think the space station is awesome and we should definitely keep sending people up there, but the kind of Stuff that you find in the asteroid belt is not the kind of Stuff that we're going to run out of on Earth. We've got tons of iron and water right here, and it's almost impossible to imagine a future where it makes more economic sense to fly to the asteroids to bring back more rather than just cleaning & recycling the stuff we already have.

But we should still try to do it, not because it makes any damn sense, but because it would be Awesome.
posted by echo target at 11:33 AM on September 18, 2013


I have always thought that the engineering was the important thing. If the ISS is just being maintained with no changes then it's probably not worth keeping around, but if people are working to improve it and improve the technology used to live in space and get to space then we are gaining engineering knowledge.

Yes, engineering knowledge isn't quite as sexy as gaining new scientific knowledge, but it takes time and can't just be thrown together at some point when we decide we are having some sort of resource problem and it'd be great to start getting some of those raw materials in the asteroid belt. It also needs to be maintained and passed on. You can write books, but ultimately knowledge passes much more readily from person to person.

It's also important to have some place to go for the small section of humanity that is passionate about space travel. That passion shouldn't go to waste.
posted by HappyEngineer at 11:35 AM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


If I recall correctly, during the peak of the Apollo program the entire NASA budget was approximately 3% of the federal government's annual budget as a whole.

Actually it was between 4-5%. Which, like the $100 billion spent on the ISS, was spent putting people to work in some form or fashion.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:35 AM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


I guess my view on this is that any kind of ET colonization effort (never mind that we don't even begin to understand how to make it ecologically viable yet) is going to require the developments in propulsion, automation, remote sensing, data analysis, landing, and engineering that space agencies have been continuing to develop.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:37 AM on September 18, 2013


Since my tax dollars paid for the ISS, when it eventually comes down, I would like an online registry where I can sign up to have a complimentary fragment of the debris mailed to me in a nice display stand, with a little plaque noting that it is a piece of the space station and which piece of it it is. Thnx.

Then it's totally worth it.
posted by anonymisc at 11:38 AM on September 18, 2013


I think the space station is awesome and we should definitely keep sending people up there, but the kind of Stuff that you find in the asteroid belt is not the kind of Stuff that we're going to run out of on Earth. We've got tons of iron and water right here, and it's almost impossible to imagine a future where it makes more economic sense to fly to the asteroids to bring back more rather than just cleaning & recycling the stuff we already have.

It's a lot more than just iron. The wiki page lists antimony, zinc, tin, silver, lead, indium, gold, copper, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhenium, rhodium, ruthenium, and tungsten in addition to iron. And a mine in space doesn't have the same environmental impact as a mine on Earth.
posted by jason_steakums at 11:39 AM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


got tons of iron and water right here With the right apparatus, the huge advantage of the asteroid belt is the water... Humans need oxygen. Launching oxygen in compressed gas cylinders via Progress, Dragon or Cygnus is expensive in terms of $ per kg. Extracting oxygen from ice that is already floating around in space has the potential to be less expensive. It may be prohibitive in terms of delta-V to bring that back down to LEO, but for missions beyond LEO, very promising.
posted by thewalrus at 11:39 AM on September 18, 2013


Wikipedia says Bernie Madoff's ponzi scheme stole $65 billion.
posted by vibrotronica at 11:42 AM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Strip mine the asteroid belt" may not have the romance of, say, "Terraform Mars" but it's

just as impractical and unnecessary. Turns out that most of the readily available neat stuff we need is actually already in the best place for us to get it, right here on earth.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:48 AM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


C'mon, Chris Hadfield's cover of "Space Oddity" was worth a billion or so by itself.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:54 AM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Those near earth asteroids aren't going to harvest themselves!

100 Billion dollars would have been enough to actually mine some asteroids. That would have provided resources for the next big thing in space. All we've bought with that money is a really cool meteor in 2020 plus some basic research that could have been done in other ways for a lot less money.

β€œIt’s one of the greatest engineering achievements in the history of the world. It ranks with the pyramids.”

Ya know what's still going to exist in 2050? The Pyramids.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:54 AM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


what is the ISS for?

What is it for? Have you tried camping in space?! It's really nice to have a station when you get there, because just setting up the tent is a huge pain without gravity or atmosphere.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:58 AM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


The ISS is a symbol of forward-thinking.

Ha. Yeah. What better way to fix things for future generations than waste billions of dollars on useless bullshit?

P.S. Ozone layer, schmozone layer.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:58 AM on September 18, 2013


what is the ISS for?

A rest stop on the way to nowhere.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:00 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I like this post.

What is the ISS for? The Apollo model of spaceflight puts the emphasis on destination; the space station model puts the emphasis on simply living in space, in that alien environment.

For the first time in human history, we can have humans living - not visiting, but living beyond the planet surface.

And yes, because we can.

As far as the cost, keep in mind that it is hard to spend money in space. All of the money - every cent - was spent on Earth, and created good jobs, skilled and highly educated workers, and trickled down through communities all over the globe. If I had to guess, probably the most wasteful part of the exercise was the rocket fuel to get the stuff up into space. And compared to the number of rocket launches to test missiles and spy on other people, I bet that's a drop in the bucket.

(I'm also sad that people are comparing $100B total cost with annual budgets of various things.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:02 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


asteroid mining seems to be a thing that's attracting real money:

There's two companies right now: Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources. The latter is backed among others by James Cameron and Larry Page.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 12:04 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Turns out that most of the readily available neat stuff we need is actually already in the best place for us to get it, right here on earth.

...except (for example) when we want to build things like satellites. Currently that requires transporting the readily available neat stuff we have on Earth into space at incredible expense.

Space based manufacturing would pay off big if we decided to build a sunshield constellation of satellites at Lagrange point L1. It's not the best way to stop global warming but it would work. Launched from Earth those satellites would cost trillions of dollars. Off-planet manufacturing could cut that by an order of magnitude.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:04 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


For the first time in human history, we can have humans living - not visiting, but living beyond the planet surface.

Actually, the Russians built the first space station in the early 1070s and a later station of theirs, Mir, held the record for longest human time in space until the 2000s or so. God bless the sturdy Russians.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:06 PM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow: "except (for example) when we want to build things like satellites."

Yeah, that's actually part of the business plan behind the companies I mentioned above: to create tools and infrastructure that allows for building satellites and vehicles directly in space/orbit rather than having to pay for costly launches.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 12:07 PM on September 18, 2013


To quote Nicolas Bloembergen, "Microgravity is of microimportance."

Inspiration is great, astronauts are awesome, and space is the best, but after the nearly unbroken string of success that has been the recent unmanned missions (Mars Climate Orbiter the sole dud), it just gets harder and harder to justify sending people into space.

Robots! They are our un-eating, un-pooping, un-david-bowie-playing eyes and ears in space! Let's celebrate how awesome they are and forget about propping up the economy of Kazakhstan sending junior high science experiments to bored astronauts in the world's most expansive can!
posted by artichoke_enthusiast at 12:09 PM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


No, but there seems to be an in-built assumption that if we weren't wasting it on the ISS, it wouldn't just be getting wasted on something else. Me, I think the best-case scenario for how else that $100 billion would've been spent is on tax breaks for billionaires, but obviously some folks seem to think that it would've gone directly to curing world hunger or something.

I agree. That's why I never criticize states for funding stadiums for sports teams. There is always that assumption that the money would not just be wasted anyway. Sure, it's not the most practical use of money but sports provide aspirational dreams for young people that encourage them to be physically fit in an era of obesity. Sports teach kids good values like hard work and cooperation with a team. Anyway, that money is a drop in the bucket in the big picture of long term budgets and would probably just be wasted on tax cuts so no need to point out there might be better uses for it.
posted by Drinky Die at 12:12 PM on September 18, 2013


Actually, the Russians built the first space station in the early 1070s

It made William the Conqueror supremely jealous.
posted by yeti at 12:16 PM on September 18, 2013 [11 favorites]


All of the money - every cent - was spent on Earth, and created good jobs, skilled and highly educated workers.
That makes me wonder: How much of that $100 billion is labor, how much raw materials, and how much is overhead (like buildings and lights)... I would guess mostly labor?
posted by joecacti at 12:41 PM on September 18, 2013


Actually, the Russians built the first space station in the early 1070s

Iziaslav I: "No, brother, it will not stay up! It's not possible!"

Sviatoslav II: "Oh yeah? Well, if I were Grand Prince, it would!"

Iziaslav I: "Fine, if you think you'd be such a great Grand Prince that you could put men in the sky, then have at it!"

LATER

Sviatoslav II: "Ha! There, I did it! Told you so! You can have your dumb title back; I don't need it anymore."

Iziaslav I: "You mean because you're dead?"

Sviatoslav II: "Yes."

Iziaslav I: "Ha! The Grand Princedom is once again all mine! Now, if you'll excuse me, dead brother, I have a war to die in."

LATER

Vsvolod I: "Hooray! Now it is my turn to be Grand Prince! *coughvomitdiarrheacough*"
posted by Sys Rq at 12:42 PM on September 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


40% of me is for the ISS because we need progress-for-progress' sake projects or we don't get no real progress,
30% of me is for the ISS because, really, there are other civilizations out there in the galaxy, and it would be nice if we weren't still pounding rocks together when we finally met them.

But 30% of me is against the space station because a rat done bit my sister Nell.
posted by 256 at 12:56 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ok, all joking aside, the first trillionaires are going to be made from the new space race. Just take a gander over here. There is an asteroid named "Vishnu" with 40 trillion dollars (Trillion!) worth of platinum on it that was 0.152 AU from Earth on April 1, 2013.

I, for one, would like my country to be better at the whole "space thing" than other nations. $100 billion for a research platform is a small price to pay.
posted by Freen at 1:12 PM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


But is platinum valuable because it's useful, or valuable because it's rare? If we drug a whole asteroid made out of platinum back to earth, suddenly it wouldn't be rare any more, and its value would plummet.

Pure research pretty much always pays dividends in unseen ways though, so I support pure research wholeheartedly. It isn't some black hole the money goes in. Useful stuff eventually comes back out of that hole.
posted by Devils Rancher at 1:20 PM on September 18, 2013


Fields that are going to be more relevant to humanity surviving the next century, as opposed to surviving the death of our star... Like, nanotech or whatever.

I'm glad we have these specific, concrete ideas on how to best channel our resources.
posted by Behemoth at 1:25 PM on September 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


There is an asteroid named "Vishnu" with 40 trillion dollars (Trillion!) worth of platinum on it...$100 billion for a research platform is a small price to pay.

The ISS has not been performing research relevant to asteroid mining. Pure research on keeping humans alive in space should not have been our highest priority.

is platinum valuable because it's useful, or valuable because it's rare?

Yes. Having a greatly increased supply would crash the price (hence "40 trillion dollars" is an extreme exaggeration) but it would also make things like catalytic converters much cheaper. It has some useful properties and would have a wider range of industrial applications if it wasn't ridiculously expensive.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:28 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I look forward to wrapping my leftovers in Reynold's Platinum Foil.
posted by jquinby at 1:41 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pure research on keeping humans alive in space should not have been our highest priority.

What, you want zombies in space?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:54 PM on September 18, 2013


Paging Astro Zombie to the scriptwriters brainstorming session...
posted by Devils Rancher at 1:56 PM on September 18, 2013


What is it in context of the educational budget in the US?

The ISS has been construction or operation since 1998, so if you accept the $100 billion, so on average it's been about $7 billion a year over 15 years.

Total education spending in the US (local+state+federal) is on the order of $900 billion / year.

So, well under one percent.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:07 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


They named it the Cygnus? Really?
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:11 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Utility of space station: "ISS is the essential demonstration site and stepping stone for a sustained future in space with humans"

Its the prototype experiment of how to live in space. No one can plan a civilization in space without drawing from the lessons learnt in ISS.

But now that space station is complete, they should research on how to build rocket engines and space crafts and other machines in space.

Convert the space station into the first manufacturing facility in space.

And use those space crafts to drag small asteroids near ISS, and then use the asteroid to build even more space crafts and rocket engines .. and so on ..

And one day we can wave at the departing flotilla of rockets and space crafts when they decide that they no longer need earth for survival.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 2:23 PM on September 18, 2013


Seriously, how do people keep comparing the $100B lifetime cost to annual expenses in other areas? The WP link says right in the beginning that the US spends about $3B a year maintaining the ISS. Aren't we pot committed at some point, here? People are seriously proposing we let a $100B investment fall into the ocean because we don't want to maintain it at a rate of 3% of it's total value (or something, since some people don't seem to see any values in it) per year.

Do you also just let your car die on the highway rather than waste money on regular oil changes?
posted by jermsplan at 2:26 PM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Do you also just let your car die on the highway rather than waste money on regular oil changes?

What's the Kelley Blue Book on a slightly used space station?
posted by entropicamericana at 2:29 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I agree. That's why I never criticize states for funding stadiums for sports teams. There is always that assumption that the money would not just be wasted anyway. Sure, it's not the most practical use of money but sports provide aspirational dreams for young people that encourage them to be physically fit in an era of obesity. Sports teach kids good values like hard work and cooperation with a team. Anyway, that money is a drop in the bucket in the big picture of long term budgets and would probably just be wasted on tax cuts so no need to point out there might be better uses for it.

In which example, Drinky Die ably demonstrates how you can make an argument to not spend money on X simply by coyly implying that there are better ways that money could have been spent. Works for almost any value of X, and if you do it right you never actually need to propose those better ways!
posted by mstokes650 at 2:30 PM on September 18, 2013


I certainly won't disagree, but the ISS's cost should also be viewed in context of the other projects that were cancelled to pay for it.

After the cancellation of the SSC, America lost its title as a leader in particle physics research, and researchers have been flocking elsewhere ever since. Since then, we've also walked away from a number of other "big physics" projects, which has more or less doomed America's future as a hub for basic research. Science isn't a competition, but the US would have benefited tremendously from being the center of attention.


The US is the largest economy in the world by orders of magnitude (unless you lump the entire EU all together), and right now the rest of the world is literally willing to pay us to spend more money, and possibly to spend infinitely more money, the limit of the US bond market is not remotely in sight.

We could fund all of these projects, all at the same time, tomorrow, and not even notice. Hell, we could throw in a single payer health system and free college tution for every single citizen at the same time and only then even begin to notice. It's not that the money isn't there, it's that we are collectively too stupid, too hung up on idiotic debates about which poor people aren't suffering enough, and allow people with anti-science, anti-achievement, pro-war, pro-pain agendas to make our public policy decisions.
posted by T.D. Strange at 2:39 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


In which example, Drinky Die ably demonstrates how you can make an argument to not spend money on X simply by coyly implying that there are better ways that money could have been spent. Works for almost any value of X, and if you do it right you never actually need to propose those better ways!

I was actually pointing out that defending spending because the money will just be wasted on other stuff or tax cuts can defend any X. I do have some things I could put in for X that I think would be better priorities for various reasons but my point was it's better to defend the spending on the merits than just assume waste is the alternative.
posted by Drinky Die at 2:54 PM on September 18, 2013


As I understand it, the ISS is there as a temporary security measure while the Bajorans rebuild their world after a half-century of Cardassian occupation, in order to stave off further security threats from Cardassia and other galactic powers. There have also been rumors of something called "the Temple of the Prophets" in the Denorios Belt that are worth watching out for.
posted by Halloween Jack at 3:10 PM on September 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


the ISS is there as a temporary security measure while the Bajorans

Er, Bajorans? Just how nervous might the good folks in the flyover states get if there were only ruskies and a heavenly palace passing over their heads?
posted by sammyo at 4:40 PM on September 18, 2013


If this was a 4X space game, you all know what the optimal resource allocation would be for anyone competent playing it... unite the entire planet under a single government, and devote 100% of resources - every scientist and engineer alive - towards colonizing nearby star systems, at least until you have 3-4.

Then you can relax and pursue other stuff. But not before.

A player spending a mere 0.14% of global productivity on colonizing that first extra-solar planet would be deemed foolish and quickly lose the game...
posted by xdvesper at 4:51 PM on September 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's not my money, I'm not American, but I do regret that all that money has been dribbled into a programme that repeats Skylab and Mir on a larger scale, when it could have been used for a qualitatively new enterprise like a moon base, manned Mars exploration or ultra-advanced robotic missions like a Europan submarine.
posted by topynate at 4:52 PM on September 18, 2013


As I understand it, the ISS is there as a temporary security measure while the Bajorans rebuild their world after a half-century of Cardassian occupation, in order to stave off further security threats from Cardassia and other galactic powers.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrongity. Wrong.

The ISS is our last, best hope for peace. It's a self-contained world five miles 239 feet long located in neutral territory...a place a commerce and diplomacy for a quarter-million 6 humans and aliens. A shining beacon in space, all alone in the night.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:58 PM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Seriously, how do people keep comparing the $100B lifetime cost to annual expenses in other areas? The WP link says right in the beginning that the US spends about $3B a year maintaining the ISS. Aren't we pot committed at some point, here? People are seriously proposing we let a $100B investment fall into the ocean because we don't want to maintain it at a rate of 3% of it's total value (or something, since some people don't seem to see any values in it) per year.

"It's a waste of money."

"But we've wasted so much money on it already! It doesn't make any sense to stop wasting money on it now!"
posted by Sys Rq at 4:58 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The EJSM/Laplace mission is only estimated to cost ~$5 billion, but probably won't happen due to budget cuts. I'd prefer to have around twenty missions like this instead of the ISS. If there is a real chance life exists on Europa, sending some robots there should take a much higher priority than putting bags of sentient meat into a tin can barely outside of our own atmosphere.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 4:59 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


In the spirit of Jonthan Swift and in ligthearted tone I note: After tax payers spent more than a million dollars educating him and thousands of hours from numerous individuals were occupied superivising his journey to adult hood. Ongoing fire protection, security costs and health care amount to thousands of dollars a year. On an Earth of seven billion people, facing tremendous environemtal challenges, budget deficit and out of control government spending, the question arises, what is Brandon Blatcher for? What is any of is for?
posted by humanfont at 5:16 PM on September 18, 2013


RonButNotStupid: "A shining beacon in space, all alone in the night."

A read this as "a shining bacon in space".

I liked it.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 5:17 PM on September 18, 2013


Ground control to Major Ham...
posted by popcassady at 6:01 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The EJSM/Laplace mission is only estimated to cost ~$5 billion...

Whatever, the half a billion dollar probe that was going to explore Titan's methane lakes was killed so we could....send another damn probe to Mars.

So bitter. ..
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:09 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


One reason the ISS flies so low that it loses 100m of altitude a day is that it had to so the Space Shuttle could reach it with a useful cargo load. Now that we're done with the Shuttle maybe we could think of lofting it to a higher more stable orbit which the new fleet of access vehicles should have less trouble reaching.

Of course it would be even cooler to turn it into an actual spaceship and send it to Mars or something similar, but that won't happen if there's a funding chill and they deorbit the fucking thing.
posted by localroger at 7:13 PM on September 18, 2013


I think the eventual benefit of the ISS will be to prove, unequivocally, the waste and futility of keeping humans alive in space just so they can look out the window and fix broken things to keep themselves alive. I would be interested to learn of any science carried out on the ISS that couldn't have been performed robotically at a fraction of the cost. Eventually we will move past the bathysphere phase of exploration, humans in a can peering out the porthole, and will dedicate ourselves to the robotic mapping and exploration of the solar system. But for now, there are still sizeable profits to be made...
posted by jim in austin at 7:55 PM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


It could be fully funded with funds left over by a 1 cent tax on gasoline in the US.

A 1-cent gasoline tax would bring in less than $1.5 billion per year.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 8:06 PM on September 18, 2013


Pure research pretty much always pays dividends in unseen ways though, so I support pure research wholeheartedly.

So do scientists. Which is why the great majority of them found the ISS concept worthless. "No worthwhile research potential." Call it a premonition if you like, which has been born out by our hyper-expensive experience. But why ask the science community ... what do they know about what research is valuable?

But look on the bright side. It's been so valuable that they wanted to bring it down in 2016. That's been extended. So now whoever it is that actually benefits from it, they're good.
posted by Twang at 10:52 PM on September 18, 2013


One reason the ISS flies so low that it loses 100m of altitude a day is that it had to so the Space Shuttle could reach it with a useful cargo load. Now that we're done with the Shuttle maybe we could think of lofting it to a higher more stable orbit which the new fleet of access vehicles should have less trouble reaching.

Actually, the Shuttle has a higher range than Soyuz and Progress, 600 vs 300 miles. With the frequent resupply and crew transfers, I don't think it makes much sense to permanently boost the station to higher orbit.

So do scientists. Which is why the great majority of them found the ISS concept worthless.

Worthless is a strong word, making me wonder if they were just throwing a hissy fit because all the attention wouldn't be on them.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:22 AM on September 19, 2013


It could be fully funded with funds left over by a 1 cent tax on gasoline in the US.

A 1-cent gasoline tax would bring in less than $1.5 billion per year.


You misunderstand, it's 1-cent per milliliter (mL).
posted by blue_beetle at 7:34 AM on September 19, 2013


Fine post. Thanks, Brandon Blatcher.
posted by Sleeper at 8:15 AM on September 19, 2013


P.S. Ozone layer, schmozone layer.

When mankind is ready, we won't need an ozone layer.
posted by Apocryphon at 5:05 PM on September 19, 2013


I prefer the sour cream layer, followed closely by the guacamole layer.
posted by elizardbits at 8:56 PM on September 19, 2013


> I think the eventual benefit of the ISS will be to prove, unequivocally, the waste and futility of keeping humans alive in space just so they can look out the window and fix broken things to keep themselves alive. I would be interested to learn of any science carried out on the ISS that couldn't have been performed robotically at a fraction of the cost. Eventually we will move past the bathysphere phase of exploration, humans in a can peering out the porthole, and will dedicate ourselves to the robotic mapping and exploration of the solar system. But for now, there are still sizeable profits to be made...

I would hate to live in such a hopeless, insular, doomed world. Let's re-frame that blurb a bit, dropping an irrelevancy ...

I think the eventual benefit of the ISS will be to prove, unequivocally, the waste and futility of keeping humans alive on Earth just so they can look out the window and fix broken things to keep themselves alive. Eventually we will move past the nursery phase of exploration, humans in a cradle peering out through the bars, and will dedicate ourselves to the human settlement and exploration of the solar system. For now, there are still sizable profits to be made on Earth - but that time is ending.

There are vast resources beneath our feet. All we'll ever need, provided we don't ever plan to leave Earth. They will remain locked there by the challenges involved and resources required to extract them. Ultimately it will be cheaper and less ecologically destructive to mine resources in space than to squeeze them from the crust against Earth gravity. Ultimately it will be cheaper to mine them in space and use them there than to send them back to Earth.

The futures are not exclusive. Those who stay can try to survive on Earth, and they will ultimately fail. Those who leave can try to survive in space. They may live or die: their future is not set. I know where I'd rather be.
posted by Autumn Leaf at 2:30 AM on September 20, 2013


Yeah, born 100,000 years from now when this will be a relevant question. You assholes better resurrect me.
posted by Drinky Die at 2:41 AM on September 20, 2013


(but with the genetically enhanced intelligence, no caveman routine, I'm not even that bright in 2013)
posted by Drinky Die at 2:42 AM on September 20, 2013


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