Wednesday, September 21, 2005


What happens when Ralph Kramden is in charge at NASA? A $104 billion plan to send Alice to the moon, by default of a snappier wonderland, by 2018. Kramden was in charge of NASA in 1984, too (his eponymous stage name was James Beggs at the time) when he promised Ronald Reagan that he could get an international space station "up to initial operating capability" for $8 billion ($15 billion in today’s dollars). [1] Why not? Reagan was coming off the high from his Star Wars initiative, that missile defense fantasy that turned Industrial Light & Magic’s special effects into national defense policy. What he said in his famous March 23, 1983 address about Star Wars— "I know this is a formidable, technical task, one that may not be accomplished before the end of the century"—was essentially recycled for the station, briefly called Freedom (from 1988 to 1993), and now downgraded, in name and function, to something like a rest stop slightly above I-95. Of course even James Beggs knew the station’s aspirations would be the only thing ever to soar. Its purpose wasn’t science. ("I don't know a single scientist in Europe who supports the space station," France’s minister of science Claude Allègre said in 1999. "Not a single physicist, astronomer, geophysicist, chemist, or mathematician." [2]) It was, and still is, to keep NASA and its contractors in business. "The feeling," Beggs told The Times in 1990, "was that unless we could get a station, the manned activities would truncate and we’d run out of mission." [3] Twenty years after their verbal launch, Star Wars and missile defense are the twin Babels to nowhere, each a $120 billion slush fund for the thousands of contractors addicted to them. [4] Like ATK, the reusable solid rocket booster maker ("We're just one member of an entire team dedicated to excellence"), which took out a full-page ad in today's Wall Street Journal (p. A7) to boost one of its brown-tipped rockets up NASA's ass ("NASA sets standards so high that only the best are chosen to participate"). The Space Station isn’t running out of missions, having never had any, but it’s running out of shuttles. With that co-dependent relationship ending, NASA’s latest Beggs figured, with timing unique to the sort of aerospace geniuses who can’t get a rocket to launch from the Marshall Islands, that this season of Ritas and Katrinas was just the right time to announce a $104 billion plan to go back to the moon. He promises to stay within NASA’s budget. But that’s $104 billion in dog dollars. In NASA-adjusted dollars (figuring in the Space Station multiplier of overruns at eight times the original cost) we get… let’s be kind: $800 billion, operating costs included. And that’s just the moon, itself a pit stop on the way to Mars. Speaking of gibbous delusions: Where’s our Edward Gibbon when we need him?


[1]Ronald D. Brunner and Radford Byerly Jr, "The space station programme", Space Policy, May 1990.
[2] "Pie in The American Sky," by Robert Bell, Le Monde Diplomatique, Feb. 1999.
[3] "How the $8 Billion Space Station Became a $120 Billion Showpiece," by William Broad, NYTimes, June 10, 1990.
[4] The New York Times’ lead story on Dec. 16, 2004, on the latest test failure of the program—"an interceptor rocket failed to launch on cue from the Marshall Islands" after a rocket carrying a mock warhead was launched from Kodiak in Alaska—put total spending on Star Wars going back to 1985 at "more than $80 billion," with $50 billion slated for the next five years. The European Space Agency has the cost at $100 billion euros, or about $122 billion (