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FYI Number 59: May 2, 2001

Like "A Ton of Bricks"-- Science Committee Considers Space Station Cost

"This kind of hit us all like a ton of bricks . . . how could you not know?" one Science Committee member asked NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin at a hearing last month on the International Space Station. Goldin had come before Science Committee members to warn them of a projected $4 billion increase over the 2002-2006 time period, a figure which he admitted may yet be higher. The alternative is a downsized station with downsized research.

The space station is in a box. A law caps Space Station development cost at $25.0 billion, with a $17.7 billion cap on shuttle launch costs required for assembly. Goldin is not about to break the law. "Instead," he told the committee, "funding previously targeted for specific program content beyond the U.S. 'core' is redirected to offset the growth." Among those offsets are redirected funding for the Crew Return Vehicle, the Habitation Module, and the U.S. Propulsion Module.

The result of all of this will be a three-member permanent crew instead of the planned seven- member crew. Since at least two people are needed to operate the station, the amount of crew time left for research projects will be greatly curtailed. Golden's written testimony describes this "research restructuring" as follows:

"The results of this restructure will require adjustment to our current research planning. In consultation with the research community, the program is prioritizing and time-phasing research plans for internal lab-based biomedical, biotechnology and fundamental research, as well as external truss and exposed platform Fundamental Physics, Earth and Space Sciences research.

The program will build multipurpose research facilities to enable human research, fluids and combustion, materials science, fundamental physics, and fundamental biological programs. In order to ensure the research capability needed to achieve our priority science objectives, NASA's strategy is to grow to the needed complement of U.S. research racks required to support our biological and physical sciences program."

"I must say that what I have seen from NASA so far leaves me somewhat skeptical," House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) said at the outset of the hearing. "NASA also must convince us that the redesign necessary to bring down the Space Station's costs will not eliminate the ability to conduct useful science or make us overly dependent on foreign partners." Ranking Democratic Member Ralph Hall (D-TX) said "I'm also afraid that we could wind up with a Space Station that is just not worth the money that the taxpayers will have spent on it." "Even worse" than not completing the station as planned would be cutting the research program, Hall added.

There was considerable discussion at the hearing about the $4+ billion escalation, signs of which were first discovered last September. "Frankly . . . our ability to forecast the complexity of Station software engineering and technical support has missed the mark," Goldin told the committee. While there will be considerable discussion regarding the station in Congress this year, the debate will not be about whether to continue building the station. Rather, it will be about what kind of station the Congress wants to fund, and while it is premature to predict with certainty the outcome, the odds are that Congress and the Administration will decide to increase the size of the box that the space station is in.

Richard M. Jones
Public Information Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3095

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