Brennan: Continue funding space station

By Tom Brennan |

The Trump administration is considering defunding the International Space Station, which would be a big mistake.

Former Astronaut Mark Kelly argued in a New York Times article this week that funding for the station should be continued beyond the 2024 limit of America’s current commitment. Kelly’s position is presumably based in part on emotional attachment from his four tours in the ISS, one of them lasting a full year. I’ve never been farther in space than the Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle, but I feel the same way.

The International Space Station is a research facility and the Trump people are thinking about directing the next round of funding elsewhere. Kelly said the administration’s thinking is unclear but President Donald Trump has said he wants to prioritize travel to the moon.

That seems like something the president would prefer, using the money to go someplace like the moon rather than spending it on a facility that simply goes round and round, orbiting the earth. But the ISS is a research facility that has already made breakthroughs in solar technology, miniaturized computer chips, CT scans, M.R.I.s and a lot more. Its work should continue.

Some functions of NASA are now being taken over by the private sector. Commercial aerospace companies are already delivering astronauts and cargo to the space station, and Bigelow Aerospace envisions taking private customers to visit the space station and housing them in an inflatable module attached to the ISS, a functioning hotel. Presumably those travelers will be a mix of high-flying wealthy tourists and people with more of a scientific interest.

The space station was built by a coalition of 16 nations. Kelly wrote that if the United States dropped out of the project other countries like China and Russia would step in and fill the funding gap, countries that are not necessarily sympathetic with America’s best interests.

The great value in the space station may well be more as a symbol of support for research on projects best accomplished in space. Some more breakthroughs could be made there on new products and new ways of doing things, and many more will be made on Earth. Considering both its practical and symbolic value, the United States would be ill-advised to concede leadership in space-based research to other nations.

Kelly noted that the cost of access to low earth orbit is continually declining, which opens more opportunities for commercial activities in space. The International Space Station, with the United States leading its supporters, could be a productive part of that effort.

“But all of this will come to a screeching halt,” Kelly wrote, “if the Trump administration ends funding for the International Space Station beyond 2024…this sort of trade-off is shortsighted.”

The world still faces a great many problems than can only be resolved with breakthroughs in research, most notably the need for either an energy source to replace hydrocarbons or new methods of hydrocarbon production, shipping, refining and consumption that result in zero production of polluting emissions, spills and related problems.

Global warming is partly a natural phenomenon resulting from an aging planet but hydrocarbon emissions appear to play a role as well, and that is what much of the world is worried about. (The loonies would like us to believe that global warming is entirely a function of human-caused pollution, but they ignore the fact that Earth has been warming ever since the last ice age.)

Getting past the hydrocarbon age, or perhaps greatly improving the way we consume, handle and dispose of hydrocarbon chemical and energy sources, are essential for mankind’s long-term future.

We should be putting more money into pure research such as that conducted on the space station, not less. Let the private sector focus on applied research aimed at specific problems. That’s what the sector is best at and that is where it should devote the bulk of its effort.

The International Space Station and projects like it are worthy of continued funding by the United States government.

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