Budget cutters may doom the International Space Station

Budget cutters may doom the International Space Station
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If certain green eye-shade bureaucrats in Washington have their way, funding for the International Space Station (ISS), which already consumes a miniscule part of the federal budget, would be pared back to nothing within a few short years. Such a move would have ramifications far beyond the scientific and national security “black hole” into which our manned space program would plunge if the budget were thus decimated.

The 1960s space race consumed the public’s imagination and much national policy debate in both the United States and the then-USSR; it resulted in an unqualified “win” for the U.S., the fruits of which we continue to benefit from to this day

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When Neil Armstrong became the first human to step onto the surface of the moon in July 1969 (watched in real time by what was then the largest worldwide television audience in history), the feat heralded to the world that there truly was one and only one technological superpower on earth. America was “king of the mountain.”

 

Over the next four decades, there were few real challenges to America’s hegemony in space. Whether sending unmanned probes to visit our neighbors in the Solar System, or providing the vehicles for astronauts to engage in lengthy sojourns in low earth orbit aboard Skylab modules and later the Space Shuttles, the United States reigned supreme in space.

During this era, NASA and its supporters did their best to educate the public about the innumerable benefits of continuing manned space programs. Unfortunately, the lack of clear and consistent support at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue resulted in repeated program cuts. Eventually, NASA lost the ability to launch astronauts into space, including to the ISS.

As things stand now, thanks to fiscal cutbacks and America’s failure to develop any spacecraft to replace the Space Shuttle (which was closed down in 2011), the only way an American astronaut can travel to the ISS is by paying Russia an average of $75 million per person to hitch a ride on a Soyuz space taxi. And even that program — which is dependent on Russia’s continued good faith in meeting its commitments — is set to expire next year.

In the absence of continued funding for the ISS, and without development of new launch and spacecraft vehicles, America’s manned space program will begin a sad fade to “lights out” starting next year.

Unlike the heady 1960s — when our country eagerly and broadly embraced President Kennedy’s challenge to send a man to the Moon within that decade — squeezing dollars for manned space exploration has become among the most difficult funding challenges in all of Washington.

It is in this environment that NASA’s proposed fiscal 2019 budget includes a plan to end all federal funding for the ISS by 2025.  The good news is that this, in turn, has spurred strong opposition from those in Washington who understand the value of manned space exploration generally and the ISS in particular.

Fighting the budget cutters, however, is no easy task considering all that is consuming dollars and attention in the nation’s Capital.

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzMellman: Two worlds — Online and off GOP pollster: Trump dominates political rivals vying for media attention Cruz challenger O'Rourke launching .27M TV ad buy focusing on 'positive' message MORE (R-Texas) is leading the drive to stop this short-sighted fiscal blunder. He noted accurately in recent congressional hearings that manned space exploration, exemplified by the ISS program in which the United States is the senior partner, cannot be switched on and off like a light switch.

Cutting funding for the ISS as proposed by NASA, even if implemented over a period of six or seven years, would in effect create a gap in America’s manned space exploration program that would result in a downward spiral from which it likely could not recover.

Although private sector space technology is moving forward, it is not nearly at the stage at which it alone could pick up the slack that will result from the proposed NASA budget cuts.

If America bows out now, unlike four decades ago when no other nation was capable of challenging our dominance in this arena, today there are very real competitors. In fact, our two most serious national security adversaries, Russia and China, are poised to step up to the plate to continue the ISS and beyond.

Whether one views manned space exploration with awe or indifference, cutting off funding for the ISS now would be a fiscal, scientific and national security folly of the highest order.

Bob Barr is a former Republican congressman from Georgia, serving from 1995 to 2003.