Donald Trump’s possible decision to end NASA’s funding of the International Space Station by 2025 brings up that age-old question of the proper role of government, although it is certainly not he who is bringing it up.
The International Space Station (ISS) program is a joint operation between NASA and the space agencies of Russia, Japan, Canada, and eleven countries of Europe. According to NASA’s “Reference Guide to the International Space Station.”
NASA and the space agencies of Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada have hosted investigators from 83 nations to conduct over 1700 investigations in the long-term micro-gravity environment on-board the ISS. Many investigators have published their findings and others are incorporating findings into follow-on investigations on the ground and onboard. Their research in the areas of earth and space science, biology, human physiology, physical sciences, and technology demonstration will bring yet to be discovered benefits to humankind and prepare us for our journey beyond low Earth orbit.
The first of many components of the ISS was launched into orbit in November 1998. Assembly was completed in July 2011. The station has been continuously occupied by a maximum of six astronauts from various countries since November 2000.
The ISS is the largest man-made object to ever orbit the Earth. In NASA’s reference guide, it is described thus:
The ISS has a mass of 410,501 kg (905,000 lbs) and a pressurized volume of approximately 916 m3 (32,333 ft3). The ISS can generate up to 80 kilowatts of electrical power per orbit from solar arrays which cover an approximate area of 2,997 m2 (32,264 ft2). The ISS structure measures 95 m (311 ft) from the P6 to S6 trusses and 59 m (193 ft) from PMA2 to the Progress docked on the aft of the Russian Service Module. The ISS orbital altitude can range from 278-460 km (150-248 nautical miles) and is in an orbital inclination of 51.6 degrees. The ISS currently houses 6 crew members.
The ISS is so large it can be seen from Earth with the naked eye. It maintains an orbit between 205 and 270 miles above the Earth, and completes 15.5 orbits per day.
Of course, all of this comes at a price — an enormous price to U.S. taxpayers.
The ISS is the most expensive object ever built. According to a recent audit by NASA’s Office of Inspector General, “Through fiscal year (FY) 2017, NASA has spent approximately $87 billion for ISS development, operations, research, and associated Space Shuttle flights. For FY 2018, NASA’s total projected ISS budget is $3.4 billion, including roughly $318 million for research efforts.” The program’s total cost is estimated to be about $150 billion, with each day spent on-board by an ISS crewmember costing about $7.5 million.
Although Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget request is not due to be released until February 12, according to a draft budget proposal leaked by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and reviewed by The Verge, “The Trump administration is preparing to end support for the International Space Station program by 2025.” A NASA spokesman would say only that “NASA and the International Space Station partnership is committed to full scientific and technical research on the orbiting laboratory, as it is the foundation on which we will extend human presence deeper into space,” and would not comment “on any leaked or pre-decisional documents prior to the release of the President’s FY19 budget.” Back in 2014, the Obama administration extended funding of the ISS “until at least 2024.” Many players in the commercial space industry want NASA to extend funding through 2028, the year that many consider to be the end of the ISS’s operational lifetime.
If Donald Trump decides that he wants to end NASA’s funding of the ISS, it won’t be because he opposes government space exploration or government funding of scientific research in space. He simply has other ambitions, such as wanting NASA “to send astronauts back to the Moon, as a pit stop to eventually send people to Mars.”
But why wait until 2025 to end funding of the ISS? Why not end funding now?
That a government space program has or has not resulted in valuable discoveries and inventions; created jobs; or benefited science, medicine, and engineering is not the issue. And besides, there is no real way to measure or quantify what the space program has done for society. There is a big difference between government jobs and private-sector jobs. Government funding of space exploration, research, and experiments crowds out private efforts. And the actual costs of a space program may exceed its supposed benefits.
Although a government space program may be popular with the majority of Americans and have wide bipartisan support in Congress, it is still neither authorized by the Constitution nor a proper function of government.
In an ideal society in which the federal government is strictly limited by the Constitution, the only possible legitimate functions of government are defense, judicial, and policing activities: keeping the peace; prosecuting, punishing, and exacting restitution from those who initiate violence against, commit fraud against, or otherwise violate the personal or property rights of others; providing a forum for dispute resolution; and constraining those who would attempt to interfere with people’s peaceful actions.
If an exception can be made for government funding of a space program because it has “benefits,” then no reasonable, logical, or rational argument can be made against government funding of anything.
Not only should government funding of the ISS be ended now, government funding and operating of the space program should also be ended now.
All space stations, bases on the Moon, missions to Mars, space exploration, space tourism, space experiments, space research, rocket launches, and space colonization should be carried out and funded by private organizations and institutions without government management, cooperation, partnerships, or funding of any kind. Americans who want astronauts to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no man has gone before should be the ones paying for it.