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U.S. announces space station concept 25 years ago

  • 22 January 2009
  • Written by 
  • Published in Space
Twenty-five years ago, on January 25, 1984, President Ronald Reagan announced in his State of the Union Address the plan of the United States to build a permanently manned space station "within the decade."

The initial concept was first called Space Station Freedom and turned eventually into the International Space Station, which is still not finished in 2009, but is still a shining example of international cooperation.

Then-President Reagan said in his speech about the U.S. vision to build a space station in orbit about the Earth: "We can follow our dreams to distant stars, living and working in space for peaceful economic and scientific gain.”

Excerpts from Reagan’s speech that day concerning the space station is found on the NASA website “Excerpts of President Reagan's State of the Union Address, 25 January 1984.”

He stated, “Tonight, I am directing NASA to develop a permanently manned space station and to do it within a decade.”

Reagan concluded his remarks about this next great adventure into space by saying, “Just as the oceans opened up a new world for clipper ships and Yankee traders, space holds enormous potential for commerce today. The market for space transportation could surpass our capacity to develop it.”

He added, “Companies interested in putting payloads into space must have ready access to private sector launch services. The Department of Transportation will help an expendable launch services industry to get off the ground.”

And, “We'll soon implement a number of executive initiatives, develop proposals to ease regulatory constraints, and, with NASA's help, promote private sector investment in space.”

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NASA Administrator James M. Beggs, then head of the U.S. space agency stated that the space station is the “next logical step” in space. [Time (August 8, 1983): “A Logical Step for Mankind”]

NASA developed concepts and plans to use the space station as an “orbiting repair shop” for satellites, as an observation facility for astronomers, as a microgravity laboratory for scientists, as an assembly center for spacecraft, and as a manufacturing facility for microgravity products in the private sector.

A design history for Space Station Freedom is found on the Astronautix website.

The Astronautix website states, “The Space Station Freedom project finally collapsed under its own weight in 1990, when the design was found to be 23% overweight, over budget, too complicated to assemble while providing 34% too little power for its users.”

It added, “A NASA panel led by Bill Fisher and Charles Price then discovered that 2,282-3,276 hours of EVA 'spacewalks' would be required per year vs. NASA's goal of 500 EVA hours/year...”

And, “Congress consequently demanded yet another redesign in October 1990 while requesting further cost reductions as the Fiscal 1991 budget was cut from $2.5 billion to $1.9 billion; the overall budget cut would be $6 billion over five years. NASA unveiled its new Space Station design in March 1991.”

“The resulting new configuration was mockingly referred to as 'Space Station Fred' by the critics.” [This is a “shortened-word-of-Freedom” reference to it being only a fraction of the size and capability of the original ‘Space Station Freedom’.]

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Information about the International Space Station is found on the NASA website.

As with most any “great adventure,” it takes much longer than originally planned. And, of course, much more money then ever thought about at its conception.

The plan to build a permanently manned space station in orbit about the Earth is still not completed, now twenty-five years later, even though the United States conceived that the space station would be completed within ten years.

However, it is being built, which does say something about the determination and technical ability of the United States to build large projects and to allow other countries to contribute to the building and participation of such a project.

In all, the International Space Station has cost over $80 billion (U.S.), with a range usually quoted between $35 billion and $100 billion. [MSNBC (August 25, 2006): “What's the cost of the space station?”]

When President Reagan first proposed the space station in 1984 , the “projected price was $8 billion.” [MSNBC] In 1993, President William Clinton stated that “the international station would cost $17.4 billion.” [MSNBC]

Sixteen countries on three continents, coordinated through the efforts of five space agencies (Russia (RKA), Japan (JAXA), Canada (CSA), United States (NASA), ten European countries (ESA), and Brazil (BSA) and Italy (ISA) working directly with NASA) are working on the project, which is considered by some to be the most expensive international engineering project in the history of humankind.

An interesting February 3, 2004 article in the New York Times called “From Glory to Sideshow: The Space Station's Story” talks about the history of the building of ''our critical next step in all our space endeavors.''

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A discussion of the space station, with respect to the contributions of four U.S. Presidential Administrations is found in testimony of Marcia S. Smith, an expert in aerospace policy. Given on April 20, 2005, it is entitled, “NASA's Space Station Program: Evolution of Its Rationale And Expected Uses."

It is difficult to provide an answer to the question “Is the ISS worth it?” You will get different answers depending on who you talk with or what article you read.

The benefit to society in any such international endeavor is probably worth it if it is conceived, developed, and maintained—that is, if the project is begun and finished.

Too many projects are started and, unfortunately (in most cases) never completed.

At least, we are finishing the International Space Station and it is providing scientific and commercial benefit to Earth’s peoples.

The old saying that the money could be better spent to feed the world’s hungry has its merit. I doubt, however, if all of the world’s people would be fed adequately if that $80 billion had been diverted to food for the hungry.

Instead, a global coordinated plan to advance science and technology and to provide relief to the poor and hungry (while providing them with ways to eventually take care of themselves and be self-sufficient) might be a much better international policy to enact.


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