How the ISS killed the USA’s dominance in Science

First let me stake my geek space cred here so you don’t think I’m an “Earth Firster”. I love space, and I think one of the most important things we can do as a species is to become space-faring and multi-planetary.

I am not a space-hating, “solve the problems here on earth first!” type of guy.

But the International Space Station did kill the United States’ dominance is science.

On top of the world

Let’s rewind to the 1980s. The USA has long since beaten the Soviets in the Space race. We dominate the world in everything space. From fundamental research to commercial satellite launches. We are space to the human race. Also, being one of the largest economies, and still hot to trot to keep ahead of the Russians in everything, we fund science at levels not seen anywhere else in the world, perhaps in the history of our species.

Consequently, as science pushes into more and more obscure and extreme realms, the experiments necessary to push the boundaries get more and more massive (read: expensive). No more Albert Einstein thought experiments. We need to invent new science and technology just to be able to run our experiments. No one in the world is pouring brain power and money into science like we are. The entire generation of scientists and engineers inspired by Apollo are in the work force now. It’s a great time to be a scientist in America.

The 80s are coming to a close, The Soviet Union is on the verge of collapse, and American scientists are inspired by the growth of well-funded science programs beginning to pop up in other countries around the world. American theoretical physicists begin designing and planning the mother of all experiments: The Super Conducting Supercollider (SSC). This isn’t an evolution on their current designs. It’s a quantum leap (no pun intended), a truly massive scaling up in every respect. It will deliver energies and thus possibilities so far beyond what was or even is possible that I lack the superlatives to express it.

Superconducting Super Collider

Superconducting Super Collider

The then Speaker of the House Jim Wright enthusiastically embraces it (not for his love of science mind you; the SSC was to be built in his district). The tunnels for the SSC were to be a truly massive 87.1km in circumference. For comparison, CERN’s LHC, currently the largest particle accelerator in the world, has a circumference of just 27km. While this massive size is what enabled the revolutionary energies at which the SSC would operate, it is also why it ran into trouble. By early 1993 the civil engineering feat of boring these tunnels balloons the cost estimate from $4 billion to $12 billion. The SSC’s biggest proponent, Jim Wright, is no longer in office and NASA is competing for an equally large budget in order to build its International Space Station (ISS). Congress determines that only one of these massive scientific endeavors can be funded…

Now why both projects couldn’t be funded is a murky subject. In decades past, they almost certainly would have been. But by 1993, the Soviet Union has fallen. Although serious, well funded science programs are beginning to ramp up in other countries, they won’t be very visible for another decade. The USA is the undisputed world super power. War is far from our thoughts. So why spend so much money on something when it seems we have already won? Maybe this is the reason, maybe not; but whatever the myopic reasoning, on October 22nd, 1993 Congress officially canceled the SSC. Then President Clinton tried to save it by imploring congress to “support this important and challenging effort” through to completion because “abandoning the SSC at this point would signal that the United States is compromising its position of leadership in basic science.” His words seem eerily prophetic now.


International Space Station

International Space Station

So what did we get in exchange for ceding our leadership in fundamental sciences? Well NASA did in fact get to build the ISS to completion. And I don’t mean to mock this accomplishment. Many countries have fledgling aerospace fields thanks to this effort. It’s commonly been said that the Space Shuttle was a vehicle without a purpose. That was true for its early life, but the ISS finally gave it a purpose. These are all good things. But what did it do for science? Well sadly… not much. Yes there has been some interesting biomedical research, a bit of learning about how to live sustainably in zero-G. But we are not talking about boundary pushing stuff here. In fact, one of the biggest bullet points NASA trots out when promoting the ISS, is growing perfect crystals; which is trivial in space, but very difficult in a large gravity well such as Earth. However, recent studies and breakthroughs are leading towards the ability to grow these on the ground.

In addition to this, if the Space Shuttle really was a vehicle without a mission, did giving it a mission make things better? Or did it instead simply forestall its inevitable demise, keeping it limping along, preventing us from pushing forward a deep space program starting in the 90s? By this logic, the ISS may have been the worst thing to happen to NASA since the Soviets gave up on the moon, possibly preventing a deep space program from beginning almost 20 years earlier. Without an ambitious goal like deep space exploration, pushing us to invent new technology and push the boundaries of science, we instead stagnated and allowed other countries to close the gap on our massive lead in space technology.

Today the USA launches a tiny fraction of the total of the world’s satellites every year. We can’t even get our own astronauts to the Space Station we sacrificed so much to build. Europe has the best space based telescope (Herschel). China has the cheapest and most robust launch capabilities. China recently launched the first module of their own Space Station, and are simultaneously aggressively pursuing a manned moon program.

Simply put, canceling the SSC ceded our dominance in fundamental sciences, and the ISS stalled any forward progress in our Space program for almost two decades.

Tevatron hunts the Higgs boson

Tevatron hunting the Higgs boson


This is all made especially poignant on today of all days as the Tevatron, once the pinnacle of high energy particle physics in the USA and the world, goes dark for good. Of course there is talk of building a new accelerator, but it seems the wounds from the SSC are fresh in everyone’s mind. The proposed “Project X” would utilize the existing tunnels, apparently knowing that Congress doesn’t have the stomach for a larger, more costly project. In order to build an accelerator that can probe at higher energies and still remain in the same tunnels, an entirely new type of accelerator must be invented. This type of effort isn’t expected to produce a working accelerator for at least two decades.

Finally, as China begins construction of their own Space Station and pursues its moon program, we can look back at our Space program. Where is it going now that the Shuttle is retired? Deep space finally, which is great, manned missions to deep space! Whether that be asteroids, moons of other planets, or even Mars, that is good news. Problem is, we haven’t decided which of these destinations it is yet. But those in Congress with large space lobbies in their districts are pushing for a new Super Heavy Lift Rocket. One that NASA doesn’t need or want. The new design unveiled to Congress last month is lamentable at best. Its initial configuration doesn’t even classify as a Super Heavy Lifter. It’s forced to use components from the Space Shuttle that no one in the space community wanted to go forward with (Solid Rocket Boosters). And yet again, it’s a vehicle without a mission. We don’t know what it should actually be designed to do, because we don’t know what it’s going to do.

The so called “New Space” companies such as SpaceX could build a better rocket, cheaper, and have it flying before the decade is out. In a period of fiscal austerity where NASA’s budget is continually cut, it makes no sense to build yet another rocket. NASA did the hard work in the 50s and 60s. Now we should let the private sector do what it does best: Better, Cheaper, Faster. NASA should get back to its roots, focus on fundamental sciences; build satellites and probes and science experiments that private industry couldn’t dream of funding because there’s no business model for them.

Maybe the new rocket will fly some time next decade. Maybe we’ll just sink a few billion into it over the coming years and eventually cancel it. It’s hard to say. But there are a few things I can say with much greater certainty. China will build its space station and go to the moon. Europe will continue ramping up the LHC and other experiments at CERN to truly cement its position as the leader in theoretical physics. And at least for the foreseeable future, we will muddle around trying to figure out how to build a new accelerator without digging more tunnels, and how to build a deep space rocket from the parts of a Low Earth Orbit space ship.