Science Friction

Architect Constance Adams designed an inflatable house that could take American astronauts to Mars. NASA wants to build it, but Congress keeps bursting the bubble.


NASA wanted to hitch Transhab to the space station for a reason, and it wasn't just for the safety and comfort of the astronauts.

The International Space Station has been in the works for 16 years now, draining billions of dollars while producing somewhat lackluster results. The original plan, announced by President Reagan, was to spend $8 billion and get the station in space by 1992. The first two elements didn't go up until 1998, and the third, Zvezda, the problem-plagued Russian service module, had been further stalling the project until its launch just a few weeks ago. Some are speculating that the space station will run up a bill -- including costs since 1984, shuttle launches and future maintenance needs -- in the neighborhood of $96 billion.

Before: A deflated Transhab awaits space-condition testing in NASA's giant vacuum chamber.
Photo courtesy of NASA
Before: A deflated Transhab awaits space-condition testing in NASA's giant vacuum chamber.
Before: A deflated Transhab awaits space-condition testing in NASA's giant vacuum chamber.
Photo courtesy of NASA
Before: A deflated Transhab awaits space-condition testing in NASA's giant vacuum chamber.

Now, with billions of dollars already spent and many ISS modules still waiting to go up, those members of the public and Congress who have managed to maintain interest in this excruciatingly delayed project are wondering what's the point? Low-earth space station orbit has been done. In fact, the International Space Station has taken so long to build, the Russians have passed NASA up in terms of the science to be learned in orbit. Many of the medical experiments originally planned for ISS were completed aboard Mir. What exactly, then, will this very expensive floating laboratory do -- besides prove that NASA can finish what it starts and that Americans and Russians can, sort of, work together?

Transhab is the answer. By attaching the inflatable module, rather than another hard hab, to the space station, NASA can give new purpose to an old project. The agency can start using and testing and adjusting now the technology that will ultimately take man to Mars, which is what the public is excited about anyway. "On station we can work the bugs out for Mars missions lasting 500 to 1,000 days," NASA's Mars Exploration Office head Doug Cooke told Aviation Week.

It was a big idea, a major expansion of the space station's mission, but Congress would have none of it. In May 1999, fed up with station delays and NASA's ever-increasing cost estimates, the House Science Committee, led by Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, produced legislation that prohibited NASA from spending one more taxpayer dollar on Transhab. The language was perfectly clear: "No funds … shall be obligated for the definition, design or development of an inflatable space structure to replace any International Space Station components" nor any "inflatable space structure capable of accommodating humans in space." The same language is in a bill, now in conference committee between the House and the Senate, that would authorize NASA's budget through 2002.

Congress may not have understood exactly what it was killing. Historically, NASA has been charged with constantly innovating to maintain its pre-eminence in space technology. So why limit the agency now from pursuing the Next Big Thing? At least that was Congressman Nick Lampson's argument. "It's a disincentive for scientists to do science when you do things like that….Somehow we've got to find a way to re-create the enthusiasm that John Kennedy brought to this country when he issued a challenge [to put a man on the moon]," says Lampson, whose district happens to include the Johnson Space Center.

Early Transhab projections put its costs at less than the hard habitation module, but they quickly escalated to slightly more. And concrete figures are hard to come by all the way around. Former NASA employee-turned-independent spacewatcher Keith Cowing says the bill's supporters in Congress were just trying to keep the agency in check. "It's almost like you're building one of those big ol' houses in Texas, and you want to add a four-car garage to your house, and you haven't finished paying for the roof and you want to take out a second mortgage to pay for the garage for the new car you can't afford," he explains. "And your banker says, 'No, finish your house first.' "

Instead of saving ISS from its own obsolescence, it seemed that Transhab would be the space station's victim. But NASA wouldn't let it die without a fight, even a dirty one.

NASA staged an end run around the House Science Committee and into the uncharted and controversial territory of space commercialization; the agency lobbied a sympathetic congressperson to tack a legislative rider on an appropriations bill at the last minute. Critics of the rider complained that it would allow NASA to keep any excess funds in their budget and then, as Sensenbrenner put it, "pick and choose which private ventures will receive the retained fees." NASA wanted to keep the $174 million already appropriated to build a hard habitation module and use the money instead to grease a deal with a private company to build Transhab. It was a little like asking Mom for permission when Dad has already said no. Needless to say, this maneuver pissed off members of the Science Committee, and before NASA officials knew what hit them, the $174 million designated for the hard hab was deleted from the budget. But don't worry about the astronauts having no place to sleep. The hard hab is scheduled to be the last module hooked up to the space station in 2005, and sources close to NASA say funds will certainly be reinserted in time for its construction. Washington was just sending a message to NASA: If Transhab is going to be built at all, it will be built with wholly private funds.

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