The Common Good
February 2009

Space, the Final Cost Overrun

by Ed Spivey Jr. | February 2009

The International Space Station is a cramped scientific laboratory orbiting in an environment where temperatures on a good day top out at minus 273 degrees Celsius.

The International Space Station is a cramped scientific laboratory orbiting in an environment where temperatures on a good day top out at minus 273 degrees Celsius. (Celsius is the unit of measure named after President Bill Clinton’s daughter. It was a birthday present.) Despite the harsh conditions and a history of shoddy construction and repair, the space station last month officially became more comfortable than my own house.

They put in a second bathroom.

As of last November, there’s no more waiting in the space station when nature calls. Nor, for that matter, when Houston calls and astronauts are looking for a different place to hide during the daily inquiries from ground control. (Houston: “Umm, we noticed you concluded your last transmission with the phrase ‘I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob g’goo goo g’joob.’ We know you’ve been up there for more than eight months, but listen, we need to talk. Over.”)

After 10 years and almost $100 billion, the International Space Station has produced less useable scientific data than the International House of Pancakes. (Scientific American just reported that customers who order IHOP’s new “Big-Bucket-of-Pancakes Breakfast” are actually visible from space when they waddle back to their cars.) Regardless, with a second bathroom, a new gym, and an updated kitchen, the space station now has more comforts than the average American starter house.

In my own home, I have to wait for what seems like a full rotation of the earth just to get in and shave. But not the crew of the space station. With two bathrooms there’s no need for an impatient astronaut—having just consumed a large Tang—to hop up and down and shout “You wanna hurry UP in there?!” or, alternately, “I hear a newspaper rustling behind that door. You better not be reading the sports section IN THERE!”

Actually, hopping up and down is discouraged in a weightless environment, since one tends to bounce uncontrollably from bulkhead to bulkhead, knocking over important scientific experiments, such as the pyramid of Russian vodka bottles that was carefully assembled when communications temporarily “went dark” as the shuttle orbited around the far side of the earth. Crew members often use this time period to strengthen cross-cultural ties and share the customs common to all peoples, such as beer belching. During one previous distant orbit, for example, American astronauts and their Russian colleagues got as far as “47 bottles of beer on the wall” before the shuttle reappeared on the Houston radar. (This time period is also useful for making unauthorized space walks so crew members can float around to that big window in front of the control room and scare the crap out of whoever’s on duty. That’s always good for a laugh.)

A second bathroom will also double the capacity of the space station’s most promising experiment, the onboard recycling system that turns urine into drinking water. Not only is the success of this system critical to the long-term viability of the space station, it is also, from an unscientific standpoint, one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever heard. The $250 million system frequently malfunctions and has not yet been approved for use, which is a relief, because I was getting these mental pictures that would forever alter my image of the American space program, not to mention thinking about how Tang gets its distinctive color. (Okay, too much? Too much. Sorry.)

Suffice it to say, for $250 million Aquafina would probably deliver.

I HAVE BEEN a longtime critic of the space station and still believe it is the worst decision Bill Clinton made during his presidency. Okay, maybe second worst. He chose to fund a scientific platform in the vacuum of space rather than the ground-based—and much less expensive—Superconducting Super Collider that would have exponentially expanded the frontiers of physics research, and led to untold advances in propulsion, alternative energy, and, my personal favorite, time travel. Okay, so maybe not time travel. (Not yet, anyway.) But the thing got built in France, with European money, and has already produced major discoveries during construction, such as how universal health care makes people in hard hats whistle while they work. (In the interest of full disclosure, the European collider had a major malfunction after only a couple months in operation. But I figure they just need to reboot and it will be fine.)

The spiraling costs of the space station will only get worse, especially if you price in the millions required to pay off Somali pirates who, at the rate they’re going, will probably take over the thing in the next couple weeks. I say we let them take over the Super Collider instead, then hit the switch and send them back in time a couple hundred years. Heck, they’d probably thank us.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

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