Today’s “Off Topic Monday” post is all about space stations that crash to the Earth. My interest in this began with wasting my time on social media. But then, after doing a little bit of web searching, I started to think about how politics can cause public money to be wasted in the interest of maintaining an image of reducing public spending. Are you really cutting down on budgetary bloat if you allow your investment to burn up in flames? All that past money spent, all those assets, have been trashed. It’s hard for me to see the savings. It’s like buying something you’ll never use just because it’s on sale. The marketing tells you you’re saving but all you’re doing is spending unnecessarily.
My interest in this topic was awakened when someone from my friends list on Facebook shared a fake news story. It claimed to have received reports of the Chinese space station, Tiangong-1, crashing into Mt. Katahdin, a beautiful place in my home state, Maine. As with most things I see on Facebook, I did some fact checking with Google to discover two things: 1) the space station had not even crashed to Earth yet; 2) I had forgotten all about Skylab! I was just a toddler when Skylab plummeted to Earth to leave debris in an Australian town. Like the Chinese craft that crashed into the Pacific Ocean yesterday, the USA allowed its very own space station to fall to its demise in 1979. It’s unclear why China’s space program gave up all hope on their station but we all know why Skylab fell: It was an unintended accident on NASA’s part, and a political move on the part of Congress.
The story of NASA’s marvelous achievement of launching, maintaining, and using a laboratory in outer space is both amazing and sad. Remarkably, this school bus-sized hunk of technology was put into orbit around our planet as early as 1973, something I had either forgotten or did not know. It had a computer system, solar observation deck, and laboratory equipment for research and the manufacture of materials. Four crews visited the station to do scientific research and experiments. They even had a program for schools which allowed students to make suggestions for experimentation. Some of those experiments were actually carried out and video taped for teachers to use in their classes. According to an article published in The Washington Post the same year as the station’s return to Earth, it cost $2.6 billion just to get the space station designed, built, and put into orbit in space. Mind you, I’ve cited an article from 1979, so just think of how much money that would be these days, taking inflation into consideration. That’s a lot of billions.
According to the same Washington Post article, which details the long story of Skylab’s demise, budget cuts to the space program had just as much to do with the ultimate end to this project as with having miscalculated – unavoidably, by the way – the number of years the station could remain in orbit. I’m not going to get into the science of the whole thing. The article I cited above summarizes it all very well and I encourage you to read it if you’re curious. To keep the story short: NASA actually had longer-term plans for Skylab and wanted to boost its position in its orbital path so it could continue in space. Unfortunately, the budget for developing the space shuttle program that was intended to eventually lift the space craft’s position had been slashed on several occasions. Skylab’s need for a little lifting happened earlier than expected and, thanks to politics, the first space shuttle had not yet been completed. NASA had even planned to get a shuttle developed well before the originally anticipated fall out of orbit for the station.
In the end, politics killed the US government’s first space station. In the interest of making it look like the government was cutting down on excessive spending it basically allowed billions of dollars of equipment to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. I wonder how things might be different now if Skylab had been allowed to continue its missions in space. Also, I wonder if American politics will ever permit budgets to defend past investments as well as look to the future. Skylab seems to be the poster child of politicians’ inability to budget well enough to keep billions of dollars from burning into flames.
China’s perceived need to trash government money spent on a space station is still not really clear. I wonder if the causes are similar to those of Skylab’s destiny?