Podcast: On Its 25th Birthday, Was The International Space Station Worth It?

Podcast: On Its 25th Birthday, Was The International Space Station Worth It?

Rush Transcript

Joe Anselmo:

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Check 6 podcast. I’m Joe Anselmo, Aviation Week’s editorial director and editor in chief of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine.

Twenty-five years ago, on December 6th to be exact, NASA’s Unity module was joined together in space with Russia’s Zarya module and the International Space Station was born. A quarter-century on, the built out Space Station is going strong as a permanently staffed orbiting laboratory and a rare case of where the US and Russia are still working closely together.

So, has the Space Station fulfilled the bold dreams that its proponents put forth? And how much longer will it continue to operate? Joining us today is a very special guest, Daniel Goldin served as NASA administrator from 1992 to 2001, the longest serving NASA administrator. He shepherded the Space Station through development, deployment, and initiation of crew operations. He was also instrumental in bringing Russia into the project at the end of the Cold War.

Also with us is Irene Klotz, Aviation Week’s Senior Space Editor and Cape Canaveral bureau chief. She has covered NASA and the Space Station program for several decades.

Dan, let’s start with you. Do you consider the Space Station a success? And what perhaps are your biggest disappointments after 25 years?

Dan Goldin:

That’s a tough question to answer with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no,’ so I’ll break it into three parts. Part number one, did the Space Station meet its technical objectives? Absolutely, 100%, done. We designed it as I recollect, for 20 years. We are now here 25 years. There’s a thought it will go another five years, but it’s up, it’s working. There hasn’t been one serious incident where we’ve had a loss of human life or we’ve had a serious problem where someone got hurt. I think there’s about 250 people from 19 countries that have been up to the station. So that’s objective number one.

Objective number two, it’s the human engineering. Since the time of the end of World War II until I think it was December 26th or 27th of 1991. We come from June of 1945 to December of ’91 we were engaged in a Cold War that almost blew up this planet. And within months of the time that happened, and by the way, I spent 25 years of my life designing systems for our country to bring down the Soviet Union.

I remember celebrating early in January of ’92 before I got the call from President[George HW] Bush. I remember making a video for the people who worked for me. There were 10,000 people in my organization. I was a defense contractor. And we celebrated the end of the Cold War. Little did I know that June 6th of ’92, only five months from then, I’d be sitting across the table from Boris Yeltsin.

For me, this was an unbelievable leap of faith, because when I talked about the job with President Bush and Vice President Quayle in early ’92, we talked about all the issues at NASA and we talked about the Space Station. But I had no idea I’d go from being a physicist and engineer and have to get into human engineering. Let me give a score for that. We made the world a better place.

And another thing I want to say about President George HW Bush. This is a man who fought in World War II. He was a fighter pilot in the Navy. A wonderful man, a man who understood history. And he knew what happened at Versailles. This is at the end of World War I. The Western Allies, the same team that we had for the Cold War, the Western Allies, they did not understand the Germans wanted to move forward and instead suppressed them.

He had the vision that we would have a Shuttle-Mir program to get things started before we got to a station. Here we are, 25 years later, there’s trouble in the world again, but the Space Station is functioning with 16 nations, including the US and the Russians, yet there’s stress elsewhere. Score 100% on human engineering and countries and people working together for the betterment of humankind.

Area number three, the Space Station was a research laboratory. It was supposed to help us understand how people could live and work more efficiently in space. And also, how we could prepare ourselves to go to another planet. Second, we wanted to be able to build new industries in biotech, in semiconductors and advanced materials, taking advantage of the zero gravity in space, or microgravity.

And there I give us a good passing grade. There haven’t been the breakthroughs. And my concern is on how can people live and work safely and more efficiently in space. We are still relying on physics and chemistry. I wrote an article in Aviation Week talking about this, I think it was July of 2019, celebrating the 50th anniversary of landing on the moon. And I expressed concern that NASA is still a physics and a chemistry and an engineering based organization.

If we are to have colonies on the moon, if we are to have people living on Mars, if we are to mine asteroids in the near earth asteroid belt, we’d better get an understanding of biology and bioengineering. So I am very disappointed that all the money after we got the Space Station built and after I left, and I’m not blaming anyone. But there’s a comfort in America, and this is even a bigger issue today. China is building an unbelievable industry based upon bioengineering and genetics. We invented gene splicing in America. I know the woman who won the Nobel Prize in gene splicing. We haven’t met the objective. So, why did we build a laboratory and not get it done?

I’m going to stop here because I’m going to get negative, and I don’t want to be negative because I believe that NASA wants to do the right thing. And I’ll finish by saying early on in my tenure at NASA, my father was a biologist. My sisters majored in biology and I love biology. I learned it by osmosis.

I am worried about America, because if we don’t get an understanding that we’re looking out of the back window of the bus at physics and chemistry, we better figure out how to get into biology. And not just for health, for all the great things we could do with it.

You know what? I’m going to be honest, F on category three. I probably came on too strong with my F. If I have an objective, it’s always a stretch objective. I came to NASA wanting to take America to Mars. I thought I could do it by the end of the ’90s. I led the building of the Space Station for all those reasons. There have been wonderful things happening.

I was talking about the part that didn’t happen. It’s not just SpaceX. There’s a lot of companies that have learned, and I know there are three or four companies ready to build space stations and have NASA rent space on it. I think that that’s fabulous.

I think that the whole revolution in LEO, not just for human exploration, but for just commercial communications and other functions and remote sensing is great. I think it’s wonderful that SpaceX had the opportunity to learn how to transport people up and down. Fabulous. So, I’m going to back off and say passing grade from an F on category three. Okay.

Joe Anselmo:

Does that mean D or C?

Dan Goldin:

I’ll be ambiguous.

Joe Anselmo:

Okay. Irene, I was doing some research for this podcast and I found a story we published in December 1997 that I wrote. And it says, “The most ardent supporters say station research could lead to development of new drugs to flight influenza, cancer, and even AIDS. Recent literature from the agency said it will allow researchers to develop a remedy for influenza by 2004. ‘Relief is on the way,’” it proclaimed. Maybe a little bit of an oversell?

Irene Klotz:

Well, I think at the time, of course there were lots of aspirations and the Space Station needed to win political support and funding. It was up, I’m sure Mr. Goldin remembers, against the Superconductor Collider, which ended up getting canceled, ended up going to CERN. There was a need, I think, to talk about all the possibilities of the station.

Dan, there’s, we could talk a lot about why you think the research program has fallen short, but in the meantime, NASA’s moved on to trying to commercialize LEO, and the Space Station has been a key part of that philosophy. Certainly companies like SpaceX got their start supplying cargo runs and also crew ferry flights. And now NASA of course is moving to look for a replacement commercially for the US government and US National Lab Research. My question to you is, with the time that the ISS has left, what do you think would be the most important things for NASA to focus on?

Dan Goldin:

Start working on the problems I defined. How do you purify air? Can we use biology to do that? How do you make food? And one of the other things I pointed out in this paper in July of 2019 is we need to be able to make food. We’ve got to cut the cord if we’re going to other places and we’ve got to not communicate. We have to have all our resources. And you can’t take all the food stuffs with us and suddenly go to Mars and go get resupply from Earth.

In the time we have left, I would start really aggressively figuring out how do you deal with human fluids? How do you cleanse the air? How do you make food stuffs? Can we operate the Space Station for let’s say a year without communicating with planet Earth? We now have generative AI. Why don’t we start using generative AI? Why don’t we start installing these things? Because unless we do these things, we’ll never learn. And we don’t want to learn on a multi-billion dollar mission to Mars, or on how do we operate the moon without spending billions of dollars?

Send them there and let them be cut off from Earth. But you can’t do it without the tools I just stated. And as painful as it is, they need to carve out money in the NASA budget, the Congress, the House, the Senate, the White House needs to understand that this is an essential step. It’s like building the postal service. It’s like bringing in airplanes of a century ago. This is where the money needs to go. And we need to get on with the task because we have the most incredible laboratory to do it.

Joe Anselmo:

Dan, there’s so much talk these days about commercialization of space, but it sounds like you think there’s still a critical role for government in space.

Dan Goldin:

I love the fact that commercial space is doing things independent of government. Do you know that within about a year, two, we’re going to have our phones communicating directly to space? The cell towers will be in space and there will be ubiquitous coverage of the earth. Hallelujah. But there are certain things that industry can’t invest in unless they see.

And by the way, I advise private equity and I advise venture capital. My life now is about helping young people learn how to make money in space and also how to help US national security in space. But the government in building a mail service, in getting aviation started, in going across the oceans, in doing variety of things. This is a job for government.

And I don’t know, maybe Elon Musk is planning on funding this and so is Jeff Bezos. But this is a fundamental issue. People have to eat, people have to breathe, people have to be able to do other bodily functions. People get sick. In fact, again, in that article I pointed out, Dr. Church at Harvard, who’s one of the foremost biologists, biological scientists in the world, he said that it’s possible to make radiation resistant astronauts and osteoporosis resistant adenoids with gene splicing. Let’s get on with it.

These are things that are for government. So, We’ve got to be very careful and say as soon as it’s ready for commercialization, private equity, venture capital, personal investment. But the government has a role if America is going to be a leader of the world economically, and Americans could sleep well at night. This is a function that has to happen with government.

Irene Klotz:

Dan, what do you think will happen with the US partnership with Russia after the Space Station program ends? Do you see us moving back into a bipolar or three maybe with China? Do you see a division coming up or do you see that there’s an opportunity to really continue doing this as a unified effort or at least a coordinated effort?

Dan Goldin:

In 1955, I was 15 years old, and the Russians exploded in the atmosphere a 55-megaton hydrogen bomb. I was terrified. When I was a child we used to have atomic bomb drills. And the teacher would say, “Duck.” And we were trained how to get under our desk so if a bomb went off, the glass wouldn’t hit us and we would be a little bit protected. How’d you like to grow up that way? It formed my very basic personality.

We passed that at the end of the Cold War in 1991, Christmas season. We had the most wonderful time on this planet from ’92 all the way towards the end of the ’90s. And then a freeze began coming in. And later on we had done a variety of things to build a global supply chain, only to learn that there were problems then with China. So here we stand again at a tipping point.

Irene, I can’t tell you everything’s going to be okay. I’m 83, and the real reason I’m working is I’m worried about the future of our country. And we can’t take our gifts for granted, and we’ve got to start changing, and we’ve got to start building a supply chain here in America. There are real big problems facing this planet. And I wish I could tell you everything’s going to be okay, my dear. No, we’re at another tipping point. And the outcome, I know the outcome I want, but it won’t happen unless Americans come together and make it happen.

Irene Klotz:

When you mentioned about genetic engineering of astronauts to be better suited as per space life, I was thinking about OSHA requirements that cap an astronaut’s career due to radiation exposure. And how with private space, like Peggy Whitson is now gone on missions that she would not have been allowed to do with NASA. We live within a certain rules and regulations. There was a recent tiff from SpaceX over the FAA requirements before they could get their license for Starship.

There’s a lot of just government bureaucracy, I guess would be the catchphrase for it, which isn’t going to change. In light of that, how would you suggest that the government and NASA in particular work with private companies to maybe do things that they wouldn’t not be able to do just solely as a government enterprise?

Dan Goldin:

You know, it’s up to Peggy Whitson if she wants to put her life at stake. And if she wants to do it as a private citizen, that’s her choice. But the problem is we’ve done so little. We know what the average thresholds are, and some people will go further and some people will go less. But grow up. You can’t say, “I want the protection of the government and I want to be bold.” You can’t play both sides of the game. And if one wants to put their life at risk, God bless them. People did that going across the seas hundreds of years ago. It was very dangerous. We are much safer now. All I’m arguing is there are better ways of doing things. And regulation comes along. And I don’t call it bureaucratic, it’s part of life.

And Elon, when he tested the Starship, he didn’t have water suppression. That wasn’t an experiment. Give me a break. You have to suppress the acoustic noise when you fire off a rocket. No surprise. No, I don’t want to beat up on the government. I just want to say if people need to be bold, they need to shut up about regulation and go do it and stop whining and complaining. But at the core of what has to be done is there are better ways in 2023 to extend the life expectancy of people with cosmic radiation.

This stuff goes zipping through your body, it changes your DNA, it changes everything in your body. If you want to be bold and make a statement and say, “I’m really tough. I’ll take the radiation,” you’re going to get some jollies out of it, go do it. But shut up about regulation.

Joe Anselmo:

And on that note, unfortunately we are out of time. But Dan Goldin, we really appreciate you taking the time to come here and lend us your wisdom and your memories. It is much appreciated, and we’d love to have you back.

Dan Goldin:

Thank you so much, Joe. It’s always good seeing you guys. You are cutting edge and I love interacting with you.

Joe Anselmo:

Thank you, sir. That is a wrap for this week’s Check 6 podcast. A special thanks to our podcast producer in London, Guy Ferneyhough. Join us again next week when Aviation Week’s, Guy Norris and Steve Trimble will be talking with Peter Merlin, the author of a new book on Area 51, the super-secret flight test center opened by the CIA and now operated by the US Air Force. Thank you for your time and have a great week.

Joe Anselmo has been Editorial Director of the Aviation Week Network and Editor-in-Chief of Aviation Week & Space Technology since 2013. Based in Washington, D.C., he directs a team of more than two dozen aerospace journalists across the U.S., Europe and Asia-Pacific.

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