It appears the world needs a space station for one reason: to sustain the global space industrial base (yes, that’s quite an oxymoron but I couldn’t do any better). As the saying goes, when you want more of something, subsidize it, and that’s just what the space station has gotten with a “crazy-quilt” of shuttle resupply vehicles funded by government borrowing across Europe, Japan, Russia, and in time, U.S.-based efforts which will be delivered by (probably) SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation and perhaps, usual-suspects like Boeing and Lockheed-Martin.
“Do we really need all of these?” [European Space Agency (ESA) chief Jean-Jacques] Dordain asks.
While I’m not sure who the “we” is (or for that matter, what the real “need” is), the obvious answer to Dordian’s question is no. But “we” have multiple space station resupply systems anyway.
Why is this? While there’s something to be said about redundancy, it has nothing to do with this situation. Rather, it’s because space—including getting there and the ISS itself—is still viewed as a national-level prestige issue (witness the Chinese and Indians with ambitious manned space programs and emerging space-faring nations like South Korea).
This national-level pursuit of prestige is a doppelganger of Adam Smith’s invisible hand.
In fact, it’s the visible hand (of the state), which in an effort to meet its own esteem (or arguably some self-actualization) needs (see Maslow), pursues low value-added space programs even as there is a global glut of such manned space and space launch capability which is only limited by time and money. And as Smith would offer (via Wikipedia and with minor editing for emphasis), trying to fulfill these needs isn’t always a benign or noble process:
Again and again, Smith warned of the collusive nature of [space] business interests, which may form cabals or monopolies, fixing the highest price "which can be squeezed out of the [government] buyers". Smith also warned that a true laissez-faire economy would quickly become a conspiracy of [space] businesses and industry against [government] consumers, with the former scheming to influence politics and legislation. Smith states that the interest of [space] manufacturers and merchants "…in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public…The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention."
Smith’s final offering seems to be inconsistent with the more recent observation that ‘we need to pass the space bill so we can see what’s in the space bill.’ Instead, our ready, fire, aim mindset has powerfully taken hold and has helped create a global excess of space capability. This excess, when combined with the competition skewing effects of subsidies, set-asides, and regulatory capture, are sure to reduce the effectiveness and efficiency of what the United States and its partners are trying to accomplish in space.
Finally, shouldn’t the ISS’s low-earth orbit pretty well explored and understood by now?
I have seen the future of space and it’s robotic.