Chris Jones, writing in Wired, has proclaimed the International Space Station the “the single best thing we did.” Many people might think that the Apollo moon landings were the greatest accomplishment in human history. I described why that might be so in “Why is it So Hard to Go Back to the Moon” by pointing out the various scientific, political, and economic benefits Apollo caused to come into being. Continuing the effort to access the opportunities the moon offers is one reason why now three American presidents have proposed going back and why Trump’s proposal might be the one that succeeds.

The miracle of the space station

Jones concludes his article by stating, “Maybe it will make you feel better to remember instead, if only for the time it takes for the station to cross your night sky, that while everything can seem so awful and cynical here at home, we are still capable of distant miracles. Right now the international space station is hurtling through space, and so is its crew, which means so are we, living in its constant light.” Jones makes a salient point. Unlike Apollo, the ISS still exists. It is a tangible object that can be seen. The scientific and engineering discoveries that are being done aboard what Jones calls a “galleon in space” are still ongoing and will be for at least the next seven or so years.

It may surprise many people, especially those who barely remember a time when there was no space station, which the project, first begun by President Ronald Reagan when it was called Space Station Freedom, underwent not one but at least three near-death experiences, surviving attempts to cancel it by a single vote. Primarily because of partisan politics, coupled with NASA’s propensity for cost overruns, the space station nearly died before it could be appropriately born.

The near death of the space station

By the beginning of the 1990s Space Station Freedom, as NASA’s project was called then, had run into the sadly familiar pattern of big-ticket space agency projects that featured cost overruns and schedule slippages. This situation afforded Rep. Bob Traxler, D-Michigan, and Rep, Bill Green, R-New York, the chairman and ranking member of the appropriations subcommittee that funded NASA the opportunity to try to kill the project and siphon the money to various social welfare and environmental projects.

The subcommittee narrowly voted to kill the space station in 1991. However, the project was restored on the House floor. A similar effort to destroy the space laboratory failed in 1992.

Bill Clinton saves the space station

NASA’s space station project had an unlikely savior in the form of President Bill Clinton. One of the first things Clinton did upon assuming office was to order a redesign of the space station and to bring in Russia as a full partner to cut costs and to give the project a foreign policy purpose. Despite that effort, what became the International Space Station came within one vote of being killed. The video below depicts the floor debate on the amendment offered by Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Indiana and Richard Zimmer, R-New Jersey and will give the reader a flavor of the politics surrounding the project during that era.

George W. Bush gives the ISS a commercial purpose

After the 1993 vote, the space station project no longer was controversial. Over the next decade or so the United States, Russia, Japan, the European Union, and Canada, among other countries, slowly constructed the ISS out of smaller modules. As a postscript to the tortured politics of the space station, in 2004, President George W. Bush created the Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems program to commercialize the shipping of cargo and eventually people to and from the ISS. President Obama doubled down on the concept with the Commercial Crew program. As a result, the ISS, which almost died several times in the early 1990s, became a catalyst for commercial space vehicles, built by companies like SpaceX and Boeing.

In the meantime, as Chris Jones suggests, the orbiting space lab is creating new science and technology that will likely justify its $100 billion cost in the long run. And it is a tangible source of inspiration for anyone who cares to look up at the night sky when the ISS passes overhead.