When the Trump administration released its latest budget proposal on Feb. 11, fans of human space exploration were dismayed to learn that it included plans to end America’s involvement in the International Space Station.
The proposal calls for the U.S. to sell its share of the ISS by 2025, treating the orbiting lab like some distressed piece of real estate in need of a buyer. Yet for much of the public — as well as to ardent space proponents, including former astronaut Mark Kelly — humanity’s only permanent outpost in space is an institution that needs to be protected.
“Cutting funding for the station,” Kelly said in an impassioned editorial, “would be a step backward for the space agency and certainly not in the best interest of the country.”
Kelly’s lament echoed loud across the internet. But a look back at the station’s long, messy history offers a different perspective. In the original plan, the ISS wasn’t supposed to end like this — because it was supposed to be a charred heap lying on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean by now.
Reagan and Russian roots
Since the launch of the station’s first component on Nov. 20, 1998, the ISS has logged 110,000 laps around Earth, covering more than 2.5 billion miles while hosting more than half of the 553 astronauts who have ever left our planet.
But the origins of the ISS date back to 1984, when President Reagan announced plans to build Space Station Freedom in a Kennedy-esque state of the union speech. “Tonight I am directing NASA to develop a permanently manned space station and to do it within a decade,” he said.