The project began in 1984 when, piqued by Soviet successes in space, President Reagan announced that he was asking Nasa to put a space station into orbit within 10 years. Budget meetings were held, to which Nasa brought along models of the station and launchers for the President to play with; he approved their proposed budget of $8bn without a murmur. (You wonder if anybody else caught on to this trick - if, say, the Pentagon chiefs of staff would roll up to the Oval Office with a couple of buckets of plastic soldiers and a remote-controlled tank, in the hope of getting a decent war off the ground.)
But Nasa swiftly realised that they had shot themselves in the foot: $8bn wasn't going to be nearly enough. Apart from anything else, it turned out that a space station of any size could have a sufficiently large gravity field to disrupt the microgravity experiments that were the main practical justification for building the thing in the first place. By 1992, with the deadline for the launch two years away, the original $8bn had all gone on scrapped designs; the budget went up to $12bn, and then $30bn.
And as the costs kept growing - you began to see where the phrase "astronomically expensive" came from - the reasons for building the thing kept shrinking. The main point of microgravity experiments was to grow larger, purer protein crystals than could be produced on Earth. These would be far easier to analyse, and hence would help in the design of new drugs. But as the project dragged on, crystal-growing techniques improved to the point where microgravity began to look irrelevant. Another justification was the hope of sending manned missions into space - perhaps to Mars. But the cost of this was estimated at $500bn, and cheap little robots have already scanned, photographed and dug up as much of Mars as any manned mission could.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Mir space station whooshed quietly around the world year after year, cramped and smelly, but still working. After much negotiation, Nasa and the Russians decided that they would co-operate to build an international space station. But the Americans don't want to use Soviet technology for their water- and-air purification systems, despite the fact that it has been working reliably for a decade. Instead, they keep spending money trying to develop their own, far more sophisticated systems. At present, the estimated cost of the space station stands at $100bn, not including the shuttle flights during the building period ($20bn) and annual maintenance ($1.5bn). It will be the most expensive structure in the history of mankind, and still nobody can think of a good reason for it.
There wasn't a moral to this, just a slowly burgeoning sense of wonder at the monstrous extravagance of it all. I suppose you could take it as a fable of the awfulness of modern technology, in which case you would be much happier with Fred Dibnah's Industrial Age (BBC2), in which Dibnah travels the country looking at boilers, steam looms and, this week, mining gear. It's a rum programme, full of little historical facts uninformed by any context; but, with the wilder excesses of Dibnah's personality held in check, it's a real charmer. Apart from anything else, you realise how much more attractive a machine is when its workings are visible and comprehensible. A couple of weeks ago, announcing the series' website, Dibnah said: "In't modern technology wonderful?" But you could tell he didn't mean it.
Tales of Tools (BBC2) is about the very simplest kinds of technology: the saw, the needle and, this week, scissors. Talking about his relationship with his tools was Monty Park, a barber whose celebrity clients have included John Major and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr; this seemed to be enough glamour to satisfy Mr Park. The last of a long line of barbers, Mr Parks described himself as "the Last of the Mohicans". I couldn't help thinking: wouldn't "Last of the Short, Back and Sides" make more sense?Reuse content