Cost in Space

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WASHINGTON: That cash-hungry monster known as the International Space Station just keeps on growing. Now NASA wants an extra $660 million from Congress to help prop up the Russian end of the operation, and space agency officials admit the bail-out cost could spiral up to $1.3 billion. The ISS project is starting to look like a farcical inversion of the 60's space race -- by working together over the past four years, the two Cold War rivals have not managed to put a single component in Earth orbit. And then there's the bill, which keeps increasing exponentially. "This still isn't costing as much as the race to the moon," says TIME space correspondent Jeffrey Kluger, "but it's getting there."

Even as it becomes the most expensive boondoggle in history, the proposed station still has no clearly defined mission. It's an open secret in Washington that this project amounts to welfare checks for would-be weapons scientists in the former Soviet Union; less widely known is how important it is to former Cold War warriors back in the U.S. "This is a way to keep idle hands busy in the domestic aerospace industry, too," says Kluger. All of which hardly sits well with NASA administrator Daniel Goldin's vision for "faster, cheaper, better" space missions. And researchers who could have used the money to do something useful -- cure cancer, say, or map the human genes -- can only watch and weep.