It is the most expensive piece of technology ever built, supposedly a monument to international cooperation and the spirit of adventure and exploration. But 20 years and $100-billion later, the International Space Station is an embarrassment. The first pieces were launched in December 1998, but it has yet to produce any science worthy of its colossal price tag. And, in recent months, the United States space agency Nasa has all but admitted that the project has been a mistake.
Nasa has hobbled any chance for scientists to do research on board the space station this year. In a bid to plug a $5-billion hole in the agency’s finances, its chief, Mike Griffin, sliced $344-million off the station’s science budget.
”We have adopted a ‘go-as-you-can-pay’ approach toward space exploration, and have set clear priorities and made difficult choices to remain within the budget for exploration,” Griffin told the US House of Representatives’ science committee in November.
”It seemed to me it was setting the cart before the horse to be worrying about money for human or other life sciences when we could not assure ourselves the continued capability to be able to place people in orbit in the first place. My priority became assuring that the United States have as close to a continuous capability to put people in space first, and conducting research after that. Utilisation of [the station] for research or technology will have to be minimised in favour of getting it assembled.”
Work that had been planned, sometimes for decades, into the effects of space radiation on humans, the design of life support systems and advanced environmental controls will all be scrapped.
The sorry tale of the space station begins in the 1980s, when there was still the remnants of a space race. Conceived during the Reagan era, the ISS was seen as a way of responding to Russia’s Mir space station. By the time the iron curtain fell, the plan was being heralded by the then president Bill Clinton as a way to keep Russian space scientists out of the hands of rogue nations. With Europe, Canada and Japan, it would also bring together nations in a common, peaceful purpose. In the 1990s, the ISS was costed at $18-billion and full operation was expected in 2003. It would do invaluable research into the delicate construction of novel materials in microgravity and the search for anti-matter, and give us detailed information on the effects of space life for humans.
Today, the cost of the ISS has risen to $100bn and counting. It sucks almost $2bn from Nasa’s budget every year, essentially to stay mothballed in low Earth orbit. No one expects it to be finished before 2017 and, even then, it will be a mere shell of the plans on the drawing board.
”You’re not going to see the space station in the pretty pictures, there will be pieces missing,” says Dr Keith Cowing, a former Nasa scientist and editor of the Nasa Watch website. ”There won’t be as many flights, it won’t be resupplied as often. Nasa is either unwilling or incapable of telling anybody with a straight face what the space station will look like.”
One by one, modules and experiments are being dropped. ”Nasa has determined that its exploration research objectives no longer require the centrifuge accommodation module being developed for Nasa by [Japanese space agency] Jaxa,” Griffin also told the House science committee.
The centrifuge experiment was designed to work out the effect of different levels of gravity on humans in space. ”We’ve had people and animals in space for a long time and we know what happens but we often don’t know why,” says Cowing. Yet it is research that makes a lot of sense, given Nasa’s plans to send humans to Mars in the next few decades.
Privately, Griffin has admitted that the ISS is an albatross and that he probably would never have built it, given the choice. Still, he is looking for uses. In light of President George Bush’s challenge in January 2004 to get to the moon and Mars, Griffin wants to use the space station as a stopover, a place to launch the big missions. Again, it is clearly an afterthought.
”If your goal was simply to go to the moon, do you need a space station? No,” says Cowing. ”But it’s already there so you have to do something with it — it’s almost contrived.”
Having said that, Nasa’s decision to fillet the space station was never meant to happen. ”I was in the room when the president made the announcement [on the moon and Mars vision] at Nasa headquarters,” says Cowing. ”He never said, dear Nasa administrator, you have my approval to take anything that that agency does and sacrifice it to meet this one goal.”
Thorn in Nasa’s side
Nasa’s international partners are another thorn in Griffin’s side. Treaty level agreements with governments mean that Nasa cannot walk away from these commitments. The Columbus and Kibo modules built by Europe and Japan respectively are complete, but Nasa has set no dates for getting them up to the ISS.
”The easiest way to pacify European and Japanese complaints is to fly their astronauts sooner,” says Cowing. ”The possibility is that there will be an international space station with no Americans on board. [Having put up all the money] it’s problematic from a congressional point of view.”
Griffin has already said that the limited number of space shuttle flights remaining before the spacecraft is decommissioned in 2010 would be ordered to launch the international modules first.
Getting Columbus and Kibo into space would placate the Europeans and Japanese, although it would mean problems in the short term. Both modules need power and a crew, meaning launching lots more equipment and more maintenance runs.
Yet the modules also provide a chink of light for the space station’s future.
”The space station could do good science. It could be a platform for astronomy if there was regular access and it was affordable and if the modules Columbus and Kibo were integrated,” says George Fraser, head of the space physics department at Leicester University. ”It would be useful for surveying the sky and astroparticle physics — looking for exotic antimatter — where you need a big platform moving in the way the ISS moves.”
But he is not optimistic. ”The rumours from the astrophysics community is that they are very fearful that the money will be directed to rectifying the problems with the shuttle,” says Fraser.
And while the European Space Agency (ESA) waits for Nasa to deal with the Columbus problem, scientists get no return on the multimillion-euro investment.
Tim Stephenson, chief engineer at the Space Research Centre at Leicester University, worked for ESA until 2000 in the manned space flight and micro-gravity directorate. He said his bosses spent most of their time arguing with Nasa, trying to get assurances they would respect the agreements upon which the ISS was based. ”I’m sure the situation has got worse. I know from my former colleagues that they are beginning to come around to the idea that, within a few years, they and the Russians will be running the space station, the Americans will have buggered off.”
That result is unlikely if only because Nasa dare not pull out of the ISS for credibility reasons. To suggest in its annual budget negotiations with Congress that the $100-billion project has been a complete waste of money will not endear any of the agency’s plans to politicians.
Stephenson says the ISS debacle reflects problems that started in the decades after the staggering success of the Apollo missions to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s. ”The risk-taking that was characteristic of the Apollo era is absent nowadays, and therefore Nasa management quickly get bogged down in the amount of money they have to spend to get the risks down to an acceptable level,” says Stephenson. ”The acceptable level constantly goes down. You look at the history of the space station programme and you will see the plans for moon and Mars going the same way — [with] the grand objective being watered down.”
Can anything save the space station’s reputation? Could private industry take over the running of the experiments, as has been suggested?
”If some big company walked up to Nasa with hundreds of millions of dollars and said I’d like to do something on your space station, I’m not sure what the response would be,” says Cowing. ”After 30 years, industry has not stepped up with their own money. Companies aren’t going to line up to do ‘what if’ science. They’re going to do something they can make a profit from.”
And, as if to rub scientists’ noses in the problem, the only thing that has emerged so far that can make money from space is tourism for the ultra-rich. ”In the past five years, the only interest I’ve seen is from companies that either do travel or PR or both,” said Cowing.
The future for science aboard the ISS seems to rest with the Columbus and Kibo modules. ”Americans who want to do research are going to have to partner Europeans and the Japanese,” says Cowing. Hardly the grand opportunity American scientists had been promised.
”It is a dramatic departure from what the ISS was sold as in the first place,” says Cowing. ”Something we promised our scientists for 20-30 years, we’re now just telling them, never mind, we changed our minds. Why would I take Nasa seriously next time they tried to get a bunch of people involved?” – Guardian Unlimited Ã‚