Why Is the Space Station a Flop?

Roundup: Media's Take

William Broad, writing in the NYT (Feb. 3, 2004):

In 1989, when the first President George Bush announced his plan to send American astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars, he called the proposed space station"our critical next step in all our space endeavors." It would be a base in the weightlessness of space where big rockets would be assembled and blast off on voyages of exploration:"a new bridge between the worlds."

Now, with the outpost hurtling through space 240 miles above Earth and with 16 nations struggling to complete the most challenging engineering project of all time, the station has suddenly become a $100 billion dead end.

The current President Bush made no mention of it as a steppingstone in his speech on Jan. 14 reviving the call for missions to the Moon and Mars. Instead, he spoke of it as a site of biomedical research and an"obligation" that the United States had to help finish.

Mr. Bush gave no clear indication how, or whether, the United States planned to use the station after its prospective completion in 2010. With NASA focusing its efforts and its budget on the Moon and Mars, the station's prospects are uncertain.

"I'm worried that they're going to cut off the space shuttle before we have another vehicle that can fly," said Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who is the only current member of Congress to have flown in space."And that will drastically reduce space station use."

What happened? How did the station go from star to sideshow? Experts cite a litany of factors: cost overruns, design changes, new perceptions of technical risk after the shuttle disasters and shifting national priorities. For instance, orbital changes to accommodate Russia after the cold war made it harder to use the station as a launching pad.

The tale has no real bad guys, the experts say, but many false promises.

"It was always a steppingstone to the stars," said Dr. Howard E. McCurdy, a space historian at American University."It was sold as all things to all people."

Dr. Alex Roland, a former NASA historian now at Duke University, said a moral of the story was that Congress and the public needed to work harder to hold the space agency accountable for its dreams.

"They keep getting trapped in their own rhetoric," he said."They're willing victims of it. But as public policy it's a disaster because it feeds unrealistic expectations."

At the start of the space age, visionaries invariably saw outposts in earth orbit as jumping-off points. Dr. Wernher von Braun, in a famous 1952 article, told of a huge inhabited wheel."From this platform," he said,"a trip to the Moon itself will be just a step."

In 1968, Stanley Kubrick's movie"2001: A Space Odyssey" featured a giant outpost in Earth orbit that was a way station to the Moon and Jupiter.

Finally, after decades of fantasies, President Ronald Reagan proposed in 1984 that the United States actually build a space station. It too was envisioned as a hub for colonies on the Moon and Mars. For Mr. Reagan, the station also represented a way to challenge the Soviet Union. In the cold war, Moscow made human outposts a hallmark of its space activities.

But Congress did not vote construction money to pay for either Mr. Reagan's vision or that of the first President Bush. Not until 1993 did a new a new vision for space take shape, this one emphasizing harmony over rivalry. That September, President Bill Clinton announced that Russia had joined the station effort as a full partner. Its giant rockets were seen as a boon for the project and a good backup if the shuttles should again fail catastrophically, as the Challenger did in 1986.

"One world, one station," said Daniel S. Goldin, NASA's administrator at the time.

There was just one problem. For the Russian rockets to reach the grand unified station, it would need a different orbit.

Shuttles flying out of Florida usually go into an orbit at an angle of 28.5 degrees to the Equator. The original station, meant to be built piecemeal as the shuttles carried up parts, was to have taken shape there.

But Russian rockets blast off in Kazakhstan, much higher on the globe than Florida. They cannot fly much lower than 51.6 degrees latitude without running the risk of dropping spent rocket stages or astronauts during an emergency re-entry on Mongolia or northern China. So the Clinton administration decided to erect the station at 51.6 degrees, hailing it as a"world orbit" accessible to all spacefaring nations.

Orbiting at 51.6 degrees, the new station could no longer act as the perfect jumping-off point for the Moon and beyond, experts said.

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