Mar 272006
 
Authors: Howard Witt Chicago Tribune

HOUSTON – This Wednesday evening, if all goes according to plan, an American astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut will blast off aboard a Russian rocket headed for the International Space Station, the latest crew in an uninterrupted procession that has kept humans aboard the station for more than five years.

And if all goes according to routine, outside of the professional space community and a handful of space enthusiasts, few Americans are likely to even notice. The workaday space station, far less dramatic than a space shuttle mission and far less compelling than planned journeys to the moon and Mars, long ago ceased to command much public fascination.

But the half-built space station continues to command a large chunk of NASA’s operating budget, even as President Bush and Congress have directed the space agency to shift its focus to a return to the moon by 2020 and a journey to Mars after that. Now, to help cover the cost of completing the space station facility that is supposed to serve as a unique platform for scientific research, NASA is slashing its science budget by $3.1 billion.

In a decision that some critics liken to the space agency eating its young, NASA announced last month it was canceling numerous experiments that were to have been conducted aboard the station to help future astronauts survive long-duration space missions to the moon and Mars. Several robotic probe missions to distant planets were also scrapped, as well as funding for hundreds of space researchers at universities across the country.

“The space station was sold to Congress for decades as a lab to do this kind of broad-based research,” said Keith Cowing, a former NASA engineer and editor of nasawatch.com, a Web site often critical of the space agency. “Now they’ve started gutting the station just when it is at the point of being able to do all things it was supposed to do. That leaves the purpose of the space station as something for astronauts to fix.”

NASA administrator Michael Griffin said earlier this month that he regretted having to cut the space agency’s budget for scientific research, but that he was left no choice by the combined costs of flying 16 more shuttle missions to complete the space station by 2010 while simultaneously beginning design and construction of next-generation rockets and vehicles to take astronauts to the moon and Mars.

“We focused on redefining the station assembly sequence in fact to concentrate on assembly, and we are largely deferring utilization and we are paring logistics to the bone,” Griffin told reporters at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “We don’t like that, but confronted with a choice between having a high confidence to be able to complete the assembly of the station and deferring utilization, or utilizing it heavily as we built it and possibly not finishing, we chose the former course.”

But some scientists contend that cutting NASA’s research grants will drive experts out of the space field and cause long-term damage.

“Fifteen or 20 years from now, NASA will have a space station and vehicles to go to Mars and no researchers to answer the questions of what do we do when we get there,” said Simon Ostrach, an emeritus professor of engineering at Case Western Reserve University whose former research center is among those losing NASA funding.

Conceived decades before President Bush set NASA on a new quest toward Mars, and requiring the heavy-lifting capabilities of the balky and aging space shuttle in order to complete it, the International Space Station today resembles a 206-ton conundrum orbiting the Earth every 92 minutes.

Less than 40 percent complete eight years after construction began, the station has by some estimates already cost more than $50 billion, yet it still can’t accommodate more than three crewmembers – enough to operate and repair the station but only half the number needed to conduct a full schedule of research and experiments.

Some critics argue that the space station has become a costly white elephant that is forcing NASA to extend the risky space shuttle program – two orbiters, Challenger and Columbia, and their crews have been lost to explosions – while diverting funds from unmanned missions to Mars and other planets that have proven more scientifically fruitful. Neither is the station essential as a jumping-off point for sending humans back to the moon or on to Mars, they contend.

“I don’t place the space station in the critical path for sending humans to the moon,” said Wesley Huntress, director of the geophysical laboratory at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and a former NASA associate administrator for space science. “And frankly the science community will tell you it was never a very useful platform for doing science at all. It’s not in the right orbit for lots of things, and it’s a very noisy environment.”

NASA officials say they are utilizing the space station as much as they can for experiments to understand the effects of long-term spaceflight on the human body. If humans are to endure years-long missions to Mars, researchers must find ways to protect them from such known issues as radiation exposure and bone and muscle loss due to low gravity.

“We have tried to give the highest priority to the research that we need to get to the moon and Mars and beyond,” said astronaut Donald Thomas, the space station’s program scientist. “Is the science scaled back? You bet it is. But is it no science at all? No, we’re still trying to utilize this station all we can up there.”

But a National Research Council review of NASA’s space station plans last November criticized the space agency for failing to define how the station can be used to conduct research in support of long-duration space missions. And among the science programs recently cut by NASA were plant and animal research that might have answered such questions as how astronauts on the moon and Mars could grow their own food. A large centrifuge that could have duplicated the low-gravity conditions on the moon and Mars was also scrapped from the list of space station experiments.

“The decision to remove fundamental science removes animal studies that were directly relevant to problems humans would experience for longer periods in space,” said Mary Jane Osborn, a professor at the University of Connecticut Health Center and chairwoman of the research council’s space station review panel. “All in all, the situation looks at least as bleak if not bleaker than it did last November.”

Despite the science cuts, NASA officials insist they remain committed to the space station. Yet at Space Center Houston, the Johnson Space Center’s visitor center and one of the agency’s showcase attractions to sell the space program to the public, the space station feels like an afterthought.

A big-screen film about the space station was made in 2000 and heralds projects such the Crew Escape Vehicle and the Orbital Space Plane that have long since been abandoned. A virtual reality tour of the space station features broken computers and graphics that pale in comparison to the simplest video games.

Even if NASA wanted to back away from the space station, officials say that promises made to 15 partner nations participating in the project compel the United States to complete the station’s construction. Russia, Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency have all spent billions on space station modules and experiments that require launch aboard the space shuttle.

One area that has not been cut from the space station is product placements and commercial publicity stunts, which generate cash for the space station partner nations.

Later this summer, a Russian cosmonaut is scheduled to hit a gold-plated golf ball off the station during a spacewalk in a promotion for a Canadian golf club manufacturer. The H.J. Heinz Co. is sending barbecue sauce and seafood cocktail sauce up with the next crew. And Pizza Hut previously paid the Russians to deliver a pizza to the space station.

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