More than a decade ago, the international space station was sold as the premier platform for space science, with exotic applications back on Earth.
But the budget for space station research has been cut dramatically over the past year, and is due to be slashed even more deeply next year. Starting with Sunday's scheduled launch of the space shuttle Atlantis, NASA is turning its attention to flying up hardware rather than doing science.
Some observers say that NASA now sees the orbital outpost as a $100 billion white elephant to be finished, then quickly left behind in America's new push to the moon, Mars and beyond.
Those observers, who include scientists as well as policy experts, say NASA is acting as if the station was an obligation rather than an opportunity.
"It's almost as if the space station is an albatross," said Keith Cowing, who worked on the initial designs for the space station in the 1990s while at NASA and now monitors the agency through his Web site, NASA Watch. "It's almost like NASA has corporate attention-deficit disorder."
"The numbers show continuing decline for the research part of NASA," said Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "There's not much on the plus side for science."
Is the space station really worth all that money, and all that risk to astronauts' lives?
Even NASA admits that the station isn’t fully living up to the promise right now, due to cost overruns, construction delays and the repercussions of the 2003 Columbia tragedy. The agency has had to shift hundreds of millions of dollars from space station research to its new moon effort , initiated in 2004. And there are plenty of blank spaces in its plan to use the space station after 2010, when NASA is due to finish construction and retire the space shuttle fleet.
However, NASA still insists that the station figures prominently in its exploration plans, even if its primary role is not to be a direct jumping-off point for interplanetary trips or an incubator for spin-off technologies back on Earth.
"I go out and talk to people, and I say basically that we're in a difficult budget environment, and we're trying to maintain as much capability as possible," said Carl Walz, a former space station resident who now helps manage the station's science program. "We hope that when the budget pressure is reduced, we'll be able to bring on more science."
Assembly, not science, takes priority
Walz and other space station managers say science will have to take a lower priority than finishing the space station — a challenging four-year task that resumes in earnest with the shuttle Atlantis' mission, scheduled for launch on Sunday.
Some scientific wares are still being sent into orbit — such as the lab freezer that went up on Discovery last month, or the microbial experiment due to be sent up on Atlantis — but most of the research has to be fitted in around the edges.
"Because we're entering this very, very involved phase of assembly, the amount of crew time that we're going to have is not as much as we would like for payload activity," Walz said. "And in some cases they've shown where we're actually in the hole. ... There are tremendous challenges right now for what we're doing."
Emphasis on human health in space
Back in the 1990s, NASA touted the station as the perfect place to study industrial alloys that could be put to exotic uses back on Earth ... protein crystals that could show the way to new and improved drugs ... even new tools for diagnosing and treating disease , developed in cooperation with the National Cancer Institute.
Many of those plans have gone by the wayside now: The science that's due to be done in the years ahead will focus on how humans can handle the health effects of microgravity, radiation exposure and other aspects of the space environment.
For decades, researchers have known that astronauts tend to lose bone mass and muscle tone in space, that they don't sleep as well and that their immune systems may be compromised. Until scientists learn how to counter those effects, humans won't be able to take on the longer-duration missions envisioned in NASA's exploration blueprint. So NASA is shifting its research agenda to figure out what it will take for astronauts to travel safely to the moon and Mars.
"What we are doing is using an occupational health model, where we have standards that we have to maintain," Walz explained. "We have to maintain the health of the astronauts to these standards."
Drastic cuts in research
Unfortunately, that change in approach has left millions of dollars' worth of equipment on the ground, and scores of researchers — particularly in animal biology and the physical sciences — out in the cold. Just last week, the research squeeze sparked a round of resignations from the NASA Advisory Council's science committee.
The NASA officials who actually manage the station's science program try to stay out the political fray, but they admit that the shrinking budgets aren't making the job any easier. "When programs get cut, people's feelings get hurt. They get angry sometimes," Don Thomas, NASA's space station program scientist, told MSNBC.com.
Just how much is being cut? NASA's figures show that the total budget for research and technology on the station went from $390 million in fiscal 2005 to $219 million this year — and is projected to shrink to $82 million in 2007.
There's even been talk of shutting down station research entirely for a year to make up for a looming shortfall in NASA's $16.8 billion budget. After an outcry was raised, space station manager Mike Suffredini seemed to back away from that idea. "We study a whole lot of things that aren't implemented," he told journalists this month.
Is this trip really necessary?
Some of NASA's critics say closing down the space station's science program wouldn't be such a bad thing. "There is no meaningful research on the ISS to shut down," said University of Maryland physicist Robert Park.
Park has long contended that the billions of dollars spent on the space station should be put toward other science projects instead. In Park's view, humans shouldn't be sent to do a robot's job, and he points to the success of communication satellites and planetary rovers as evidence that space exploration and exploitation is the kind of job robots do best.
"About the only thing you can do on a space station is study the effects of microgravity on the human body, and if anybody can point out to me why we're putting human beings into that environment ... well, there's not much need to do that," he told MSNBC.com.
However, most scientists who accept the need to send humans into space say a station of some sort is needed as well. And NASA Watch's Cowing says the international space station could have "amazing capability" once it's completed.
"Consider the mere fact that you have a spacecraft up there that's roughly the size of anything you would want to fly. You'd be able to in essence mount a [practice] mission to Mars in low Earth orbit," he told MSNBC.com. "You need to flight-certify humans for long-duration spaceflight."
Research lost in space
Cowing would like to see the station used once again for fundamental genetic research ("How do genes get turned on and turned off during exposure to microgravity?") as well as materials science and crystallography ("I think it's criminal not to at least try some of these things up there.").
He particularly mourned the cancellation of a station add-on known as the Centrifuge Accommodation Module. Studies of the effects of reduced gravity are widely considered a prerequisite for sending humans to live on Mars — and Cowing said the centrifuge could have been the equivalent of a Hubble Space Telescope for reduced-gravity research.
In a report to Congress (PDF file), NASA says it can do the experiments it needed to do with smaller centrifuges aboard the station, but Cowing said "it almost boggles the mind that this is the thing that you would not fly." The cancellation carries an extra sting for Japan's space agency, which spent $700 million building the now-mothballed centrifuge module for NASA.
Another international project in peril is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a 15-nation, $33 million experiment to look for signs of cosmic antimatter. The 7-ton instrument was due to spend three years on the space station — but because of the shuttle schedule crunch, it can't get a ride into orbit.
Japan and Europe starting on science
On the bright side, NASA made room on its space shuttle manifest for the delivery of orbital laboratories for Japan and the European Space Agency — labs that NASA was obliged to bring to the station under the terms of international agreements. Thomas, the station program scientist, said he's trying to link up researchers whose experiments were cut by NASA with teams who have similar experiments slated for the European or Japanese lab.
"If we can get them on some of the other teams, that's not only good for them in their professional career as a scientist, it's also a good thing for our international partners," Thomas said.
Will some aspects of NASA's space station science program turn into an outplacement program for the Europeans and the Japanese? Or is there relief in sight?
Hoping for help
NASA could get some budgetary relief in the form of a $1 billion stopgap currently being considered in the Senate — a supplement that's designed to make up for extra expenses NASA incurred because of the Columbia tragedy and Hurricane Katrina.
It's not clear how much of that money will go toward restoring research, said Koizumi, the AAAS budget analyst. But the initiative at least signals that Congress recognizes NASA's tough financial straits, he said.
"It is hard for the scientific community to do anything when NASA pretty much admits that there are priorities, and NASA can't do everything within a basically flat budget," Koizumi told MSNBC.com. "What the community has done is to write letters to the appropriators, asking them to ensure that NASA has enough money to keep a robust scientific portfolio going. ... So far, at least on the Senate side, it looks as if that has borne fruit."
Thomas said he expected more research time to become available on the space station in 2009, when the crew complement is due to rise from three to six. The number of crew hours available for research should rise from 150 to 800 for a typical six-month stint, he said. (In contrast, an unusually full schedule might leave only about 50 hours for research during the upcoming space station expedition, he said.)
"There's a lot of good things about to happen once we get the crew up to six," Thomas said.
After 2010, more questions
But there are more questions than answers about what happens after 2010. Will the station really be completed by that time? How will the station be resupplied after the shuttle fleet's retirement? NASA is counting on Russian , European and Japanese spaceships — or commercial spaceship builders — to fill the gap between the shuttles and their successors.
"We're waiting to hear how we're going to get our payloads up to orbit. ... There are a number of things, they're not well-defined right now," Thomas said. "Am I nervous about that? No."
Slideshow: Month in space: Future frontiers He and other NASA managers voiced confidence that at least some avenues for resupplying the space station will be available. "Perhaps not all of them will be equally successful, but certainly we will see a transportation capacity in the next decade that is far greater than the transportation capacity we have had to date," said Mark Uhran, the agency's assistant associate administrator for the space station.
It's also not yet clear how NASA will run its space station operations in the post-2010 time frame. Congress has called on the space agency to consider the country's national laboratories — such as, say, Los Alamos or Oak Ridge — as models. NASA is "right in the middle of those studies right now," Uhran said.
He told MSNBC.com that NASA was surveying other government agencies to determine the level of demand for space research. Theoretically, the National Science Foundation or the Department of Energy could make arrangements with NASA and private space transport companies for future projects, he said.
"The space station is a national asset, so it will be available to all U.S. government agencies," he said. "However, NASA will have priority use of it, obviously, because it meets our mission objectives first."
How long will it last?
Right now it's not clear how long NASA expects to use the space station. Koizumi had the impression that the station could be decommissioned as soon as 2014 or 2015 — meaning there'd be just four or five years of full-scale orbital research after a 12-year construction phase. But Walz said the agency was still in the midst of discussions about "what happens after 2016."
Uhran said the way the space station is managed as a scientific platform may well change over the coming years. "Clearly we will have a very different scenario when the assembly has been completed and we're in a full utilization phase," he said. "What that scenario will be, I wouldn't venture to guess that today."
Amid the uncertainty, Uhran, who has been involved in space station planning since the program's inception in 1984, said he drew inspiration from one of NASA's biggest scientific success stories.
"I can remember when the Hubble Space Telescope was first conceived, it took 20 years to go from concept to reality, and then once deployed on orbit the Hubble didn't work quite right initially," he said. "But you look through it now, and there's absolutely no question that it was the right thing to do. Well, the space station is just about 20 years into its history, and it is halfway deployed on orbit. And I'm confident that by the time we complete the assembly, there will be no question that it was the right thing to do as well."
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