By now, after years of research on the International Space Station, Russian cosmonauts have undoubtedly proven scientifically that you can make a vodka screwdriver with Tang. Not that you'd want to drink the damned thing, but I bet they did. Racing along, propelled by this fearsome space race, the Chinese are sending their own space explorers up to test the effects of low gravity on pig sperm. The only good thing you can say about the Chinese effort is that we're not paying for it. Which cannot be said of the International Space Station, an orbiting WPA project that -- along with its aging and unreliable delivery truck, the space shuttle -- are diverting the time, money and scientific talent NASA should be spending on real science and space exploration.
NASA was robbed of focus and purpose after the glory days of the Apollo program. Not long after the last moon mission returned to earth, America (or was it Jimmy?) decided that our national malaise precluded investing in things that could produce unvalued commodities such as quantum leaps in scientific progress and the sense of national purpose and pride. So we went on to build the space shuttle, a workhorse reusable launch vehicle that could carry large payloads into orbit, but not beyond. And to have something for the shuttle to do, we joined with fifteen other nations to build the International Space Station to perform cooperative research for the common good. But like so many other multinational projects, the International Space Station inevitably became an orbital kumbaya platform. It ranks, in efficiency and productivity, somewhere above the U.N. and below the League of Arab States. (If you Google "international boondoggle," almost all of the results say "international space station.")
Two years ago, a blue ribbon panel issued a report called "Factors Affecting Utilization of the International Space Station in Biological and Physical Sciences." That report, the second from the panel, elaborated on earlier findings that were severely critical of the cost-benefit ratio that the ISS produced. The 2003 report said that too many US-sponsored experiments were being delayed indefinitely, the payloads delivered by the shuttle flights were reduced greatly by shuttle unreliability, and NASA's record for meeting schedule, budget and priority goals was bad enough to drive away international money to sponsor ISS projects. In the past two years, it's only gotten worse. The ISS can brag of projects such as ARISS: the amateur radio station that occupies a permanent place on the space station, presumably to keep astronauts occupied during their typical 20-hour work week. From its energetically American start, the ISS has devolved to its current French status.
In the Challenger and Columbia disasters of 1986 and 2003, the shuttle proved itself neither inexpensive nor reliable. At this writing, the shuttle Discovery is in orbit, having survived by the narrowest of margins precisely the same failure of insulating foam that caused Columbia to explode. Its bold mission, as the headline of an AP story yesterday encapsulated, is to unload supplies and gather up the mounds of trash that have accumulated on the ISS since the Columbia disaster grounded the shuttle program two years ago. When Discovery returns to earth, we hope intact, it and all the other shuttles will be grounded, again, for an indefinite period. That period should be made definite. And permanent.
NASA has asked for another $6 billion for space shuttle and ISS activities in 2006. The time has come for us to reorient the budget to save the money being invested in this orbiting pork barrel and use it for the advancement of science and space exploration in the manner NASA became justly famous for.
The essence of the problem is that while there is scientific gain to be made in low earth orbit (pharmaceutical research, sensor development, etc.) the unreliability and low productivity of the space station and the shuttle program limit those gains to an unacceptably reduced level. The huge scientific leaps America and the world benefit from are achieved not by orbital experiments but in the research and development that accompany manned space flight beyond the earth's orbit. The most important fact that should govern our space program is that planning and running experiments on the space station cannot deliver the kind of advances in pure science that are -- or at least were -- achieved by answering the questions of how to inhabit the moon and reach to Mars.
Pure science: the research into unknowns that can, and often does, deliver insight into the undiscovered secrets of the physical world. It seeks knowledge for its own sake and welcomes failure, because more can sometimes be learned in failure than in success. It tests, in space, theories that cannot be proved or disproved in earth-bound labs. Is the speed of light no more a barrier than the speed of sound was proven to be in 1947? Does time slow or stop in a black hole? Are there unknown elements or compounds that may be found on asteroids or planets that can be applied to improve or and extend life on earth? We can only know if we pursue pure science, and dedicate NASA to it.
NASA's strategic plan calls for a return to the moon no later than 2020. It's a good plan if it becomes NASA's reason for being, and a bad one if it's left to flounder, its expensive requirements diluted by the ISS and shuttle programs. If other nations want to sponsor amateur radio in space, that's fine. But we shouldn't be paying for it.
TAS contributing editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery, 2004).
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