Have Space Stations Met Expectations?
Although space stations have been functioning since the 1970s, during which time thousands of experiments have been performed, many observers question the value of this research. This skepticism is voiced by citizen groups questioning whether the research done has civilian application, by legislators questioning whether the billions of dollars spent might not be better spent elsewhere, and by scientists who believe the huge expenditures for a relatively small number of big projects might be better spent on a larger number of small projects.
When asked what good has come from space stations, managers of the U.S. space program often find it difficult to answer by citing tangible results. Bob Marshall, director at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) for NASA, found himself in this dilemma when he gave this rather perplexing response: "The main reason we're building the International Space Station is not because of what I can tell you we're going to do with it, which I can't. The main reason is because I can't tell you what we're going to do with it. And if you don't ever do it, you'll never find out." 35 In keeping with this statement that no one at NASA had a clearly defined objective for the ISS was a similar comment made about Skylab by space historians W. David Compton and Charles D. Benson. They assert in their book Living and Working in Space: A History of Skylab that when Skylab was designed and built, they did not have a clear idea what to do with it: "The Center [MSFC] was, as the official Skylab history has suggested, a tremendous solution looking for a problem." 36
Cost overruns have added to concerns regarding the usefulness of the ISS. Congress has allocated many
We're now looking at a start-to-finish cost of $72 billion—$72 billion, and I think our constituents would be very interested in hearing as we contemplate some very difficult cuts in our budget, whether we're looking at Medicare cuts, whether we're looking at cutting drug-free schools, whether we're looking at cutting farm programs. 37
Opposition to the ISS has also come from the scientific community. Many scientists are uncertain as to whether such an expensive project is necessary. Much research, they argue, could have been done on Earth or remotely, using much cheaper satellites. Dr. Robert Park, a physics professor at the University of Maryland and the director of public information for the American Physical Society, has taken a strong stand against the space station. He argues that, "Its few scientific objectives have, for the most part, already been attained, and that the research planned for the station could be conducted aboard unmanned platforms and the Shuttle for far less money." 38
Lack of practical applications for space station experiments is another common complaint. Many had hoped that there might be hundreds of better and cheaper goods for consumers because of space station research, yet so far, skeptics contend that little has trickled down to consumers. The cost of solar panels for consumers, for example, remains prohibitively high even though they have been used on all space stations. Besides, critics point out, NASA originally advertised that private companies would be able to perform experiments on the ISS for about four hundred dollars per pound of apparatus, yet the actual costs are closer to ten thousand dollars per pound, far too expensive for the research and development budgets of most companies. According to Senator John McCain in August 2003, "There is no doubt that the enthusiasm for the whole space effort has waned over the years. Most Americans don't know what we are doing in space." 39
Despite such widespread skepticism, supporters of NASA point out that the ISS is a collaboration of many partners working together to create a world-class, state-of-the-art orbiting research facility. The station, they say, will afford scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs an unprecedented platform on which to perform complex and long-duration experiments in the unique environment of space. And, they add, the ISS is much more than a world-class laboratory; it is an international human experiment—an exciting city in space—a place where much can be learned about how to live and work "off planet."
Thus far, the debate continues, as does the research on the ISS.