October 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 5
Overrated The International Space Station is a technical marvel, the largest human-built object ever to circle the Earth. But it’s also an overpriced albatross that has hung around the neck of America’s human space-flight program for two decades and counting. It has been a roadblock to human missions beyond Earth, not a catalyst for them. Most damaging, it has sapped NASA’s ever-dwindling resources by taking longer to complete and costing far more than anyone expected. When announced to great fanfare by President Reagan in 1984, the station was to cost eight billion dollars and be completed by 1992. Twelve years, three Presidents, and many cost factors later, the station is still not finished.
For all this time and money, little return seems likely. The station will not revolutionize the manufacturing of drugs or materials by taking advantage of microgravity, as NASA once promised. It may teach us a thing or two about how human bodies deal with prolonged stints in space, but the Russians probably learned enough lessons on their Mir station, at which several cosmonauts spent close to a year, far more time than any single person is expected to spend on the ISS. As for science, the scientific community has been consistent and unanimous in its belief that the ISS will produce little of value.
What will the station do? It will continue to play a vital role in the perversely self-referential loop that NASA’s human space-flight program has been stuck in for more than 20 years. The station’s completion depends on the space shuttle; in turn, the only job the shuttle has any more is to ferry components and crews to the station. Under the new space exploration plan announced by President Bush in January, the station would be completed by 2010 and the shuttle retired that same year. That’s a good start, but given the station’s history of missed deadlines, it’s still hard to say how long we’ll continue to feed hundreds of millions of dollars to a white elephant that does little more than spin in circles.
Underrated Say the words space tourism and most people envision bored playboys with too much money on their hands. But now, more than ever, it’s time to give this idea a new look.
Popular interest in human space flight has always been about more than flags and footprints. Back in the 1960s, with the space race at full throttle, NASA and its partners actively peddled the notion that at some point the average person would get his or her shot at being an astronaut. Consider the rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun’s pitch in the 1970s, as part of a campaign to get the space shuttle approved: “Toward the end of the seventies you will no longer have to go through grueling years of astronaut training if you want to go into orbit. A reusable space shuttle will take you up there in the comfort of an airliner.”
Needless to say, the shuttle hasn’t turned out to be the space cruiser von Braun and others promised. In fact, recently, most of the positive excitement about human space flight has been generated outside NASA. In June a small California company called Scaled Composites achieved a dream long held by space enthusiasts. It built a manned spacecraft on the cheap and actually flew it into space. The cost of Scaled Composites’ vehicle from concept to flight was about $20 million—less than the price tag of most NASA space-vehicle studies, which tend to never leave the drawing board. In the wake of the Scaled Composites flight, interest in space tourism has risen to new levels; people are signing up for future flights, just as they did in the 1960s, when Pan Am began taking reservations for trips to the Moon. This time, however, people have actually put money down.
Perhaps the biggest problem with space tourism is the term itself, which seems too insubstantial for an enterprise that is literally so lofty. For a change, let’s try “commercial human space flight.” This better encompasses the potential of inexpensive human access to space. For instance, one logical extension of zero-G joy rides is the development of vehicles that could eventually replace today’s commercial airliners, cutting through space en route from one point on earth to another and dramatically shortening transit times for passenger travel, cargo delivery, or even disaster relief. Whatever the name, the revolution begun by Scaled Composites may represent the future of the human space odyssey.