In the 2003 budget request that NASA submitted in February, the agency made it clear that it intends to fund only four space shuttle flights a year (down from six or seven), the minimum number needed to support the ISS. The station itself was put under a kind of probation: until the program managers learn to live within their budget, NASA will assemble only the core of the orbital outpost and will postpone the addition of several modules. The space station now accommodates just three astronauts; to support a full crew of seven, the station needs another habitation module as well as a Crew Return Vehicle that can evacuate all the astronauts in case of a disaster. (The station's current "lifeboat" is a Russian-made Soyuz craft, which can hold only three people.)
NASA's partners in the ISS¿the space agencies in Europe, Japan, Russia and Canada¿reacted furiously to the American plans. Noting that the station¿s primary goal is to conduct experiments in space, the international partners argued that a three-person crew is simply not large enough to conduct a serious research program. Because the station is a fairly sophisticated piece of machinery, at least two crew members must devote the bulk of their time to maintaining it. "A three-person crew will not be able to conduct science that is consistent with the level of investment that everybody has made," said Doug Bassett of the Canadian Space Agency at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council. Bassett quoted a Canadian politician as saying that the station could become "the biggest white elephant in the history of humanity."
One solution to this quandary would be to dock two Soyuz lifeboats to the ISS. This move would enable the station to hold a crew of six and would probably be less expensive than developing the Crew Return Vehicle. Another idea would be to enhance the station¿s "safe havens"¿the modules to which astronauts can retreat if an accident disables part of the ISS. O¿Keefe is considering both options.
What makes NASA¿s budget troubles so disheartening is that so many experts had anticipated these problems long ago, and yet the agency refused to change course. When the shuttle was being designed in the 1970s, NASA unwisely chose to build a vehicle with high operating costs because it would reduce the expense of initial development. And during the planning of the ISS in the 1980s and 1990s, a number of scientists warned that the project¿s estimated cost far exceeded the potential value of the research to be conducted on the station. Just as the scientific community predicted, the financial shortfalls of the ISS have forced NASA to shift funds from unmanned missions that have a far greater chance of yielding important discoveries. The agency desperately needs to balance its books before further damage is done to the program of space exploration.
Mark Alpert is on the board of editors of Scientific American.