The International Space Station has been controversial from the outset. Now the failure of Russia--the most important participant in the program after the U.S.--to meet production deadlines for key segments of the station has stalled the launch schedule.
The result, as we reported in a recent Scientific American Exploration, Missed Deadlines, is that the debate is more heated than ever. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration wants additional funds to bail out cash-strapped Russia but some observers say that the other participating nations should proceed on their own. Others blames NASA's management for the delays. And, once again, critics insist that the entire project is a costly boondoggle and should be abandoned.
We wondered where you, our readers, stood on the issues so we asked you to send us your opinions. Below is a selection of the replies.
Construction of the International Space Station should continue. The space station represents an outpost beyond the atmosphere where we can gather important data on long-term exposure of human beings to the space environment. There are also microgravity experiments which can be shipped to the station by unmanned launchers and tended by personnel. Finally, the station is an important way station for a lunar colony, a logistical depot for traffic, tankage, and hardware being transferred between earth, low earth orbit, and higher orbits.
Let's grasp the nettle. I believe the space station program should be abandoned despite political and financial costs this would entail. Science has gained little from the program so far and there has been no credible forecast for significant gains in the future. The first disaster would wipe out most of whatever public support remains.
Once you ask the question-- "what is the International Space Station for?"-- you realize that the project must be abandoned, for there is no justifiable answer.
There is no political imperative (Who are we trying to impress; certainly not the old Soviet block).
There is no scientific imperative (The station is not gravity free, but micro-gravity, which can be achieved much more cheaply without leaving the ground. Neither is the station in a particularly hard vacuum as it skims the upper atmosphere. Vacuum experiments can also be done better and cheaper on Earth).
Finaly there are far better places to start exploration or exploitation of off Earth resources that the Space Station. As a manufacturing base it is hopeless and as a staging post it is to small.
There are plenty of things to lavish money on but I do not see that this is one of them.
CHRIS W. JONES
The commercialization of space is an absolutely vital element of current industry--not 50 to 100 years in the future. I would propose higher U.S. taxes to fund the Russian end--especially since the present Russian economic collapse is due in large part to U.S. economic policy in establishing Russia's market transition.
An even better (admittedly utopian) solution is to make the national budget a public process and allow the U.S. citizenry to draft (or at least line-item veto) the budget to the approval of the majority. This would possibly allow NASA to have a fiscal ranking that would be an improvement of its current position at the bottom of the totem poll-- its budget currently consisting of the scraps that are thrown from projects such as the next super-stealth submarine that will be made obsolete three years before the keel is assembled.
The potential--and still in an absolutely fiscal perspective- -for a (semi)permanent low earth orbit space station for privately contracted R&D is off the charts. With a modern, reliable space station, replete with laboratories and related amenities, corporate interest will peak for pharmaceutical research in an environment that can be near absolutely controlled (the attraction of convenient microgravity accessibility for heavy R&D development alone is huge). And pharmaceuticals are but one industry.
The larger point is that any reliable foothold in space is an incalculable investment in the future. There is already serious corporate speculation on lunar resource exploitation. It would be much easier, in hundreds of ways, to get to the moon via a permanent space station like the International Space Station (politically, economically, physically, etc.).
And, as I said, those are but a few of the fiscal reasons for supporting the project. The pure scientific opportunities the space station presents are enough to keep scientific institutions bidding high for access. Present levels of scientific discovery could more than treble within five years or less. The station would become a Mecca for physicists. Ecological observation from a literally global perspective would make it possible to keep accurate daily records--even publicize on a web page hourly rain-forest destruction.
From a political perspective, the station represents a real manned space mission, as opposed to lunar-landing stunts that might include one experiment, if any at all. It would be a self-perpetuating human investment in space -- where not even the sky can limit potential success.
I believe that so many of the major advances in scientific knowledge have come from our space exploration program that we should continue all avenues, whether under the auspices of NASA or otherwise. Because Russia (or any other name) and her people are so desperate for cash and any and all financial assets, anyone, including the state, is sorely tempted to sell hardware, software and/or material from their space program for whatever the market will bear. If anyone else is going to get any advantage from Russia's yard sale it should be the U.S., but of course I'm prejudiced.
I personally would like to see NASA loan money, technology and manpower to help stabilize their program. Otherwise, the sale is still on. I believe that we should bolster Russia's program by loans in the near future, and by whatever means necessary in the long term to bring stability to the program.
It is my opinion that the Russians have too much to offer the space station program to eliminate them now. Also, when they do get themselves on their economic feet we will want them as allies instead of opponents.
The economics of the project are not the main factor. I believe that space exploration can be used to benefit everyone, and the cooperation that we learn now will serve as a model in our future dealings.
In the interests of the world wide scientific community the choice of completely abandoning the space station program would be unthinkable. The two remaining choices that you have posted "should America bail Russia once again" and "should Russia be left out of the International Space Station are not as elegant either. To bankroll the Russian space program would be almost sinful to Americans. There is already a NASA that is more than the public wants already.
Leaving out the Russians (the primary rival in the space race to the U.S.) would make it not only insulting but a hostile place to work for the future crew. This is supposed to be a place for all the peoples involved to gain a new scientific understanding. Now that our Russian partners are experiencing economic problems the nations of the world must wait with them until there are more prosperous times for them and us also. The American Market is not as strong as it was in the past and it appears that the future is bleak.
It is obvious Russia's current economic woes that their government cannot afford to continue to support the International Space Station. The program must continue, however belated, to ensure that mankind's exploration of our system continues. We will need to harness more space and energy around us if we desire to maintain our economic and demographic growth. The planet will only sustain this expansion for a limited time into the not-so-distant future.
St. Augustine Beach, FL
The benefit to science is minimal and costs are astronomical. Most scientists are overwhelmingly in favor of doing better, more meaningful research on Earth and through unmanned space flight. There is nothing humans can do in space that robots and computers can't do better and cheaper (and without the huge potential for loss of human life).
If resources were unlimited then manned space flight might be justified but unfortunately we live in a world where good basic and applied science must compete with "pi" in the sky dreams of aerospace engineers and companies.
The U.S. should abandon plans with Russia. Russia is a cash hog that is drawing us all down. With their economic woes how much more technology can they develop let alone actually build what they say they're going to build?
We should go ahead with the other countries to finish the program. It would probably be cheaper for us to do it ourselves as opposed to giving Russia money to do it.
It's not the Russian space program's fault that their government has problems. An opportunity to work with other countries on such a program should always be the goal. If the technology and knowledge is to be shared, then so should the cost. Russia will again, in the future, be able to share the cost and risks--and be a true partner.
The problem lies in the fact that no one has enough money to spend on science at this time of economic crisis. It's not NASA's fault, in my opinion; it is the Asian economy's fault. I can't help but worry that if the Russians try to build $600 million worth of equipment with $400 million in funds, the resulting equipment will not be quality.
Perhaps it would be best to delay the project by a substantial amount of time, possibly five years or so in order to give everyone involved enough time to do the job properly. It wouldn't make much sense to throw some sub-par piece of machinery up into orbit, just to have it crash a few years later.
The U.S. should keep Russia within the program. Moreover, before doing such a drastic step as removing the Russians, the other partners, Europe, Canada, Japan, should be consulted. To blame NASA for the crisis of the Russian government would be entirely wrong since its the problematic Russian economy and not the technique which causes problems. The International Space Station (orbital complex) should not be abandoned. To integrate as many as possible different countries and cultures in this task gives the opportunity for international peaceful cooperation. This is the sign of the times.
The U.S. should can the Russians. The situation in Russia is too uncertain. NASA needs to use good business sense here not diplomacy.
Toms River, NJ
I've been following the space program since I was very young. My parents had me sitting in front of the moon shots as soon as I was born. If there one thing that I've noticed in the various governments' efforts to venture into space over the years, it's that delays and a bumpy road to success is a certainty.
I do not understand the fuss over the delays associated with Russia's obvious attempts to stay a partner in this wholly human endeavor to conquer space. If this country is having financial problems, help as much as possible and be patient! I truly believe that Russia should stay involved, even if they are tripping up a bit.
Remember why we are doing this, remember that it just as much a act of passion for hope in the future as it is a 'financial venture'.
Vancouver, British Columbia
I don't think it would be a good idea to abandon the International Space Station. I'm sure that the whole world will eventually benefit from the scientific and economic potential of the station and the research it will make possible. Successful completion of the project may be Russia's best hope of overcoming its current economic crisis and preventing its most brilliant scientific minds from going to waste, or being used for detrimental or even destructive purposes. The money spent for projects like this doesn't disappear into space; it is spent here on earth, creating valuable new technologies, exciting entrepreneurial opportunities and millions of new jobs.
I would also wish, however, that we would try harder to develop more efficient methods of getting payloads into space, like some of the amazing, yet doable suggestions found in Robert L. Forward's excellent book, "Indistinguishable From Magic." Some of the space transportation methods he suggests would be initially expensive to set up, but once in place, would pay for themselves in a surprisingly short time, and can be built using presently available technology.
People are continually complaining about human's profligate use of the Earth's natural resources. The rate of decline in resource availability, and increase in the real cost of extraction will make major resource-hungry projects, such as space exploration, a boondoggle that Mankind can no longer afford -- unless we do it now!
Without the continued presence in space that is promised by the International Space Station, mankind will be limited to the resources available on Earth alone. A presence in near-space is a necessary precursor for people to get used to living in free fall for extended periods, for the development of refining and manufacturing techniques suitable for a free-fall environment, and for major improvements in habitat construction and resource recycling technologies.
Without this presence, we will never get beyond this little ball of mud. We will be the first generation in history to leave our children a less bounteous Earth than the one we inherited. And we will be the first to recognize that mankind has reached it's pinnacle. Without the resources available to us in the solar system and beyond, we are, quite literally, doomed.
The United States is far too involved with the space station to abandon the project. It is unfortunate that Russia's economic climate is keeping them from completing their section of the station, but the station must march on despite the costs. The U.S. must bail out the Russians to save their own investment.
If Russia never accepted the project the U.S. would be paying the entire bill. So, even with bailing out the Russians, the U.S. is still doing better then they would if Russia never participated in the program. NASA should have better estimated the cost of the station, but they did the right thing in giving pieces of the station to other countries. It provides world cooperation toward a positive result and good will among various nations.
Russia should be removed from the program. As embarrassing as it might be, it would be best for them and for the program. No NASA is not to blame. If anyone, it would be Congress because of insufficient funding.
Absolutely no, do not give up on the program. It is perhaps the last great basic research program being conducted and the space station would help greatly.
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