NASA claims that at The International Space Station (ISS) , “astronauts are working to improve life on Earth”. Originally supposed to cost under $10B, it has cost at least 30 billion of our tax dollars so far; maybe even $100B. It was given the go ahead even as the Superconduting SuperCollider (SSC) was shut down as too expensive.
Being in space has to be an amazing experience. Space-tourists are willing to pay twenty million dollars a piece to get the thrill of space for a few days. But the public at large seems to be bored by the way NASA is going about it. These days, only catastrophic failures (to use a NASA euphemism) attract any attention to their manned space program. Or, unless one of the astronauts gets a Fatal Attraction for a colleague and tries to murder his girlfriend.
The ISS crew is mostly forgotten until a Space Shuttle arrives to pick up or drop off someone. Also, for the people stationed in the Station for longer periods, space-life must get a bit monotonous. To pass the time, the crew has engaged in various stunts. Most recently, Sunita Williams, who is about to return after a record breaking six months in space, ran the Boston Marathon while up there. That is, she ran on a treadmill at the same time that people down here were running the Marathon. This finally provoked some mild curiosity. It appears, however, that she will not be able to take a shower until she gets back to the Earth. One wonders if time would have passed faster for the rest of the space station crew if Suni had alleviated her boredom by, say, solving the Rubik’s cube instead.
The only other news that the ISS is making is that something or other always seems to be breaking down. Most recently, it was the computers that control the attitude of the craft that went down for a few days. After heroic efforts and a space-walk or two (or were they to fix the peeling paint on the space-shuttle?) the computers were restored. Whenever something breaks down, the public is always reassured that the lives of the astronauts are in no danger.
If we want to see people go round and round for no apparent reason, we can just watch NASCAR. A much cheaper show to put on and about the same probability for a spectacular catastrophic event. Hotter drivers too, these days. And about as useful scientifically.
It is alleged that there is some sort of scientific purpose being served by those people up there in the ISS. But, the only serious physics experiment planned for the station, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, has been cancelled. That is after spending 385 million dollars (mostly from countries other than the US) to make the instruments. This fits with NASA’s new emphasis on Human Space Flight (HSF: they love acronyms at NASA), to culminate in a mission to Mars.
There is some scientific equipment on board, that is supposed to grow crystals in zero-gravity or whatever. But all signs are that the presence of the humans is mainly a nuisance to those instruments. Humans tend to move around and bump into things. They are delicate and need life support systems that are expensive to maintain.
Exploration of space is better accomplished by robots like the ones sent to Mars. In addition,those cute little birds roaming Mars have gathered a lot of attention, especially from school children. NASA’s Great Observatories (Hubble,Compton, Chandra and Spitzer) are revolutionizing our knowledge of the Cosmos. Hubble was serviced a few times by the Space Shuttle, but smart scientists designed the later observatories to not depend on the troubled Shuttle. Mr. Ting must be wishing now that he had that foresight when he designed the AMS. The various probes send out to explore the Solar System have send back amazing data, often lasting many years longer than they were designed for. NASA’s love of Human Space Flight threatens to dismantle all that work.
Private companies, founded by entrepreneurial techies, are creating much excitement about space travel. The most brilliant of these engineers, Burt Rutan, has designed craft that work well and, just as important from a public relations standpoint, look really cool. Rutan is not shy about expressing his contempt for NASA . It must be hard for people like Rutan to compete with Government programs, which do not need to make a profit, or break even. There is no chance that NASA will be privatized though; the lobby of contractors is too strong. One can hope for some reform, but if two Space Shuttle explosions haven’t caused any major changes, what can?