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the new york times November 29, 1998

NASA'S Mission to Nowhere

By TIMOTHY FERRIS
S AN FRANCISCO -- The International Space Station, assembly of which begins with a space shuttle mission scheduled for launching on Thursday, is being touted as a giant leap into space and a step toward the stars. In truth, the space station is little more than a Motel 6 in low earth orbit, and it marks a step toward the stars only in the sense that cleaning out your attic gets you closer to the Moon.

If Mars is the goal, why build a space station 200 miles up?


The station is bad news for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which has done an admirable job of putting its house in order since the shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. NASA's biggest problem was the shuttle itself, a complicated, compromised spaceship that has never had much of a mission in life. It costs so much to operate -- about half a billion dollars per mission -- that NASA officials who had sold it to Congress as a cheap way to launch satellites got tangled in webs of double-talk and self-deception.

Daniel Goldin, the agency's administrator, has since brought the shuttle program under control, freeing up money for smart, lean projects like last year's popular Pathfinder probe of Mars. Now that the agency has recovered its footing, the last thing it needs is to embark on another bloated Mission to Nowhere.

The space station is bad news for science as well. Scientists are almost unanimous in declaring that little can be accomplished in its planned "scientific laboratories" that could not be done in other ways for far less money. Indeed, almost anything could be done for less money than the space station, which has already consumed tens of billions of dollars and is expected to wind up costing anywhere from $40 billion to $100 billion. With NASA's annual budget unlikely to swell much beyond its current $13 billion to $14 billion level any time soon, scientists have good reason to fear that the space station's bills will be paid by curtailing or canceling the "better, faster, cheaper" unmanned missions that can, among other things, help us learn how planetary atmospheres work and thus assess the dangers that may be posed by global warming here on Earth.

Paradoxically, the space station is also bad news for the manned space effort that it had once been expected to advance.

Manned space exploration is a big, bold business, and its costs, in terms of money and the risks posed to human life, call for commensurately big, bold goals. The space shuttle and the space station were conceived of nearly half a century ago with just such goals in mind: they were to be stepping stones toward manned landings on the Moon and then on Mars. But the Apollo project leapfrogged that strategy by going to the Moon directly, and ever since, the shuttle and the space station have been machines in search of a mission.

The space station we're about to start building will be of almost no use in getting to Mars, the Moon or anywhere else -- except into debt. Advocates of the space station say it will help us learn "how to live and work in space," but it's unclear why we need such a capacity except to build the space station itself. If Christopher Columbus had pursued a similar strategy, the dawn of the 16th century would have found him wading up to his knees at the Spanish seashore, learning to live and work in the sea. The way to get to Mars is to go there, not to spend another couple of decades piddling around in low Earth orbit.

Setting aside all the blather about how the space station will be used to make perfect ball bearings and to produce spinoffs like Tang and jogging bras, one is left with the hard-core consideration that building it promotes international cooperation and sustains the vitality of America's manned space flight capability, along with nourishing the aerospace industries that depend on it. But even if these are desirable aims -- and I happen to think they are -- they would far better be served by abandoning the space station project and instead mounting an international effort to put a colony on Mars.

Homesteading Mars could have great scientific value -- it would, for instance, require that we first determine whether there is life on the red planet, and it would involve real exploration of a world with a dry land area equal to Earth's. If successful, it would make Homo sapiens a two-planet species, presenting to our descendants vastly expanded horizons for discovery.

The initial stages of this grand adventure -- several unmanned explorations and an initial manned mission over, say, 20 years -- could be accomplished for about the same cost as establishing the space station 200 miles up.

It's all just a question of which kind of future we want. We can go on playing at the seashore, or we can set sail and really get somewhere.

Timothy Ferris is the author, most recently, of ``The Whole Shebang: A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report.''
 

 
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