Is the International Space Station just taking up space?

Like many decisions involving NASA and above-Earth doings, what to do with a huge station leads to many questions

THE WASHINGTON POSTSeptember 15, 2013 

Space Shuttle

The International Space Station circles the planet at an altitude of about 250 miles. It must be boosted regularly to stay in orbit.


Long ago, in a dreamier era, space stations were imagined as portals to the heavens. In the 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the huge structure twirled in orbit, aesthetically sublime, a relaxing way station for astronauts heading to the moon. It featured a Hilton and a Howard Johnson’s.

The real International Space Station isn’t quite as beautiful as that movie version, and it’s not a gateway to anywhere. It’s a laboratory focused on scientific experiments. Usually there are six people aboard. When they leave, they come back to Earth, so to speak. Three came home Wednesday, landing in Kazakhstan.

Advocates for human space exploration insist that NASA must think bigger, developing missions beyond Low Earth Orbit, into deeper space — perhaps back to the moon, or to an asteroid, and certainly to Mars eventually.

But NASA has been struggling for years to square ambitions with budgets. The space station is widely praised as an engineering marvel, but it didn’t come cheap. The United States has poured close to $100 billion into the program and is contributing about $3 billion a year to the station’s operation. Space policy experts warn that, without a significant boost in budget, NASA will not be able to keep running the station and simultaneously carry out costly deep-space missions.

The United States and its partners need to make a tough call: Keep the station flying, or bring it down?

Boeing, the prime contractor, is trying to prove that the station’s components can hold up through at least 2028. Three years ago, Congress resisted critics and extended funding for the station through 2020, and NASA’s international partners — Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency — have made a similar commitment. But behind the scenes, NASA officials are working to persuade the White House to make a decision, pronto, to keep the orbital laboratory flying after 2020.

The alternative is to crash the massive structure into the South Pacific.

The decision needs to be made in 2014, said William Gerstenmaier, the top NASA official for human spaceflight.

Companies such as SpaceX and Sierra Nevada, which are competing for a NASA contract to carry astronauts to the station, need to know that their market isn’t going to vanish in 2020, he said. Scientists, pharmaceutical companies and other organizations that do zero-gravity experiments also need to know soon whether “there’s a horizon for the station beyond 2020,” he said.

As the decision makers in the U.S. government discuss the fate of the orbital laboratory, they face tough questions about the future of NASA in a broader sense. The dean of space policy analysts, John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said of NASA: “It was not given a strategic purpose after Apollo. Why does it exist? What do you want to do?”

Although it’s true that the International Space Station never strays too far from Earth, it has the virtue of showing what life in space is like. The PowerPoint version of space travel is always easier than the real thing. There are things that reveal themselves in zero gravity.

“Stiction,” for example — the way delicate materials stick together without gravity to tug them apart. There’s no way to replicate that.

Dust has no urge to settle down, and so it clogs air filters faster than engineers had once anticipated. Bacteria grow in odd corners and crannies. Mysterious disks of zinc oxide have stopped up a water line, defying explanation.

In theory, equipment has its own storage space. But that’s not how the place looks in real life. There are laptop computers everywhere and tools Velcroed to the walls. It’s cluttered. New crews famously have to go on treasure hunts to find things that have vanished.

“For folks like me, who consider Apollo a poor model for the future of human exploration, the ISS is the essential demonstration site and stepping-stone for a sustained future in space with humans,” senior NASA scientist Harley Thronson said.

Space is perhaps the most dangerous place that people have ever lived continuously. A stray pebble or piece of space junk could puncture the shell of the structure and lead to rapid depressurization. Day in, day out, ammonia is a concern. It is critical to the station’s cooling system, but it is also highly toxic.

“Ammonia will kill you in one breath,” said astronaut Chris Hadfield.

Hadfield knows that most people aren’t paying attention to the men and women passing by overhead. What are they doing? Why are they doing it? You can go around the world 16 times a day, but few of the 7 billion people down below will ever know your name.

Experiments on the station have touched on fluid dynamics, crystal formation and changes in bacterial virulence. Next year, 20 to 60 rodents will come aboard as research subjects. And the astronauts themselves are under the microscope, revealing the effects of weightlessness and space radiation. NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency plan to send astronauts to the space station for an entire year, starting in the spring of 2015.

Astronaut Nicole Stott said she has never slept better in her life than she did in space. No pillow necessary. There are no pressure points on the body. A chronic pain in her arm simply disappeared forever. The only problem with space sleep is that the body naturally forms a zombielike pose, with arms dangling forward.

“It’s kind of scary,” she said.

Astronaut Mike Fincke spent his down time reading science fiction, including the Arthur C. Clarke novel “2001.” Picture it: A man in a space station reading a novel about people in space.

“We take these dreams and make them real,” Fincke said.

Mike Suffredini, the NASA program manager for the space station, said the station proves that in-orbit construction is possible, and he noted that no component has had to come back to Earth for retooling.

Logsdon, the policy analyst, said the station is a marvel, but he said it hasn’t proved it was worth the investment.

“It’s an awfully expensive engineering demonstration,” Logsdon said. “If that’s all it is, that’s a hell of a price to pay.”

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