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Shuttle's last task: finish station

The international politics involved in mothballing the space shuttle before completing the space station would be tricky.

Published July 16, 2006

The crew of the space shuttle Discovery hopes to touch down at Kennedy Space Center at 9:07 Monday morning, and afterward, everyone will breathe a sigh of relief.

At 9:08, a new kind of space race will begin.

NASA already is prepping Atlantis to fly next month, and it hopes to launch 14 more shuttle flights through 2010, roughly four per year.

It's an ambitious schedule for the space agency, which has made just two flights since the 2003 disaster that destroyed Columbia and its seven-member crew. The reason for this busy lineup can best be summed up in three words: international space station.

"The space shuttle and the space station are Gemini twins," said Howard McCurdy, a space policy expert and professor at American University. "They are actually the same program."

The 15,000-square-foot, multibillion-dollar space station is now virtually the only reason the space shuttle continues to exist.

The station is a world-class laboratory that's 220 miles away from the world, an orbiting outpost that has been a home to astronauts for five uninterrupted years, and could be for another decade or more.

But it's only half done, and only the space shuttle can finish it. It's the only spacecraft big enough to ferry all the station's additions into orbit.

The station must be finished before NASA can fully fire up a White House-endorsed plan to send astronauts back to the moon and possibly to Mars.

For all these reasons, the U.S. human spaceflight program now revolves around the space station as much as the station revolves around Earth.

Which doesn't change one central and enduring fact about the station: The public has largely ignored it.

* * *

McNair Memorial Park, named after one of the fallen Challenger astronauts, sits in the Houston suburb of El Lago, not far from the Johnson Space Center that houses Mission Control and most U.S. astronauts.

Don Thomas, who works as the program scientist for the international space station, was in the park at dusk with his son and some friends one evening a couple of months ago, showing them how to spot the station amid the stars in the darkening sky.

A teenager came up to ask what they were doing and was surprised to learn there was a space station overhead. He asked Thomas if anyone was on board.

"I said 'Yeah, there's an American and there's a Russian cosmonaut, they've been up there for four months.' And he was blown away by that. No clue. And this is Houston."

Once, space stations were considered futuristic, even fantastical creations that would lead to human colonies in space. A famous Collier's Magazine series in the early 1950s titled "Man Will Conquer Space Soon" showed rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun's vision of a spinning station that would create its own artificial gravity. Hollywood has spawned many space stations, including the evil-looking, planet-sized Death Star from the Star Wars films.

Somehow, real space stations have stirred less awe than imaginary ones.

"I go out and I give talks and really only about 20 percent of the people even know there's a space station," said Pam Melroy, an astronaut who recently was named the second female commander in the history of the space shuttle program.

Melroy said this may be because only a select group of people ever get to see the space station. People get more excited about launches because they can actually watch them.

Or maybe it's just that life on the space station sometimes sounds, well, mundane. Astronauts orbit the Earth for days or months at a time, tending to such tasks as growing crystals, monitoring fruit flies, rebooting the computers every day, exercising to combat the effects of weightlessness, and making occasional spacewalks for station maintenance.

Not as dramatic as sitting on top of half a million gallons of rocket fuel and blasting off.

* * *

Any huge, government-financed space program mixes science and politics, and the space station contains generous helpings of both.

The recent troubles of the space shuttle - not only the 2003 loss of Columbia but also last year's flight which showed the dangers were not fully solved --have led some to call for mothballing the remaining three shuttle spacecraft and abandoning plans to finish the station.

The station's supporters argue against this on the basis of science. As they point out, space stations give scientists something no earthly lab offers, namely weightlessness. Experiments in weightlessness allow scientists to learn new properties of such basic processes as fire, and to hunt for knowledge that could transform the development of electronics or pharmaceuticals.

Consider how a candle burns on Earth, making a familiar teardrop-shaped flame that points upward because heat rises. In space, heat doesn't rise. A candle's flame in space would form a perfect sphere of fire, burning outward in all directions at once. Studying that process could lead to a better understanding of combustion itself, and possibly lead to advances in energy production, said Thomas, the space station program scientist.

Crystals used in electronics and protein crystals used in pharmaceutical research grow faster and more perfectly in space, so experiments on the station can help scientists in those fields back on Earth, Thomas said. These experiments can be conducted on space shuttles, but only on relatively short flights of a dozen days or so.

The crew of Discovery just brought the space station more scientific equipment, including a European-built freezer for storing scientific samples; a plant incubator designed to study the effects of gravity on plant cells, roots and growth; and a Swiss "electrical muscle stimulator" for neuromuscular research.

Critics, however, say an unmanned orbiting laboratory could accomplish much of the same research at far less cost, not to mention less danger.

The politics of international diplomacy, more than science, may be what gets the station built.

This station was sold to Congress, and the world, not only as a laboratory but also as an exercise in cooperation among nations. It is not just an American project. Different nations have built different cylinder-shaped laboratories, or modules, which are being fitted together on the station like giant Legos. The first was the 41-foot-long U.S.-financed and Russian-built module called Zarya, which launched in 1998, quickly followed by a U.S. component called Unity.

The United States has signed treaties with other countries in the 16-nation consortium that is building this station. Breaking a treaty would not help the United States the next time it assembles a coalition of nations for an ambitious international project - say, for a military action in the Middle East.

"It's a White House decision and it's important to honor our international commitment," said John M. Logsdon, a research professor of space policy and international affairs at George Washington University. He said that "if we unilaterally default on our commitment, we'd drive our partners away from us."

Russia already has made many trips to the station with manned and unmanned spacecraft. New labs created by the Japanese and European space agencies are scheduled to go up later, as is an Italian-built observation deck called the Cupola.

Alan Thirkettle, a top official in the European Space Agency's human space flight directorate, told a reporter two weeks ago it would be "devastating" if the United States decided to stop flying shuttles and give up on the station.

French astronaut Leopold Eyharts said if the United States stopped now, "that would mean that the European module would never be attached to the station ... so that would be bad for the European support for the space program, but also I think for our relationships between Europe and the United States.

* * *

For a measure of the space station's relative anonymity, walk into any toy store. Chances are good you'll be able to find a miniature space shuttle, or maybe even a Saturn V rocket. Finding an international space station toy is a challenge.

Maybe part of the reason the station has failed to stir public interest, even among toymakers, is simply the way it looks - sort of like giant, old-fashioned television antennas attached to shiny silver pipes and large solar arrays that look like shiny shingles.

Astronaut Stephen Robinson said he got a different perspective last year when he flew to the station. He was perched on the station's robotic arm, about to conduct a repair on Discovery's underside. The sun rose, as it does every 90 minutes in orbit, and illuminated the shuttle. Then the light spread across the station, brightening it piece by piece.

Robinson said he was suddenly overwhelmed at the audacity of everyone who worked together to build it.

After visiting the station, "you can't help but feel the marvel that humans actually put that thing together up there and are living up there on a long-term basis in a very safe manner. That's what's beautiful. It just grabs you by the heart. That's why people look that ugly, pointy, angular thing and call it beautiful."

[Last modified July 16, 2006, 02:02:38]

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