Space Station Detracts From US Science Needs
WITH its decision to strike all funding for the space station from the 1992 appropriations bill, the House subcommittee on HUD and Independent Agencies, under the leadership of Bob Traxler (D-Mich.) and Bill Green (R-NY), has forthrightly proclaimed that the emperor has no clothes. It is imperative that Congress confirm this judgment during this week's deliberations. Congress has a choice to make. On the one hand is the space station - a costly enterprise that has no identifiable important scientific or technological function and could cost $200 billion during the next 30 years. On the other hand are scientific projects of the highest priority, as well as sorely needed social programs.
Funding the space station would not only eviscerate NASA's science and application program, but also eliminate important National Science Foundation initiatives and involve cuts in funding for veterans, the homeless, and the Environmental Protection Agency as well.
Every dollar restored to the space station will have to be taken from these sources. The choice is obvious. The House subcommittee agreed and made the wise choice.
It is important to understand that the space station NASA wants to fly has negligible scientific capability. To perform the kind of space biological and medical studies needed to support the space program itself, the station would have to have a centrifuge - something the space station folks have the temerity to say must be provided by the space science folks.
To study new and exotic materials, scientists prefer a man-tended platform to a space station that vibrates when astronauts move about. Such a platform could be visited by a space shuttle. Private companies have offered to build this facility but have been rebuffed by NASA officials.
This is one example of a useful function that the existing space shuttle could serve. Another example might be to join the USSR in a common effort, using the Soviet space station Mir and the shuttle, to understand the effects of long duration flight at low gravity on humans.
Because the science part of the space program shares no major objectives with the manned portion of the program - except getting into space - and because the manned program frequently subverts and distorts the technical and scientific programs when both are administered by the same agency, the two functions should be separated. Critics argue this would cause science and applications to suffer because they need the cover of politically appealing manned missions. This is an unworthy and self-serving argum e
nt. If the enterprises of space science can't hold their own in a contest for national resources, they don't deserve to be carried out.
I believe they can hold their own. They deal with issues of how the universe - including Earth and the other planets - came to exist, how it evolved, and how it works. They deal with vital issues such as understanding the ways that humans may be damaging their own planet. These are scientific problems of great significance. Solving them requires space missions - but not a space station.
During the present budget wars, NASA has starkly revealed its own priorities. Despite recommendations that its first priority be space science, NASA has elected to protect the space station and abandon its scientific initiatives. It is clear that leaving science within NASA jeopardizes its very existence. The nation should endorse the choice the House subcommittee has made. We can't afford the space station, and, in its present configuration, it serves no useful purpose.