Over the last couple of weeks there have been plenty of newspaper editorials about the space shuttle, ISS, and space policy in general. In some respects watching these editorials has been entertaining, as they shift from congratulating the shuttle one day to criticizing it the next when news of the foam shedding came to light. It’s worth a broader examination, but not here and not today.
What is worth discussing today is an editorial in the Sunday New York Times titled “Is the Space Station Necessary?” It’s worthwhile in part because it appears in the Sunday Times, one of the most widely-read newspapers in the US. Second, the Times doesn’t skimp on the discussion: the editorial is double the size of the typical one found in the pages of the newspaper, and goes into some detail about the rationale for continuing the ISS program.
The editorial concludes that the two primary reasons for continuing the station—commitments to international partners and scientific research—are highly suspect. On the former, the Times editors believe that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the international partners might be looking for a way out of the program: “There are credible reports that even space authorities in some partner countries are appalled that the high cost of operating the station will eat up their own budgets, constraining other space ventures.” On the latter, the Times believes that while good science can be done on the ISS, the “real problem is that the value of the work is not commensurate with the cost of the station-shuttle complex.”
Do these arguments hold water? Regarding the science, it’s a judgment call: what value do you place on ISS research? On the international partners issue, the Times may be overreaching by lumping them all together: does Russia, for example, feel the same as Europe, Canada, or Japan? The Times also seems ignorant of the effects of the Iran Nonproliferation Act when it writes: “If the shuttle fleet remains grounded for a long time, the station will have to stay as is and rely on smaller Russian spacecraft to carry up crew members and cargo. That seems like a sensible approach over all.” Of course, NASA will be denied access to those Russian spacecraft starting next year unless INA is amended. One good piece of advice: “…right now we should at minimum be hearing administrators explain how they will plan for the lowest number of shuttle flights possible, while they work on development of a successor spacecraft and automated vehicles to carry loads into orbit.” We should be hearing more about that in the weeks to come as NASA rolls out its exploration architecture.