August 19, 2005

Shuttle’s Uncertain Future Fuels Concern Over ISS

MOSCOW -- The $100-billion International Space Station could end up on the scrap heap if NASA's shuttle flights do not return to normal soon, scientists say.

NASA said on Thursday its next shuttle flight would not be until March, six months later than planned.

"The knock-on effects to the International Space Station are quite dramatic ... (long delays) could potentially be a show-stopper for the whole thing," Andrew Coates from UCL's Mullard Space Science Laboratory told Reuters.

The shuttle is the only vehicle that can transport parts to finish building the station, a 16-nation project to create a laboratory to study the effects of space on humans -- knowledge that could help with plans to send men to Mars.

Problems with a fuel tank during Discovery's flight this month after a two-year absence prompted NASA to ground its fleet until the problem is solved.

The station, orbiting 250 miles above the earth, has been permanently inhabited by humans since 2000. Building plans were halted after the Columbia accident in 2003, but maintenance trips to the station continued on Russian rockets.

Even if the shuttle returns successfully, NASA plans to retire it in 2010 and some critics doubt whether the station would even be finished by then after the delays.

"The shuttle flights will not resume at anything like the rate that would be necessary to build up the station," Andre Balogh from Imperial College in London told Reuters.

"If the shuttle remains in a lame duck state, then they (ISS partners) would have to start talking about decommissioning before the 2010 horizon."

Russia's space agency Roskosmos said it had less to worry about than other ISS partners, including Japan, Canada, Brazil and the 11-nation European Space Agency (ESA). Moscow has key modules already integrated into the station.

"Why should we be nervous? It's an international project -- maybe the European partners should be more nervous, the Canadians, the Japanese, because it is mainly their project that will fall through because of this," a Roskosmos spokesman said.

For ESA, which has a 1 billion euro laboratory gathering dust as it waits for a shuttle to transport it and a 1 billion euro spaceship set to launch to the ISS next year, the effects of an early death of the station are clear -- and expensive.

"In the worst case scenario we will not be able to launch Columbus (laboratory), we will not need the ATV (supply craft that has yet to be launched) anymore," said ESA spokesman Franco Bonacina.


Only a few hundred people have been to space and the idea of astronauts floating aboard the station and living in orbit thrills the public. But many scientists believe this is not a good enough reason to keep pumping money into the project.

"In general, one has to ask why complete the International Space Station anyway," said Coates. "One worries about putting lots of resources into that because it diverts resources from the scientific exploration which needs to be done."

Robotic exploration is far more economical and the scientific returns higher. For the price of the ISS, scientists could fund 600 unmanned Mars missions.

But NASA is unlikely to give up on its shuttle or the ISS very easily because of a feeling of duty to its international partners. "Otherwise the investment which has gone in has been a waste up until now," said Coates.


On the Net: