President To Space Station: Cut The Fat Or Face the Ax

The space station Freedom project, which underwent its most recent redesign in 1991, will face outright cancellation by Congress unless it can come up with yet a new design that cuts development and deployment costs in half, according to officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. At the behest of Vice President Al Gore, a blue-ribbon advisory panel, chaired by Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Charles Vest, is working with the space agency to work up options

By | May 17, 1993

The space station Freedom project, which underwent its most recent redesign in 1991, will face outright cancellation by Congress unless it can come up with yet a new design that cuts development and deployment costs in half, according to officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

At the behest of Vice President Al Gore, a blue-ribbon advisory panel, chaired by Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Charles Vest, is working with the space agency to work up options matching three budget levels--$5 billion, $7 billion, and $9 billion, exclusive of shuttle costs--spread over a four-year period, starting in 1994 and leading up to full deployment of the station by 1998. To date, about $9 billion has already been spent on station development and design.

What's becoming clear is that the role of the station is changing. The Clinton administration does not view the space station as a stepping stone for a manned mission to Mars, as was advocated by previous administrations. That mission is "something we might want to leave to our grandchildren," John Gibbons, presidential science adviser and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, told Congress on March 29.

Instead, the space station will primarily be for conducting materials and life sciences research, Gibbons said. And, reflecting this emphasis on the space station as a scientific outpost, Vest has brought together a group of panelists with a high scientist content. For instance, it includes geophysicist Lou Lanzerotti, chairman of the Space Sciences Board at the National Research Council; geologist Lee Silver from the California Institute of Technology; and otolaryngologist Bobby Alford, executive vice president of Baylor College of Medicine.

At an April 22 meeting of this advisory panel, the members heard from Joseph Shea, a manager of the Apollo spacecraft program in the 1960s who has lately been heading up the NASA redesign team. Later that day, however, Shea's resignation as head of the team was announced by NASA, which cited his health problems. Some sources, who request anonymity, speculate it was his blunt speech at the meeting that was his undoing.

During his talk to the panel, he detailed the problems associated with the existing Freedom design.

"Freedom's got this dilemma," said Shea. "Freedom costs too much. It doesn't do enough science. And the science it does do is too narrowly focused in the eyes of some." It's also risky, he said. Because it would take about 20 launches of the shuttle to loft all its components, and because there is a 5 percent chance of an accident per shuttle launch, there is a high possibility that during the course of station construction, another crew might be lost--as happened with the 1986 Challenger explosion--not to mention the potential for loss of the shuttle itself and major components of the station.

As for the debate over whether the space station is a good scientific investment, Shea said, "It is not our job to justify the space station"--that issue will have to be argued elsewhere. Instead, he said, "Our job is to determine whether or not a station can be built for considerably less money."

Shea criticized congressional representatives who are pushing NASA for a redesign that results in maximum protection of their districts' space-related jobs, rather than for a cost-efficient and useful space station. "If we're going to bring home the bacon in this [redesign] study, somebody has to get rid of the pork," he said.

Shea also criticized NASA administrator Daniel Goldin, present at the meeting, over his imposition of a set of constraints he called the "Goldin rules."

Goldin laid down these rules in a March 9 open letter to NASA officials involved in the redesign. Among them was that the proposed redesigns of the station should satisfy high-priority goals in materials and life sciences research, be in orbit by 1997, and cost half as much as the Freedom design.

Despite such restraints, Shea expressed optimism that, given the diversity and prominence of the panelists, they could work with or around these constraints. "The window of change is open," he said.

Shea's favored design would simply be a 24-foot-diameter pressurized cylinder that is 92 feet long and has seven floors. It would have space for 68 racks of systems and experiments. Such a design would have some limitations, such as not being readily expandable if more money becomes available. But the enormous advantage is that this design would require only one launch, he said. It could be checked out on the ground as a single unit, attached to the shuttle's existing liquid/solid propulsion system, and launched unmanned. Where such a design fits in the $5 billion to $9 billion range of price options is still unclear, said Shea. But it could be continually occupied and supply 30 kilowatts of power to scientific experiments.

Probably the most expensive option would be to simply trim down the original Freedom design, as NASA engineer Mike Griffin told the panel. The problem is that even this lightened-up version still requires at least 16 shuttle flights to bring up all the components, plus it would not accommodate modules from partners in Europe and Japan. "In this plan, we run out of money approximately four flights before we're ready to bring up the international partners," he said. But this design is expandable if more money becomes available, he said.

The final option presented was intended to be the lowest in cost- -the Modular Buildup Plan. In this design, the first three shuttle missions would bring up and assemble a "power station," consisting of solar cells and heat radiation facilities. With this in place, the shuttle could then hook up for missions of 15 to 30 days in length. The next step up, to the "human tended phase," would be to launch and attach a pressurized laboratory module. Under this configuration, the shuttle would still be used as crew quarters for missions of up to 60 days. And if money and interest continue, habitation and international partners' modules could be added to give it "permanent human presence capability."

With the end of the Cold War, many in the space community have recommended closer ties and a collaboration with the Russians. But it was left unclear as to how their enormously powerful Energia booster system and existing Mir space station could fit into the NASA redesign equation. NASA officials addressed this issue only in passing, saying they were still getting information and would report their findings at a subsequent meeting.

Robert Park, a physicist at the University of Maryland and outspoken opponent of the U.S. space station, which he has called an "orbiting pork barrel," advocates closer space ties with the Russians. "The original purpose of the space station was never science; it was geopolitical," says Park. "Now to cooperate with the Russians at least has the advantage of being one way of providing aid to the scientists."

John Pike, space policy analyst for the Federation of American Scientists, says trying to make science the sole justification for the station's construction is wrong-headed. "Human space flight is fundamentally a political or cultural activity. It ain't science. It's fun," says Pike.

Even what NASA holds up as a prime example of how the space station can contribute to the life sciences--production of ultra- pure protein crystals--is being called into question. As one group of U.S. researchers wrote in a November 26 Nature commentary (B.L. Stoddard, et al., 360:293, 1992), the advantages of protein-crystal growth in space is far from proven.

"The idea of growing crystals in a microgravity environment remains a controversial topic. At the heart of the controversy are suggestions that such experiments are primarily funded so that government space agencies can claim to be supporting cutting-edge research in either biotechnology (protein-crystal growth) or in materials science (defect-free silicon crystals, for example)," they wrote. The authors of this commentary flew experiments on Mir in 1989 and 1992 and found that only 24 percent of the crystals they grew were clearly superior to those grown on Earth. "Experiments to date have not yet demonstrated that microgravity protein-crystal growth is a wise way to spend ever more scarce government research dollars," they wrote.

One coauthor of the Nature commentary, Anthony Arrott, a biomedical engineer and president of Payload Systems Inc., is a proponent of making maximal use of existing Russian space assets before committing huge amounts to an independent U.S. station. The Russian space program "has been shielded from the political chaos," because officials there have "a general appreciation that this is one of the genuinely world-class things they have going on that's not military," says Arrott.

The final recommendations of the advisory panel will be made public sometime in early June, and observers predict a tough battle on Capitol Hill this summer for NASA and the space station.

As Rep. Dean Gallo (R-N.J.) pronounced at an April 28 hearing on NASA's 1994 budget, the "redesign seriously erodes a lot of support the space station had . . . we are going to have our hands full."

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