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Science and the space station

As NASA prepares to resume the job of finishing the international space station after an almost four-year gap, a lot of folks have been wondering whether the multibillion-dollar, decade-long effort is really worth the cost and the risk. That was the focus of a trio of stories last month - and if it were merely a question of science, there's no way the space station would ever have been built. At least that's the view of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York's Hayden Planetarium and a member of the NASA Advisory Council.

Tyson acknowledges that space scientists have had to deal with more than their share of frustrations lately, in part because of the debate over NASA's vision for human spaceflight. But he expects the issue to be resolved by 2010 - when the station is due to be completed, the shuttle fleet is due for retirement, and the scientific community is due to come out with a new 10-year roadmap for NASA research.

David Friedman / MSNBC.com
Neil deGrasse Tyson is director of the Hayden
Planetarium in New York, and a member of the NASA
Advisory Council. He also served on the President's
Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond.

Is the space station a good place to do research? That's never been an issue, Tyson told me today. Of course good science can be done there. "The issue was whether you were doing $3 billion a year worth of good science on the space station," he said.

Seen from that perspective, "you're not getting $3 billion of science if you think of it just as a science platform," he said. Quantitatively speaking, the number of published papers based on space station research are way below the number for NASA's high-profile robotic space missions.

"If you compare the Hubble Space Telescope with the space station - there's just no contest, you blow it out of the sky," he said. "You look at the Mars rovers. ... If it was purely science, [the space station] would not have happened."

Tyson said the bottom line is ... well, that science on the space station is not the bottom line. International relations play a part as well.

"If the completion of the space station has a strong political dimension to it, that's the simple fact of politics. ... Politics underpins everything, and the sooner we can understand that, the faster we can get on with understanding the causes and effects," he said.

So does that mean the station is just a political boondoggle? Not at all, Tyson said.

In his view, the important thing is that NASA is finally lifting its sights beyond Earth orbit and planning for the true exploration of other worlds. He agrees with the agency's view that the space station can serve as a test bed for the technologies and the human biological studies that are necessary for the push to the moon and Mars.

He said the problem was that, in the early years, the space station was promoted as a stand-alone science platform rather than just one "piece of the exploration pie."

Back when the space station was conceived, the idea of going to the moon and Mars was almost a taboo at the space agency. NASA felt it couldn't talk about taking those steps out of Earth orbit until it could demonstrate its follow-through on this grand international project. "Throughout the entire tenure of the space station until 2004, there was no plan to go beyond the space station," Tyson recalled.

That changed when President Bush laid out NASA's new Vision for Space Exploration, which put the moon directly in NASA's crosshairs for the first time in more than three decades. Suddenly, NASA's managers had to rework their budgets to reflect the agency's new priorities - while fulfilling its international obligations to finish the station and send up the laboratories already built by Japan and the European Space Agency.

If space station development had taken place under the umbrella of a larger exploration program targeting the moon, Mars and beyond, the orbital outpost might have been seen - and used - much differently. "The space station would have been one aspect of a much richer manned program, and no one would be saying this was a white elephant," Tyson said.

So for the next four years or so, NASA officials - as well as outside advisers such as Tyson - are having to adjust the agency's scientific goals to fit the new vision. The frustrations have led some to leave the NASA Advisory Council, but Tyson said he's staying on. "One is always more influential not resigning than resigning," he said.

And he's hopeful that the scientific community will be able to forge more of a consensus as they draw up their next 10-year roadmap for NASA priorities in astronomy and astrophysics - a document known as the Decadal Survey. That process is due to begin in the next few months, and NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has said he pays close attention to such surveys.

"Once that comes out, then there's a deep, broad consensus of where NASA needs to go," Tyson said. Until then, Tyson said he sees the role of the advisory council as that of "keeping NASA scientifically buoyant" amid troubled waters.

The debate over space science spending isn't the only issue occupying Tyson's attention lately:

  • Pluto's predicament: Years ago, Tyson demoted Pluto from the Hayden Planetarium's display of solar system planets - a decision that he said brought him stacks of "hate mail from third-graders." So don't expect him to change things much in the wake of last month's decision by the International Astronomical Union to regard Pluto and others of its ilk as dwarf planets. "What we might do is change some of the text," he said. Don't expect him to gloat, either: "The IAU decision is not binding, in the sense that they're a College of Cardinals that makes edicts that all must follow. ... If their decision does not sit on common ground, then it just simply won't get followed."
  • Tyson on TV: Do expect to see the astrophysicist on public television next month, as the new host of "Nova ScienceNOW." Tyson even shows off some of the cosmic tchotchkes in his office in an online preview video. His first episode as host will touch upon subjects ranging from America's obesity epidemic to the quest for the elusive Element 114 and the threat posed by the asteroid Apophis. "Watch for my ending comments, called 'the Cosmic Perspective,' which aims, for each episode, to highlight our place in the universe," Tyson said.

Just what I need ... more cosmic commentary.

In the meantime, here are some additional thoughts on space station science:

Sam Dinkin, chief executive officer of SpaceShot and contributor to The Space Review: "In your recent 'science taking a back seat' article, I was a little surprised to hear you repeating the old saw that we need the space station for low-gravity research on humans. The rejoinder from the physicists and engineers in the audience is that we should spin all future stations and long-duration missions. We know how to build an elevator on Earth. With two rockets and a tether we can spin a habitation module and a cargo or lander module to provide artificial gravity. At both ends, it would be like being at the bottom of an elevator cable. Put a propulsion unit in the middle for easy calculations. It has all of the high technology of a carnival ride that spins occupants and the floor drops out. For the astronauts, of course, it would be the floor dropping in.
"Even if we are bullheaded enough to send a crew cabin that doesn't spin, the ethical case is weak to do human subject research on what will happen to them. Why make someone suffer on a long-duration local mission to try to save someone on a long-duration remote mission? It's not like there are going to be more astronauts going to the moon and Mars at first than going to the space station. The only case that can be made is that we are spending a lot of money and we want the mission to come back safely with the human cargo/operators safe, so we will test humans locally to near destruction to see how long they can hold out - is it two years?"

Lloyd Daub: "Big deal if NASA is giving up on sinking taxpayer dollars into the ISS by the million.  Did you miss the recent story about how private space-launch companies will be taking over the role of sending crew and cargo to the ISS? Sounds like science can be likewise shifted to the private sector, that's all.

"Edison, Goodyear, the Wright Brothers, Ford...  yeah, we'd be nowhere without government control of science and technology."

Jeff Ellis: "I enjoyed your article today on the value of the space station. It's kind of a shame that malaise creeps in on scientific exploration.  But even if some does, I'm hopeful that things turn around and we can boost the budget of NASA in the near future. Uncontrolled spending on military exploits must cease, and I sense a growing backlash to W's exploits.  If we finally vote for a truly peace-loving administration, then we can reset our priorities to helping the best minds push the boundaries of science."

James Milson Worgan III: "An astrophysics/engineering/robotics student or team of students might jump at the opportunity to design and remotely operate a small probe outside of the space station to study the physics of slow space manuvering, for observation of the exterior of the space station, visiting vehicles, mechanics of repairs in zero gravity on devices created to be worked on by such probes, outside the space station.

"There are countless fields of study, experiments and research that could be done, need to be done, by so many more than just those few whose projects have made it to the space station and back."

Richard Youngs, Yuma, Ariz: "Two points:

"1)  A complete program of space research cannot be performed without a complete space station (as currently designed).

"2)  NASA is privatizing several aspects of its activities, including space-launch vehicles. Why not privatize the space station research effort too? It will wind up being less costly, more efficient and more productive!
"Hello - space to Earth - Hello. It's 2006 A.D. - Hello!"