Weightlessness of U.S. space policy

October 01, 1997|By Daniel S. Greenberg

TO UNDERSTAND NASA's decision to risk another astronaut in a long and purposeless ride on Russia's ramshackle Mir space station, it's enlightening to comprehend the weightlessness of American space policy.

Permanently traumatized by the Challenger catastrophe, NASA has no stomach for Mir, a celestial hulk for which the controlling legal authority is Murphy's Law.

But early in the Clinton administration, NASA was ordered to provide work for ex-Soviet space engineers, lest they find new careers in rogue countries. Mir, in continual orbit for nearly a decade, was one of the few intact remnants of the once-mighty Soviet space establishment.

NASA chose to wring whatever value it could from its politically dictated assignment by integrating the Soviet craft into the centerpiece of the American space program -- the Space Station. Conceived as an encore to the moon landings of 1969-71, the space station is a marvel of engineering for which no sensible use has ever been identified.

The often-cited potential is research under micro-gravity conditions for developing new materials for industrial purposes. But corporate America, which is unsentimentally shrewd about how to make money from research, has tellingly declined to come aboard with cash participation.

That hasn't derailed the project. Without the station, NASA would have no reason to maintain an astronaut corps, nor would there be much use for the exorbitantly expensive Space Shuttle to haul construction materials into space for building the station.

NASA's future is lashed to the space station. Though they gagged on orders to take on the decaying Russian space program as a partner, our politically savvy space politicians recognized that a foreign-policy cornerstone for the station is no handicap.

Skeptics jeered about the cost of helping the impoverished Russians. But, employing its branded chimerical accountancy, NASA announced that the linkup with Mir would save the American space program $2 billion.

But, in fact, the U.S. has paid the Russians over $400 million for American astronauts to ride on Mir, while the cost of the space station has mushroomed, as is usually the case in these matters.

Cost, however, is not a serious problem in space station politics. With contracts concentrated in California, Texas and Florida, and sprinkled around the country, the station is home free in Congress.

And with Vice President Al Gore shepherding the station for the administration, the project is safe at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, at least through the year 2000 presidential election.

The justification for risking U.S. astronauts on the problem-plagued Mir is that they're gaining valuable experience in coping with the problems of weightlessness.

But few in the space business take that seriously, given that the Russians have accumulated 11 years of Mir experience in weightlessness, and the U.S. has acquired a great deal on its own space craft.

Prior to the most recent U.S. launch to Mir, five American astronauts had accumulated many months on board the Russian space ship. At the time NASA was agonizing over another trip to Mir, only two more American visits were planned.

As usual, NASA maintains that important scientific experiments are conducted aboard Mir. But NASA's Inspector General, Roberta Gross, recently reported that the rickety Mir, with its frequent power failures, is not hospitable to scientific research.

And Charles Harlan, a former senior official at the Johnson Space Center -- NASA's link to the Mir program -- noted in a letter to NASA headquarters that "I would doubt that there is any mandatory life sciences research remaining on Mir in order to support the development of the Space Station."

He added: "I personally do not see any compelling NASA need for continuation of joint operations with Mir, especially in light of the perceived risk to human life involved."

Perhaps the most dismaying element in the NASA-Mir saga was revealed in Ms. Gross' recent testimony at a House Science Committee hearing.

Noting the Johnson Space Center's "overriding goal to continue participation in the US/Russian partnership," she cautioned that, despite concerns about Mir's safety among staff members at the center, "Some of those employees have also said that they feel it would jeopardize their careers to be frank in their opinions, observations, and assessments of the Mir program."

Daniel S. Greenberg is editor of Science & Government Report, a Washington newsletter.

Pub Date: 10/01/97

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