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Experts’ Report Could Doom Space Station

TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

The space station proposed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been scaled back so severely that it could not carry out the research it was supposed to do and would produce too little science for what it would cost, a prestigious panel of experts concluded in a report released Friday.

The report by the Space Studies Board was a devastating setback for NASA officials, who are trying to balance the needs of the scientific community against a congressional mandate that they reduce the cost of the station by $6 billion. The board is an advisory panel to the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

Even friends of the space agency conceded that such devastating criticism from such a prestigious group of experts will be a serious hurdle for NASA to overcome. “Death” for the space station “is certainly knocking on the door,” said John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a staunch supporter of the manned space program.

According to the seven-page report, NASA’s efforts to meet the congressional cutback resulted in a redesigned station that cannot be justified on the basis of its scientific returns.

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“In the judgment of the board, Space Station Freedom, at the present stage of redesign, does not meet the basic research requirements of the two principal scientific disciplines for which it is intended,” the report stated. It identified those disciplines as life sciences necessary to support long-term human exploration of space, and research in a weight-free environment that could lead to a greater commercial use of space.

The report cited a number of major flaws that would make the station unsuitable for research leading to manned exploration of the solar system, including an inadequate laboratory, too small of a crew, insufficient resources such as electric power and equipment, and a lack of a centrifuge that would allow scientists to determine whether artificial gravity will be necessary for interplanetary flight.

The board concluded that there may be reasons other than science that could justify the station--such as “enhancing international prestige, stimulating the nation’s educational achievement, stimulating the U.S. technology base, and supporting a long-term human space exploration initiative.” But it left no doubt that the 26 experts who serve on the board believe the scientific returns alone would not make the station a wise investment.

“The board believes that neither the quantity nor the quality of research that can be conducted on the proposed station merits the projected investment,” the report concluded.

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Many believe that NASA simply failed to develop an adequate plan for how the space station was to be used and then design it to meet that need. The most logical use for the station would be to prepare for the long journeys through space that will be required for such things as a manned trip to Mars, said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Pasadena-based Planetary Society.

Friedman said the redesigned station would not adequately support such a goal, and the report issued Friday agrees.

“In its present form, the redesigned space station does not provide the facilities required for such research (leading to long-term space flight),” the report stated.

NASA’s chief scientist, Lennard Fisk, said he was “surprised” by the report, partly because he believes the redesigned station is “better for science than was the original design.”

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“Restructuring has been very healthy,” Fisk said. “It (the redesigned station) is easier to build, would cost less and does better for science.

“It would be a shame to lose it now,” he said, referring to a tough battle to win funds from Congress for a station that appears to have lost the support of the very scientists who would be expected to use it.

The space station is an international program, and one of the chief problems faced by NASA was how to redesign the station without undermining Europe, Japan and Canada, all of whom are building major parts of the station. Fisk said he thought the new design, which would have cut the crew in half to a maximum of four and significantly reduced the size of the U.S. components, allowed NASA to “live within a budget, and to honor the international agreements” so that its partners would not have to scrap the work they have already done.

The expected cost of the redesigned station has not been revealed, although Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Colton), said NASA was successfully bringing the station in line. The previous design had been expected to cost $37 billion, and it would have taken at least 30 flights by the space shuttle to get it operational.

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Brown, who chairs the House subcommittee on space, science and technology, said the report would be taken “very seriously” by Congress, but he indicated it is a mistake to judge the station primarily by the amount of science that it would produce.

“I’m not knocking the report,” Brown said, but he added that reasons other than scientific results could justify the station. He said it is not up to the science board to decide if the station is worth building for reasons such as “national prestige and world leadership in space exploration.”


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