Roving thoughts and provocations

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Let’s Bring the Astronauts Home

AP Photo/NASA, Paolo Nespoli
The International Space Station in an image taken by an Expedition 27 crew member from the Soyuz TMA-20 (May 23, 2011)

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station said this week that human activity on the station may soon be suspended, because the Russian rockets that are now the only way to transport astronauts and cargo there are no longer reliable. While many people view the prospect of the astronauts ending their work at the space station as an extraordinary loss, I am not among them. I think that the station was a hundred billion dollar folly and the sooner it is abandoned the better.

The current crisis dates to August 23, when a Russian space vehicle named Progress crashed in Siberia because of a malfunction of the Soyuz rocket on which it launched. As a result all Soyuz launches have been put on hold. The Progress was fortunately unmanned but was carrying three tons of cargo for the Space Station; moreover, with the end of the Space Shuttle program in the US, Russian ships are the only means of carrying crews to it, and they depend on the same kind of rocket that failed in August. This leaves the current Space Station crew of six (three Russian, two American, and a Japanese) rushing to prepare the station for a possible indefinite shut down following their own imminent departure.

The International Space Station was started in 1998 and has been continuously staffed for almost eleven years, with crews rotated every three to six months. It is jointly operated by several countries but the United States pays most of the bills. (As long ago as 2004, estimates for what had already been spent on the station ran as high as $60 billion.) Its purpose was to provide a laboratory for scientific experiments, including one on the consequences of prolonged weightlessness. A romantic view was that it was going to be a way station for going to the Moon and Mars but there is no indication that such a mission is in prospect before the end of the station’s projected lifetime (about fifteen more years). A cynic has said that it was to provide work for otherwise unemployed astronauts. Since much of that work was supposed to be science it is fair to ask what has been accomplished.

If you go to the official NASA web site you will find many pages cataloging the experiments that have been done in a great variety of fields. The question is, what is the quality of this work? Could it have been done on Earth and above all could it have been done as well or better in an unmanned platform? Robert Park, a physicist who has been an outspoken critic of the research done on the International Space Station gave a specific example in testimony he gave before the US Senate in 2003.

Park described a project in which what are known as molecular crystals were supposed to grow in the micro-gravitational environment of the orbiting station. The idea was to achieve larger protein crystals than could be grown on earth so that they would be simpler to study under a microscope. This project was considered an important justification for the whole ISS program even after the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. The experiment was tried on the station, but in the end the crystals grown were no larger than those made on earth. As Park put it,

The research is not wrong; it is just not very important. No field of science has been significantly affected by research carried out on the Shuttle or on Mir at great cost. Much of it has never been published in leading peer-reviewed journals.

Even Park is prepared to make an exception for the so-called Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. This was the $1.5 billion brainchild of the physicist and Nobel laureate Samuel Ting of MIT who, in addition to being a very good physicist, is one of the best promoters of very expensive scientific projects who has ever lived. In the early 1990s, the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider project in Texas, a facility designed to research the behavior of high energy particles, had dismayed many in the physics community, and Ting proposed this space project in 1995 as an alternative. In brief it was to be the most elaborate particle detector ever launched into space. There are a number of proposed mysterious particles such as the ones that may compose the “dark matter.” Some of these may show up at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. But the energy of this machine is limited and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer can detect cosmic rays of any energy. In short it is a scientific project with real interest.

Ting’s Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer turned out to be very difficult to construct and after many delays it was finally delivered to the space station on May 19 of this year. As far as I know it is working well. It is now claimed that it will continue working even after the space station is abandoned. It joins the Hubble telescope and the Mars Rovers as robotic projects that have or will produce real science. So far the manned space station has produced none.

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