A waste of space

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Its mission: to build a station in the stars the size of two football pitches.

Its cost: $60bn and counting.

Its place in history (if it ever gets off the ground): the first white elephant in orbit and the most expensive public relations exercise on earth

Two flashing red lights inside the cockpit of the Space Shuttle yesterday morning heralded another day on which, just as for the past 14 years, the International Space Station (ISS) slipped yet further behind its timetable. The red lights were the master alarm, and went off less than five minutes before the launch was scheduled; the apparent cause was traced to a brief drop in hydraulic pressure in the fuel tanks. The controllers at Nasa, the US space agency, put the launch of the 88th Space Shuttle flight on hold for a day - adding another $600,000 (pounds 355,000) in fuel and overtime pay to the soaring costs of building a place above the Earth's atmosphere where seven astronauts can live on a semi-permanent basis.

Among those watching the non-launch in the Florida drizzle was Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, who told reporters (seeking a story other than "Shuttle stays put"): "This is a visionary idea. This is an investment in the future."

As investments go, it has to be one of the worst places that you could possibly choose to put $60bn (pounds 35bn). The ISS, principally funded by the US and Russia, will never pay its way; it will never recoup its running costs, let alone those of launching and constructing it. It will be the whitest of white elephants, a fact that will be as galling to belt-tightening Americans as to economically ravaged Russians. Just to rub it in to those on the ground, as it grows towards its finished size - 4,000 square metres, as big as two football fields - it will become one of the brightest objects in the night sky, as luminous as a planet.

If you were beginning to feel smug that it is only the former Cold Warriors who will have to watch their taxes flitting across the heavens, bear in mind that the European Space Agency is putting in $4bn - or about pounds 10 from each of us. The Japanese, too, have been corralled into putting up some cash, as have the Brazilians and Canadians. By the time the ISS is finished, perhaps in 2003 but almost certainly later, there will be few people in the world who won't be able to look skywards and think how they could have used the money better.

Can we be sure that it won't pay for itself? On its website for the ISS (under the heading Fun Facts), Nasa declares that "every dollar spent on space programs returns at least $2 in direct and indirect benefits". But Richard Tremayne-Smith, the director of the British National Space Centre (BNSC), makes no bones about it: "It's a matter of international relations and international accord. The only way to justify it is on the possibilities of what it might produce through microgravity [the absence of force experienced in orbit].

"But that idea was dreamt up in the Sixties and Seventies, of manufacturing things in space, taking advantage of the lack of gravity. What's actually happened with all these breakthroughs is that they end up giving new understanding to the process which occurs on Earth, so they redesign the way things are done down here."

Other plans are to install a cheap spectrometer that will search for antimatter - particles with the same mass, but opposite characteristics, to normal ones like electrons or helium. Others will look at the effects of microgravity on metal alloy production, on cellular deterioration in bones with age, and how to build a laser-cooled atomic clock that will be 10 times more accurate than any built on Earth.

But none of those is going to be a money-spinner. Radical breakthroughs will be few and far between - if indeed there are any. Nasa's search for commercial backers has produced few prepared to put their money where its mouth is; they have learnt that, unless they make rockets or avionics systems, it's more efficient to put their money into satellites for phone systems. No company is battering down the door to Nasa demanding to try out a new experiment in space.

The idea of space stations as interplanetary lay-bys has been popular for decades with science-fiction writers. Think of the semi-completed one in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was like an airport departure lounge where Americans and Russians could briefly meet before heading off to their respective quarters on the Moon. But the reality is that by 2001 we won't have built anything on the Moon, and the present schedule of launches only goes up to July 2000, when the twelfth of 45 assembly flights is due to go up. There will then be a three-strong crew living on board, while the Mir space station should be just a memory, having been guided down - one trusts - to crash into the ocean and sink to the depths sometime in 1999.

However, we don't need a space station in order to travel to the Moon, or to Mars. There's nothing we can put there which couldn't more easily be located on our satellite, especially after the discovery earlier this year of water at the Moon's poles, which could (at great cost) be used to power and provide for a permanent community.

The idea of the ISS was first mooted by the then US president Ronald Reagan, in 1984. In retrospect, Reagan promulgated all sorts of daft ideas that later proved wrong or unfeasible, such as "trickle-down" taxation (suggesting that tax cuts for the rich would benefit the poor, whom the rich would employ) and the "Star Wars" space defence system, which was suggested almost as a joke by a group of Californian SF writers, yet somehow gained billions in defence research funding despite its obvious impossibility.

The ISS falls into the same category. It was meant to have been built by 1994. But the serial collapses of the Russian economy have delayed that repeatedly, while the impossibility of justifying anything as large as Reagan had in mind has meant that the final ISS is much smaller than was planned.

However, the PR drive (helped along by Nasa, which is the major partner) for the ISS has been enormous. There is a simple reason why: Nasa is once more doing its level best to persuade the US government, and the world, to throw a ton of money into an expensive project that won't pay off but will produce resounding visual images.

When it comes to skilled manipulation of the world's media, few can hold a candle to Nasa. It does have the advantage of its subject matter, which throws up dramatic pictures - the rocky surface of Mars, the columns of interstellar gas millions of light years long pictured by the Hubble space telescope, the Earth's light rising over the surface of the Moon.

By winning the race to be first on the Moon, Nasa guaranteed its place in the affections of the American (and by proxy Western) public. But since 1969, more and more administrators have questioned the reasoning behind the growing requests for money. The explosion of a Space Shuttle shortly after lift-off in 1985 threw a sharp light on managerial incompetence at the agency. It had started to believe its own publicity, instead of remembering that it was dealing with engineering systems whose malfunction could always be deadly.

As a result, Nasa began instead to focus on robot missions to other planets and moons, and satellites to observe the Earth. The Nasa administrator Dan Goldin insisted that new space missions should try to aim to be done "better, faster, cheaper". The Mars Surveyor mission of 1997 was a spectacular success in that respect. But it still showed Mars to be a dead, cold, rocky desert.

However, many had expected far more from it, because in August 1996 Nasa had lined up a team of scientists proclaiming that they had discovered evidence of past life on Mars in a meteorite. That news went around the world. The fact that since then, not a single independent scientist has said that the data unequivocally supports such a viewpoint hasn't received as much coverage, especially not from Nasa.

But Nasa, like a shark, always keeps moving forward onto the next target. Right now, it is to get a space station built and orbiting the planet, even though there is no conceivable financial justification for doing so. Among Nasa's declared aims for the ISS are "to forge new partnerships with the nations of the world" and - significantly - "to sustain and strengthen the United States' strongest export sector, aerospace technology, which in 1995 exceeded $33 billion". So it's not quite about altruism, then.

The truth is that there will be no factories in space. Mir's chequered history, including an onboard fire, a collision with a cargo ship and repeated computer problems, demonstrate that space is not, and never will be, an easy place to live.

It's not a safe place, either. New Scientist magazine recently carried out a series of calculations looking at the odds of something disastrous happening. It turns out that though the chance of a Shuttle blowing up on its launch is only 1 per cent, and of a Russian uncrewed module doing the same just 8 per cent, when you calculate the chances of that remaining true for 33 Shuttle launches and 12 Russian ones, the chance of it all going to plan is just 26.4 per cent - that is, there's a 75 per cent chance of something blowing up.

The risks from "space junk" hitting the station are equally worrying. Though tiny - perhaps as big as a piece of gravel - the particles are moving so fast that they can pack the punch of a car going at 100mph. The risk calculation suggests that over 20 years, there is a 42 per cent chance that some whirling cosmic dervish will penetrate the station's hull.

Nasa, however, has not formally analysed the risks involved, New Scientist found: even as the first (Russian) element was launched last month, a full "probabilistic risk analysis" had not been done.

But typical of Nasa's skewed vision of what's important is its concern over the lack of a proper name. Reagan suggested "Freedom"; that grated with the Russians, who rejected it. "Unity", the name of the module which will connect the Russian and American components of the station together, has not been taken up as the overall name.

Earlier this week, Nasa announced the results of a competition among children (American ones, of course) to suggest a suitable name. Three suggestions were the Dudeship, the Milky Way Bar Stop and the Totally Rad Space Place. It's hard to know if that means that the station has succeeded in the first part of one of its aims, listed on the Nasa website as "to inspire our children, foster the next generation of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs, and satisfy humanity's ancient need to explore and achieve". But one suspects not.

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