Clinton threat to space station angers Europe

THE BRITISH space experts at last week's Paris Air Show formed a gloomy crowd. The brightest hope they and their colleagues in the European Space Agency held - to hitch a lift to the stars on the back of the United States' space station, Freedom - looks set to be dashed. Freedom, centrepiece of the US manned space flight programme, is fighting for its life.

The members of ESA have already spent at least pounds 1bn on a laboratory called Columbus, which was to have slotted on to Freedom. Behind the scenes at the agency, many of those working on the Freedom programme are resigned to the possibility that it may never go ahead, and even see Russia, not the US, as a more trustworthy future collaborator.

Freedom was to have fulfilled the US dream of a permanent manned spaceport. Under President Reagan, who saw space travel as a supreme form of patriotism, Freedom prospered. More recently, efforts to curb the soaring costs of the space station by lopping chunks off the original design have transformed the story of man's greatest challenge to little more than light entertainment.

But President Bill Clinton is serious. Despite pre-election promises of commitment to the space station, one of his first acts as president was to order Nasa to produce plans for a cheaper version. He was keen to convince voters that he intended to improve the lot of people on Earth, rather than offer them the questionable satisfaction of conquering space.

Last week, Nasa handed the White House three cut-down options. But even the cheapest came in at a cost nearly dollars 2bn more than Mr Clinton stipulated. He is expected to decide Freedom's fate very soon, possibly this week.

His deliberations concern more than dollars 30bn of US taxpayers' money; but he is also juggling with the future of projects to which Nasa's international partners are heavily committed. Japan and Canada, as well as ESA, are building bolt-on sections. Both are impatient to learn Mr Clinton's views on Nasa's re-design plans.

The president may take pity on Nasa, believe its plea that it can cut costs no further, and give the go-ahead for a scaled-down space station. Equally, he may argue that the agency's failure to meet his budgetary target is the final straw, and cancel the whole thing.

This would be a politically rocky route to take. Nasa has ensured that tens of thousands of jobs ride on the future of the programme. It has scattered contracts with aerospace companies in 37 states, offering the hope of more than 70,000 jobs.

The cheapest of Nasa's three proposals, option C, is widely expected to be Clinton's choice. It comes with an immediate dollars 11.9bn price tag, can be launched in one go and is essentially a long tin cylinder with solar panels. The two other options are closer to current plans, but more costly.

The most comprehensive long-term estimates coming out of Washington, including a share of shuttle missions costs, now stand at dollars 27.2bn for a small modular station (option A), dollars 30.3bn for a reduced version of Freedom (option B) and dollars 25.2bn for the 'tin can'. The original design, assessed by the same criteria, comes in at dollars 35.8bn up to 2001.

Option C would pose the biggest threat to the role of Nasa's international partners. It is the most radical departure from the original, so raises the prospect of a new set of technical problems.

If Mr Clinton cancels Freedom altogether, he will certainly kill the space dream, but it will not be the end of manned space flight. The shuttle missions would still go ahead, although constructing and maintaining the space station was the shuttle's raison d'etre, and a glance at its mission timetable shows the shuttle programme will run out of useful things to do in just a few years.

Then there is Spacelab, a miniature version of the space station designed to be carried aloft inside the space shuttle. It is a further source of disharmony between ESA, which built the laboratory, and Nasa, which has more or less monopolised its use.

ESA's mounting disenchantment with the US increases the likelihood that it will now step up negotiations with Russia. After all, the Russians already have a space station, Mir, in orbit (with two cosmonauts currently on board) and seven years' experience of running it. In public, the director general of ESA, Jean- Marie Luton, makes light of possible joint programmes with the Russians, but the agency's eyes are more sharply focused on the East than ever.

If Mr Clinton goes for option C, ESA may well take this as its cue to pull out. When asked on Friday whether he still regarded the US as reliable partners, Mr Luton told the Independent on Sunday: 'I wait for the final proposal before I judge that.'

Germany, Italy and France have new space ministers, all more cost-conscious than their predecessors. For these politicians, the chance to pull out of the space station would be welcome.

But the abiding problem with the space station is that it was conceived in the heat of patriotic fervour, and sold to the American people as a driving force for technological development.

Nasa was never asked to spell out exactly what the space station was for, and now fumbles for a convincing answer to that question. Today's taxpayers are less inclined to believe the line about spin-offs from space ventures for medical treatment.

Microgravity researchers, once keen to grow perfect crystals of new materials in the calm of space, are not impressed by experiments that must share the space station with astronauts.

The most promising prospects the space station can offer is in examining the way the human body responds to weightlessness. But if all we learn by sending people into space is what happens to people when you send them into space, do we really need to know?

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
football This was Kane’s night, even if he played just a small part of it
Travel
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
News
news
News
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
media
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
people
Voices
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
News
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss