Question:

What is the purpose of the International Space Station?

Answer:

The International Space Station has no immediate purpose, other than preparing itself, like the character in Samuel Becket's play Waiting For Godot, for a future development that may never occur. Michael Kostelnik, NASA's associate administrator for the space station and space shuttle, describes the $35 billion mobile home as "a key and essential staging ground for what comes next." But there is, so far, no agreed upon next stage.

Its history provides a case study in how the means displaces the ends in a government-funded enterprise.

1) As envisioned President Ronald Reagan's State of the Union speech, in 1984, it was to have three main purposes: a gravity-free factory for private companies to manufacture products, an advance base for US spacemen to travel to Mars and a laboratory to test the effect of weightlessness on humanoids for other manned ET missions.

2) By the time, President George H. Bush became President in 1989, space manufacturing had proven to be economically unfeasible. So the primary mission was for it to serve as a staging platform for American mission to Mars.

3) NASA estimated that a ET visitation to Mars would cost at least $500 billion, which was too much for a lagging economy. So the President aborted the Martian project. This cancellation left the space station with only the mission of conducting experiments on humans and materials in outer space.

4) Even this laboratory function was undercut by NASA's increased reliance on unmanned probes for outer space missions. What experimentation that was necessary could be done on less-expensive satellites deployed in space.

5) In 1993, just as Congress was about to end funding for the space station, NASA found yet another purpose for it: creating international goodwill, make- work and diversion. Since Russian scientist were facing unemployment because of the end of the Cold War competition, and the United States did not want to see them employed by countries with nuclear weapon ambitions, it was argued that was in the US interest to take Russia in a partner on the space station. To further internationalize it, NASA added as partners 11 countries in the European Space Agency, Canada, Japan and Brazil. So it became a 16 nation consortium. Still, as its budget grew to $35 billion, almost all its direct funding came from the US (Russia, for example, had received by 2003 $3 billion in US aid to provide services to the space station.)

6) Meanwhile, to compensate for the increasing cost, NASA shrunk the size of its inhabitable area so that rather than accommodating 7 humans, it accommodated only three. The cutback meant that the three humans have to spend most of their time maintaining the floating assemblage, and have little time to conduct any sort of scientific work. The 11 European countries, for example, had to divide between themselves 120 minutes a week, which is hardly enough for world-class scientific research.

In any case, what its mission has evolved into is four types of research.

1) Protein crystal studies. The stated rationale here is that more pure protein crystals may be grown in space than on Earth and that analysis of these crystals can help scientists better understand the nature of proteins, enzymes and viruses.

2) Tissue culture. The stated rationale here is that living cells can be better grown in a laboratory environment in space where they are not distorted by gravity.

3) Human anatomical studies. The rationale here is that studying the effects of reduced gravity on humans weakening muscles; changes in how the heart, arteries and veins work; and the loss of bone density will lead to a better understanding of the body's systems.

4) Alloy mixing. The stated rationale here is that flames, fluids and metal burn and combine differently without gravity which might allow better mixing of metal alloys.

Yet, almost all of this research could be conducted more cost-effectively, but in unmanned space satellites, a space shuttle (when it resumes), or on earth in bioreactor devices, such as the one NASA has already built that simulate the effect of reduced gravity. And why study reduced gravity? Human space exploration was replaced by unmanned missions 30 years ago and the fact remains no astronaut has traveled more than 300 miles from earth since 1972.

The space station's only purpose, at this moment, is to maintain itself so it does not plunge back into the reality of the atmosphere.


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