What is the purpose of the International
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.