Slow Pace Of Space Station Research Decried

By Frank Morring, Jr.
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology
April 22, 2013
Credit: NASA

More than a year after astronauts and cosmonauts completed the International Space Station, the pace of its utilization continues to lag. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (Casis), a Florida-based non-profit set up to organize and promote use of the U.S. National Laboratory portion of the station, finally appears to be getting its oar in the water after an unconscionable startup delay caused by bureaucratic wrangling. But priceless time has been lost, and probably continues to be, as the U.S. gets up to speed using its 50% of the orbiting laboratory.

The problem is not restricted to U.S. utilization. Johann-Dietrich Woerner, who heads Germany's space program as chairman of the executive board of the German aerospace center (DLR), says he is frustrated with Europe's use of the on-orbit research capability it has acquired through development of the Columbus laboratory module and the Automated Transfer Vehicle.

“We, the whole community—Americans, Russians, Canadians, Germans, Europeans, Japanese—invested a lot of money into the space station,” Woerner says. “And we, at least the Germans, invested to use it not just to have a flying object. [I]t is our deep understanding that we should use it now, for science, development and research in general.”

Woerner puts a diplomatic gloss on frustration voiced elsewhere about the slow pace of getting the station up to speed. And he worries that, at least in Europe, other nations appear to be backing away from space station research even before it gets well underway.

“We are a little bit concerned about the situation in Europe, because when we discussed it in the last European Space Agency (ESA) council on ministerial level, we saw that many other countries are reducing their interest in the station,” says Woerner.

Among ESA member states, he says, only the U.K., Switzerland and Germany increased their contribution to ISS activities. France cut its station spending, leaving Germany to pick up the slack to the point that it now funds about half of the European contribution, up from 43% before the ministerial in Naples, Italy, last fall.

“Our intention was to have a constant contribution, but because France reduced its [portion], we said we have to [make up the difference],” says Woerner.

The German space chief told an audience at this year's National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs that before starting a project, it is always important to ask why it is being pursued, because once a large space development gets started it is difficult to stop. For the space station, the answer goes beyond microgravity research to fields of research not even considered when the orbiting facility was designed and built. “At the beginning, ISS was thought to be only for specialists in microgravity experiments,” he says. “It turns out that ISS is much more valuable. Look to [the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer] (AMS).”

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