May 21, 2012
Credit: Photo Credit: ESA
More than two decades in the making and less than three years into its operational phase, the International Space Station (ISS) is experiencing a public relations crisis of sorts.
Led by NASA, the ISS remains the largest international technology undertaking in history, one in which the U.S., Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan expect to have invested more than $100 billion by the end of the decade. In addition, NASA's ISS operations, transportation and research costs are estimated at more than $3 billion annually through 2020, excluding research expenses incurred by other space station partners.
So far, this expenditure has fully satisfied at least one of the space station's key goals—bringing together an international coalition, including the former Soviet Union, in pursuit of a common scientific endeavor.
A second goal—to get these same partners to view the station as a springboard for future exploration—has yet to be fully realized. The consortium cannot agree on a common destination—an asteroid, the Moon or Mars—though after more than two decades working together, all say the ISS partnership is a model for how to move forward.
More troublesome is the station's third goal, scientific and industrial research, perceived by budget-stressed governments in Europe, the U.S. and Japan as not having paid off, at least not yet.
Over the past decade, as construction of the ISS got underway, budgetary constraints led NASA to neglect the life and physical sciences portfolios most likely to benefit from unparalleled research opportunities aboard the station. Since 2002, NASA spending on life and physical sciences research dropped from approximately $500 million to less than $200 million in 2010, according to an April 2011 National Research Council report titled “Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration: Life and Physical Sciences for a New Era.” The report says NASA's present program has contracted to below critical mass and is perceived from outside the agency as lacking the stature and resources needed to attract researchers or accomplish meaningful science.
Under fiscal pressure to demonstrate the orbiting lab's real-world value, managers from the five partner nations attending an ISS symposium here May 2-4 said it is unfair to ask any infrastructure devoted to basic research to yield rapid results. But, despite having been operational for less than three years, the station “seems old,” according to European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain, because it took more than a decade to complete after the first module was launched in 1998.