NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 18, 2005

With the space shuttle fleet grounded until NASA can solve its foam-shedding problems, the New York Times says it is time to re-examine the future of the International Space Station.

The Times says if the space station did not have to be finished, there would be little reason to keep the shuttle fleet in operation. But government officials say the station must be completed to honor obligations to our 15 international partners and to gain scientific knowledge for further space travel. Both rationales are highly questionable says the Times. Consider:

  • Focusing our prime efforts on flying the shuttles to finish the station will inevitably drain resources from NASA's other research programs and slow the planned shift to human exploration of the solar system.
  • The opportunity to study prolonged weightlessness on the health of space station crew members has been greatly exaggerated; zero gravity would be relevant on a trip to Mars, but that journey takes less time than astronauts have already spent in weightless environments in orbit.
  • Our international partners formally agreed to complete the station, but credible reports reveal some partner countries are appalled that the high cost of operating the station will eat up their own budgets, constraining other space ventures.

If the shuttle fleet remains grounded for a long time, the station will stay as is and rely on smaller Russian spacecraft to carry up crew members and cargo - a sensible approach, says the Times. However, NASA will not consider this as a serious option and is currently debating how many flights to schedule before the shuttle's retirement in 2010.

The Times says the better, but more drastic option would be to retire the shuttles immediately and back out of the station, saving some $40 billion over 10 years.

Source: Editorial, "Is the Space Station Necessary?" New York Times, August 14, 2005.

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