Nasa's Space Station Zero

THE PASSAGEWAYS ARE GLISTENING, sleek, futuristic. Computers hum with data fed from the satellites and spacecraft of many nations, Highly trained personnel float from one chamber to the next, monitoring billion-dollar experiments. But this isn't the space station, orbiting Earth at 240 nautical miles. It is the space-station administration building in Houston.

Though some $11.9 billion has already been spent on the space-station project. not a pound of finished hardware has been manufactured, much less placed into orbit. Large offices for managers and paper spacecraft: what could be a more telling metaphor for the space-station effort, perennially dogged by suspicions that it exists primarily as a piece of space pork?

Back in the early '80s, President Ronald Reagan envisaged the space station as an exotic launching pad/laboratory for a new era of space exploration, as well as a lofty platform from which to reexamine Mother Earth. But lawmakers have long valued the space station more for its capacity to provide jobs back home than for its potential to unlock the mysteries of the universe. Albert Wheelon, former CEO of Hughes Aircraft and a member of a 1993 presidential space-station commission, says: "The science value is wildly exaggerated ... It's a jobs program plain and simple."

Under cost-cutting pressure. the space station has become somewhat less of a boondoggle, and over the last year long term cost projections have come down somewhat. Still, the effort remains no more than an upscale copy of the existing Russian space station, Mir, which is itself widely considered dubious. Until recently, management was rife with featherbedding. There were four sets of contractors and four different NASA operations centers, all blaming each other for problems. The arbiter was a paper pusher's nightmare called Level Two, a sprawling management complex in Reston, Va., that had to be consulted on the slightest matters, yet had no authority to make decisions. The space-station pro gram was so troubled that Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas called it a "plan to do nothing at great expense." Last spring funding survived in the House by a single vote.

But then the station's political fortunes improved. The new Russian republic became a partner-promising international cooperation in space, plus somewhat lower construction costs, since some station components are launched on Russian expendable rockets, costing dramatically less per mission than the space shuttle. (Russia's entry also gives the project a good nickname. Previously it was called Station Freedom, then Station Alpha: now it's known to astronauts as Ralpha.) And the new administrator, Daniel Goldin, the best NASA boss in history, has begun to carry out real management reforms. Goldin shut down Level Two, becoming one of the few officials in postwar Washington history actually to cut bureaucrats from his own agency; a single NASA operations center and contractor now have responsibility for station design.

Yet with the silly problems of the space station corrected, the serious ones stand in greater relief. Still unanswered: what's it for? "It's primarily a research platform," said Randy Brinkley, manager of the station office at he Johnson Space Center. "There will be life sciences, but we haven't finalized what. Really, it's hard to answer that question." As for its prospects as a "research platform," the National Research Council, the pre-eminent organization in this field, says the station "cannot be supported on scientific grounds." Many science organizations have announced opposition to the space station, saying it just isn't worth the investment.

Goldin does better with what's it for? He says, "Humanity is going to go to space. Learning to live and work in space is a necessary step, and the space station will help us learn these things." But does the fact that people will live in space someday mean that it makes sense to start today? Goldin, a genuine aerospace reformer. is said privately to feel that the space-station effort may drag NASA down. Goldin is well aware that station spending has many entrenched friends: he would lose his job if he announced opposition to NASA's leading budget boondoggle.

As proposed by Reagan in 1984, the space station was to be a large facility with many missions: satellite repair, assembly of spacecraft outbound from Earth, research on the body's response to space ("life sciences"), environmental studies, astronomy and the production of specialized materials. There were to be provisions for expansion.

But over the years the station's costs have risen. its size has declined (originally there were eight crew members, each with private cabins; now there will be six sharing a common bunk chamber), most of its missions deleted. Satellite repair and spacecraft assembly are out: environmental studies and astronomy have been reduced to minor experiments; there is no expansion potential, the facility to be abandoned after a 10-year service life. Only two important assignments remain: life sciences and repair of the station itself, with 285 annual hours of maintenance spacewalks planned. That is, human beings will be posted in space mainly to monitor their own responses and to repair the place on which they are posted.

One fading mission is "microgravity," the manufacture of specialized materials and proteins in orbit. Microgravity was supposed to come on as a boom industry. Now most firms planning such ventures have dropped out, because access to space is so expensive. At current shuttle-launch prices, using the shuttle to turn lead into gold would be a financial loser: gold sells for about $6.000 per pound, while raw material delivered to the space station by the shuttle will cost at least $15,200 per pound. The physicist D. Allan Bromley, George Bush's science adviser. declared in 1991 that "microgravity is of microimportance."

The station once had another goal: a closed" life-support system that would recycle water, air and nutrients. Closed life support is a prerequisite for building a moon base or sending a mission to Mars. Last year closed life support was deleted from Ralpha's design. All food, air and water will be hauled up fresh from Earth, at fantastic expense.

Meanwhile, there is something about the station its proponents would rather you not know. In theory space-station controls and experiments must be "human tended." Yet since NASA knows Ralpha might go unoccupied for years if there is another shuttle accident, all vital systems are being designed for remote operations from the ground. This means that even the space station does not actually require people, except for occasional outdoor repair work.

Officially Ralpha will cost an additional $17.4 billion before construction is completed in 2002, at which point the budget will rise as station operations gear up. The figure greatly understates true cost, not including launching about 20 shuttles to help in the construction. NASA's stated sticker price for a shuttle launch is $380 million. Most observers put the true cost far higher; for instance, the Congressional Research Service says it's more like $1.7 billion. Once the station is completed, servicing will require at least five shuttle flights per year at a cost in the billions, plus $3 billion or so in general NASA overhead.

Inevitably, megafunding for the station is crowding out much smaller appropriations for satellites and unmanned space probes, which virtually all scientists consider more cost-effective than manned missions. A single Ralpha supply mission will cost about the same as the design, manufacture and launch of an entire planetary probe, such as Voyager 2, which in 1989 captivated the nation with close-up pictures of the blue planet Neptune. Yet the space-probe budget has been cut steadily to free up funds for shuttle subsidies. Ralpha costs have also been crowding out environmental research, the sole NASA activity that promises taxpayers some immediately useful information, such as whether an artificial greenhouse effect is beginning. Years ago NASA announced Mission to Planet Earth, a "crash program" of environmental satellites to monitor the atmosphere. Launch of EOS-AM, the first major component of this effort, is not scheduled until 1998-meaning that the crash program merely to launch a few unmanned satellites will have taken as long as the entire Apollo moon effort.

Does the space station's cost seem too huge to grasp? Consider just the expense of providing the astronauts with enough water to drink and bathe. Supplies delivered to the space station by shuttle will cost $15,200 per pound. Each of Ralpha's four American astronauts is to be allotted 9.5 liters (about 21 pounds) of liquids daily. That means that every day in space, each astronaut will go through $319,200 worth of bottled water. On an annual basis the costs of bottled water delivered by space shuttle to Ralpha will be $466 million. This is the equivalent of the annual federal tax burden of 95,000 adults.

Goldin offers partial justification for the space station by pointing out the value of a joint endeavor with the Russians. "I spent most of my adult life designing weapons to kill Russians. They were designing weapons to kill me. Now we're working together on a peaceful civilian space station. Even if that isn't the ideal project, it is far better to have Russian aerospace engineers concentrating on this than selling their talents to Third World nations for weapons design, to earn a living." True enough. But why not provide aerospace employment here and abroad in a program that creates something society needs--namely, a cheaper way to get into space.

Mark Albrecht, executive secretary of the National Space Council under Bush, says, "Every commission that looks at NASA comes to the conclusion the core problem is the high cost of the shuttle. We have billions to spend on the space station, yet do nothing about launch costs. It's a national disgrace." When the shuttle was conceived, its cost of putting a pound of payload in orbit was to be about $400, in today's currency. Now the figure is at least $15,200 and probably much higher. France's Ariane booster costs about $8.000 per pound: Russia's Proton, about $4,000. Last year, even given crippled national finances, Russia was able to conduct twice as many space missions as NASA and to compile a better ratio of success-because the use of "big dumb boosters" makes the Russian space program so much less expensive.

If there is one thing the Russians are good at, it is cheaply and efficiently putting rockets into space. Rather than getting Russia, too, wrapped up in an expensive, flawed mission, Russian engineers could team up with NASA to design a new generation of cost-effective launchers. Yet America's aerospace old-boy network fears that low-cost new space boosters will mean smaller contracts and fewer jobs.

This fear was reflected in the recent debate over the DC-X, a "single stage to orbit" prototype, an old Star Wars offshoot that the Pentagon had been testing on the cheap. "Single stage to orbit" vehicles are Buck Rogers rockets that fly to and from space in one piece. They have limitations, mainly that they must be nearly ail fuel. Yet DC-X tests suggested that such a rocket could travel back and forth to orbit many times for far less than the price of a single shuttle launch. The Clinton administration tried to kill the DC-X, though Congress restored some DC-X test funding.

Other ideas for affordable launchers exist. One is a vehicle about the size of a corporate jet that would be air-launched from a carrier aircraft similar to a 747, More than 30 years ago the air force regularly flew the air-launched X-15 to the boundary of orbit, at a negligible cost per mission. A modern version might be ideal for moving people to space at a fraction of the cost or risk of a shuttle flight.

Another notion, advanced by the retired aerospace engineer Edward Lantz, is a space vehicle that would be accelerated first by powered sleds on the ground. Lantz believes that such a system could hurl payloads into orbit for a few hundred dollars a pound. "But ground accelerators sound like something out of a 1950s Saturday-afternoon science-fiction serial, so nobody is interested," Lantz says. "People are afraid of making low cost rather than high tech the driving element in space design."

If launch costs were driven down, projects such as space stations might become defensible, Freed from high launch costs, cost-effective space-probe programs could flower. And if new launchers allowed for cheap access to space, all manner of innovative commercial communications satellites could then be sent into orbit, cutting costs to the consumers of portable phones and other new Information Highway services.

There are sure to be space stations, moon bases, Mars flights and other great space ventures someday. Yet for NASA to insist that a space station makes sense today is like arguing about frequent-flier plans for the Concorde before the Golden Spike has been hammered into the transcontinental railroad. First must come a fiscally sane, undramatic means by which men and women can move in routine fashion between Earth and space. Then the heavens will open.