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Senator seeks new mission for NASA, but don’t write off ISS

Dec. 31, 2014

Tom Coburn, retiring U.S. senator from Oklahoma, contends that NASA has lost its way in a column in the Wall Street Journal. He bemoans the fact that the U.S. has to pay the Russians for a ride (at up to $70 million per seat) to the International Space Station, and to him, the ride isn’t worth it. He wants the U.S. to end support for the ISS and pursue a more productive goal.

But reporter and author Charles Fishman sees value in the examination of the details of life on the ISS. In the Atlantic he writes, “In the past decade, America has become a truly, permanently spacefaring nation. All day, every day, half a dozen men and women, including two Americans, are living and working in orbit, and have been since November 2000.”

Coburn wants to put an end to the ISS, saying the U.S. has very little to show for its investment. He takes the usual shot at the fact that some ISS research involves experiments designed by high school students. Full disclosure—my son worked on such an experiment, which unfortunately never flew because of the Columbia disaster. Apart from that, it seems that any NASA program should have as at least one goal the inspiration of the next generation of engineers and scientists.

As Fishman puts it in the Atlantic, “…chances are, most ninth-graders don’t know the name of a single active astronaut—many don’t even know that Americans are up there” on the ISS.

Coburn seems to want a single sound-bite goal for NASA: “go back to the moon,” or “go to Mars.” Okay, but achieving either one will require sweating the details and overcoming challenges. As Fishman puts it, “The details and challenges of life in space are weird and arresting, revealing and valuable. In them, one can begin to make out a greater purpose for the station’s 82,000 manned orbits….”

Fishman writes, “Since the station’s first components were launched, 216 men and women have lived there, and NASA has learned a lot about how to live in space—about the difference between rocketing into zero‑G for two weeks and settling in for months at a time. Day-to-day life in space is nothing like the sleek, improvisational world that TV and movie directors have created. It is more thrilling and dangerous than we earthlings appreciate, and also more choreographed and mundane.”

The choreography comes from ground control, which wants to maximize astronaut productivity. But a benefit of the ISS, Fishman writes, could be to explore how astronauts could become more autonomous—a requirement for getting to Mars and beyond. He adds, “Learning to let astronauts manage their own lives in space is going to be as hard as any engineering challenge NASA has faced—and it’s an element of space travel neither Houston nor American astronauts have any experience with.”

In a related article, Charles Seife, a journalism professor at New York University, takes to the pages of Slate to criticize “the billionaires’ space club,” which seems to consist of Richard Branson and Elon Musk.

Seife writes, “Space buffs everywhere are acting as if everyone in the world will somehow be enriched when Lady Gaga is finally able to sip pink Cristal in zero gravity. Call it the trickle-down theory of space exploration: Somehow, building a luxury-liner suborbital rocket ship for the amusement of the ultrarich, ultrafamous, and ultrabored will be a great victory for all of humanity.”

Really? Who actually thinks that? He doesn’t cite one source. As far as I’m concerned, if Lady Gaga wants to buy a ride into space and Richard Branson wants to sell her one, go right ahead. And who knows, maybe some technology will “trickle down.”

And as for Musk, his company SpaceX seems to be seriously involved in what might be called exploration.

Seife’s article does provide a useful recap of private space initiatives and is worth a read, even though I can’t really accept his argument.

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