Space station quest goes back to '80s
WASHINGTON, Oct. 30 —  The beginning of full-time operations aboard the International Space Station marks a milestone in a journey that began 19 years ago on Capitol Hill.

       THE SCENE IN 1981 was a confirmation hearing in Congress for NASA’s new chief and deputy chief in President Ronald Reagan’s fledgling administration. The Apollo program that put men on the moon was long finished, the new space shuttle fleet was flying and members of Congress wanted to know what the U.S. space agency should do next.
       The designated NASA Administrator James Beggs and Deputy Administrator Hans Mark gave a visionary answer: They said the world needed an orbiting laboratory in space, one which would be open to commercial involvement and which could serve as a staging point for human voyages to the moon, Mars and beyond.
       It was another two years before the idea was formally pitched to Reagan, and the pitch included not just the scientific and commercial possibilities, but the idea that the Soviet Union was fully capable of launching the same kind of station, and that the United States should try to be first.
       “What worries me is what the Soviets are up to,” Beggs and Mark wrote in notes for a meeting with Reagan in December 1983. ”What are they planning to fly in the late 1980s and 1990s? Will they be successful in their plans to dominate space?”
       Citing CIA and national security information, the notes said the Soviets planned a large permanent space station that would support up to 20 cosmonauts.
       “The Soviets have thrown down the gauntlet,” the notes said. “The stakes are enormous: leadership in space for the next 25 years.”
       On Jan. 25, 1984, Reagan made the mission official in his State of the Union address: “Tonight, I am directing NASA to develop a permanently manned space station and do it within a decade. ... NASA will invite other countries to participate so we can strengthen peace, build prosperity and expand freedom for all who share our goals.”
       It didn’t happen quite that way.
       In 1986, the Soviet space station Mir took flight — and despite well-publicized problems, it’s still aloft.
       Meanwhile, NASA had to deal with the aftermath of the explosion on the space shuttle Challenger, which killed seven astronauts and grounded the shuttle fleet for more than two years. During 1988, only two shuttles flew, compared with nine flights during the year before the Challenger disaster.
       In 1989, Soviet influence in Europe started to crumble. By the end of 1991, there was no more Soviet Union. There was also no U.S.-led international space station, despite Reagan’s deadline.
       All the while, space shuttle costs ballooned and Congress railed against the expense while the international partners — the space agencies of Europe, Japan and Canada — lambasted the unforeseen delays and design changes that appeared to impinge on the foreign-made modules.
       The project that was offered to Reagan for $8 billion now has a conservatively estimated price tag of $60 billion. Some estimates go as high as $117 billion for the total package, depending on how long the station operates.
       In a development that would have been unthinkable in Reagan’s day, the Russians are now partners in the station, a partnership that has proved problematic because of political and economic difficulties in Moscow, delaying the station’s opening and pushing costs up by billions of dollars.
       Finally, after years of postponements, the station’s first live-aboard crew is ready to move in.
       So what kind of value are the United States and its partners getting for their money?
       “It’s a foreign policy bargain and a scientific boondoggle,” said John Pike, a space analyst with the Federation of American Scientists. Pike discounted optimistic predictions about scientific advances to be made in the long-term microgravity of the space station expeditions.
       “Piloted space flight is about politics, not about science,” Pike said in a telephone interview. “The reality is that if you want science, you send a robot. You want headlines, you send a person. Politicians want headlines.”
       Phil Culbertson, who was present at the 1983 meeting with Reagan and who worked on the U.S. space program from the 1950s until his retirement from NASA in 1986, said the international station still holds the potential for microgravity research and even tourism that the original plans had in the early 1980s.
       “I can’t now predict ... how or when that kind of commercial use is going to come about,” Culbertson said by telephone from his home near Cape Canaveral, Fla. “I’m convinced that it will or the program will die.”
       It will not happen, Culbertson said, until costs for research come down.
       The other function the space station is ideally suited for is preparation for long-distance human missions around the solar system.
       Robotic spacecraft have gone to the edge of the solar system, and orbiting craft like the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory have peered trillions of miles and billions of years back in time toward the Big Bang that theoretically created the known universe.
       But humans have gone only to the moon, and they have not done that lately. In Culbertson’s view, it is time to prepare for the days when people travel to other planets.
       To do that, he said, “We will need to find out more ... about the physical and psychological aspects of a small group being confined for a very long period of time.”
       Mentioning reports of problems for crews on shuttle flights and on Mir, Culbertson said, “I’d rather find that out on a space station than halfway to Mars. We can return to the space station so simply to do things. It’s a long trip home to get a tooth pulled when you’re on the way to Mars.”
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