Less than a year from now, in November 1997, the first pieces in mankind's most expensive project ever will be moved into place. The notional construction cost is $NZ38 billion, but over its ten-year life it is likely that the entire project will absorb $140 billion. The project is the International Space Station (ISS).
Plans for a space station first surfaced during the Reagan presidency 12 years ago. Back then, in the Cold War era, the project was to be largely American a masthead for US technological ascendancy over the "evil empire."
Then the Challenger disaster caused a major reevaluation of the shuttle programme, funds became scarcer, costs rose, the political permafrost thawed and the space station metamorphosed into a broader international effort. Now the first module will be Russian built and launched on a Russian Proton rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Other partners in the ISS are Canada, Japan, Italy, Germany, Britain, France, Belgium, Spain, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark. Barring delays, construction should be completed in 2002, and the station will have an operational life of 10 years.
Different countries or groups of countries are constructing modules that will be gradually linked up in orbit to form the huge complex.
The whole programme has been divided into three phases. Phase I commenced on February 3, 1994, when the first Russian cosmonaut flew on a US spacecraft. Since then, the US space shuttle has repeatedly nuzzled up to the small Russian space station Mir, which has hosted a succession of US astronauts. At least one American will remain on Mir until Phase II gets under way in November 1997.
Assembly of the ISS in space actually starts that month with the launch of the 20-tonne Russian FGB module, which provides altitude control, propulsion and some solar power for the nascent structure, together with docking points for further modules. Other components to be added during Phase II will be a US resource module, a Russian service module with sleeping and living space, a crew transfer vehicle (CTV) handy for getting back to earth if the shuttle is busy elsewhere in the galaxy and a US laboratory module with room for experimental equipment
Work on the truss, a huge beam to which a lot of other gear will eventually be attached, will also start during Phase II.Phase III, starting in February 1999, will see assembly conclude and progressive use made of the facilities. Components to be attached will include an airlock module (making space walks easier when an orbiter isn't about), a Japanese experimental module (with a special "front porch" to expose equipment and experiments to space), a European laboratory containing robotic equipment to assist scientists, the US habitation module, a second CTV and a US centrifuge module which will simulate low gravity, such as that found on Mars (only a third that of Earth's). The truss will lengthen to its full 100-plus metres and slowly gain its array of solar panels, antennae, cameras, temperature control equipment and the like.
Completed, the ISS will weigh 460 tonnes, extend over an area the size of 14 tennis courts, enclose a workspace the volume of two jumbo jets pressurised to atmospheric pressure, and have a crew of six.
Twenty-seven US shuttle flights, a couple of European Space Agency flights and 44 Russian flights will be required to get all the components up there.
Lifting each kilogram of materials to the construction site some 390 kilometres above Earth will cost $30,000-$50,000. Eight arrays of photovoltaic cells, each about 30 m by 13 m, and rotatable so that they can always face the Sun, will generate 92 kW of electricity to power the station and its experimental apparatus.
Yet perhaps the most startling fact about the space station is not a physical detail at all. It is that the whole grand enterprise has no strong scientific justification whatsover. Rather, it seems to be a flag-waving exercise with a very expensive flag on an enormous, although imaginary, pole. And it is not easy to determine at whom the flag is being waved.
Space programmes have always been a bit thin in the "Practical Benefits To Mankind" department, but have usually got by because, like Adam and Eve in the garden, we are still tempted to reach for what is off-limits or apparently unattainable.
Scientific justifications answering questions about the nature of the Moon and planets, and why they lack seas, volcanoes and pandas, and how big is the universe anyway? have also tugged at the mystery chord not just of funding agencies but of quite a few of the rest of us.
In recent years, much has been gleaned about the solar system from relatively inexpensive unmanned probes, and most scientists are keen that these sorts of missions should continue. Space close to Earth has been examined pretty closely for almost 40 years now, and probably holds fewer surprises than does an average cubic metre of seawater.
As an observation platform for mounting instruments that scan more distant parts of the universe, the ISS has a severe drawback. All the activity aboard, especially human activity, will cause vibration a kiss of death for precise measuring instruments and vapour produced on and vented from the platform will also compromise observations.
At a time when funding for all sorts of science, including space science, is in short supply, many scientists regard the ISS as a real threat to more worthwhile endeavours.
For a while, there was a lot of interest in the possibilities of doing manufacturing activities in the microgravity environment of near space, but in recent years enthusiasm from both researchers and companies has waned.
The growing of protein crystals (crystalline forms of life's most important building blocks) is a case in point. In the absence of gravity, crystals of larger size and with fewer defects can be produced than in the normal laboratory environment. However, for each protein, a battery of growing conditions need to be established even in space, so the cost of a crystal could well exceed $1 million Quite a bit can be accomplished on terra firma with that sort of money.
The 3M company was for a time interested in the possibilities offered by space for making thin films and polymers, important in semiconductor research for electronics and computers, but the enormous cost of space work has squelched their enthusiasm.
Molecular beam epitaxy is a technique for producing thin, single-crystal layers of materials such as semi conductors, and it works well in the high vacuum of space. Unfortunately, the vapour emitted by the ISS means that molecular beam epitaxy cannot be used within 80 kilometres of the platform.
Other materials research in space has produced tantalising results, but there is no commercial interest in doing this work on the space station at present. Many microgravity phenomena can be studied in aircraft flying parabolic trajectories, or aboard unmanned spacecraft, at much less cost.
Perhaps less scientific ventures will keep the space station in business. An Arizona optics manufacturer thinks that more permeable contact lenses can be made in space. Coca-Cola has conducted experiments on how to dispense fizzy drinks in orbit, and could be interested in more as long as the publicity is right. In fact, the behaviour of liquids in microgravity is peculiar in many respects, and worthy of further study. Combustion is also odd, because of the absence of convection currents. Candle flames are spherical in the absence of gravity, and quickly go out. Basic studies of the combustion process could improve the efficiency of internal combustion engines, according to NASA, but car manufacturers don't seem to be lining up.
Plants and animals develop abnormally in the absence of gravity, and experiments are planned in this area, but the relevance of the findings is questionable.
Curiously, human health has become the area of greatest emphasis in the ISS scientific programme. In space, bones lose calcium starting after only 24 hours of weightlessness—muscles atrophy quickly, and sleep patterns and biological rhythms are dislocated. A variety of studies into health issues associated with weightlessness and the space environment are planned.
Yet studies of long periods spent in space are only of interest if humans plan to spend even longer there sometime in the future. NASA argues that humans will want to visit Mars some day. Critics respond that cost alone means that that day is still decades away.
NASA likes to emphasise that its studies will be relevant to the human health of non-astronauts. For instance, women's health issues are one of the ISS's areas of interest, and NASA has spun tenuous webs between its programmes and osteoporosis, breast cancer, endometriosis, cardiovascular research and balance disorders.
As might be expected, NASA has cast its net wide in search of endorsements and justifications for the ISS, but many still have a hollow echo. For instance, hear heart specialist Dr Michael DeBakey: "Better health care of our citizens is not at odds with a space station .. . our space program and space station are not frivolous, because they may provide keys to solving some of the most vexing problems that affect our people."
Another justification goes: "[The ISS] will channel the aerospace industry of Russia and other countries into nonmilitary pursuits to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation, and slow traffic in high-technology weaponry to developing nations."
Here's a novel argument: "Space science is a catalyst for academic achievement. Enrolment trends of US college students majoring in science and engineering track closely with the funding trends of the US space program." Even more down-home is the announcement that "Teachers across the nation are already using Space Station concepts in the classroom .. . Communities and States conduct 'Space Week,' in which students live in a bus outfitted as a Space Station."
Regardless of the shakiness of its scientific foundations, the space station seems to have gathered sufficient political momentum in the US and elsewhere to have got off the ground. Despite Copernicus, very earthly events and considerations would still seem to determine what happens in space.