Magazine article Insight on the News

Final-Frontier Programs Send Congress into Orbit. the Disasters aboard the Mir Space Station and the Failure of Russia to Deliver Space-Station Components, for Which They Were Paid Nearly $500 Million, May Prompt a Rethinking of the Space-Station Concept

Magazine article Insight on the News

Final-Frontier Programs Send Congress into Orbit. the Disasters aboard the Mir Space Station and the Failure of Russia to Deliver Space-Station Components, for Which They Were Paid Nearly $500 Million, May Prompt a Rethinking of the Space-Station Concept

Article excerpt

The disasters aboard the Mir space station and the failure of Russia to deliver space-station components, for which they were paid nearly 9500 million, may prompt a rethinking of the space-station concept.

The near-fatal events onboard the Russian space station Mir in July eerily coincided with the 85th anniversary of the Titanic disaster and could sink another tragically designed piece of technology: NASA's International Space Station, or ISS. And just as the lessons learned from the Titanic's flaws spurred an enormous transAtlantic tourism industry within a decade, sinking Mir and the ISS might open an even more exotic, exclusively American industry: space tourism.

The public may be ready. Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine, the bible of the aerospace industry, has detailed three recent space-tourism studies conducted in the United States Japan and the United Kingdom. The results were presented at the annual conference of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (the largest engineering society in the world) and concluded that if launched with today's technology, space tourism could be grossing $60 billion within a decade. The surveys found that 50 percent of Japan's adults and 30 percent of Americans were willing to pay three months' salary for a short stay at an orbiting hotel. Five percent said they'd pay a year's salary for such a trip.

A similar conference cohosted by NASA in Washington this year reported that the private cruise-line industry would be the most logical designer and operator of space-based tourist facilities, but decided not to publicize the idea, fearing the political power of interests supporting the $100 billion, eight-person ISS.

Vice President A1 Gore is credited by critics and supporters alike for steering the ISS into the "iceberg" of Russia's failed economy, using it as a conduit for foreign aid to Moscow. In April, NASA announced that the first shuttle launch of ISS components (scheduled for November) will have to be pushed back a year because the Russian components aren't ready.

House Science Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Science subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics Chairman Dana Rohrabacher of California were incensed. As ranking minority members in early 1994 they vocally had resisted Gore's demand to give the fiscally unstable and corruption-plagued Russian government a substantial role in this project, but the committee's Democratic then-chairman George Brown of California followed Gore's lead.

Sensenbrenner says President Clinton personally assured him on June 22, 1994, that Russia's role would not be critical, but Sensenbrenner is convinced these assurances were intentionally false. The current Mir disaster may mean that outright cancellation of ISS is near.

First supported by President Reagan in 1984 as an eight-person, $8 billion Freedom Station, this project was to be a functioning, zero-gravity lab by 1990 in which researchers could produce metal, plastic and glass combinations impossible to duplicate on Earth. But industry analysts say congressional Democrats saw it strictly as an aerospace-jobs program that would end if a station ever were built. Private industry anxious to have tons rather than ounces of the designer alloys every day, showed little interest in the tiny station, and an eight-person research facility would not be useful to high-rolling adventure tourists.

Nonetheless, fantasy abounded. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who headed the Senate Space Committee, shamelessly told the media it would be "larger than the Capitol Building." (None of the reporters bothered to ask her why it only would hold eight people.) In reality, it would be roughly the size and shape of three Winnebagos welded to two 600-foot highway guardrail sections, but the "600-foot" dimension was all Mikulski needed.

Ironically, the station's most vocal critic was Leon Panetta, who as chief of the Office of Management and Budget pointed out that the station's total lifetime cost could exceed $150 billion. …

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