Backgrounder: State of the Station
The International Space Station is on hold while NASA answers calls for attention in the order in which they are received.
- By Tony Reichhardt
- Air & Space magazine, November 2003
(Page 2 of 2)
That mission will be followed by an assembly flight to attach the U.S.-built Node 2 module, which connects the modules that will be provided by Europe and Japan. By mid-2005 then (in the unlikely event that the pre-accident timetable holds), the U.S. part of the station will be finished. Sort of.
In early 2001, when George W. Bush came to Washington, his staff—including newly appointed deputy budget chief Sean O’Keefe—was appalled to learn that station managers had just discovered another $5 billion overrun. The White House took NASA to the woodshed and said the agency couldn’t go beyond “core complete”—meaning the Node 2 module—until it got its fiscal house in order. The United States will still honor its commitment to its international partners to launch and attach the Kibo (Japanese) and Columbus (European) laboratory modules, as well as any research modules cash-strapped Russia can afford. But moving beyond a three-person crew will require White House approval.
Before the Columbia accident, station managers had largely fixed their technical and budgetary problems and were on the verge of getting that go-ahead. An earlier plan to build a habitation module for the crew had been scrapped. Instead, NASA began studying ways to provide air, water, and other supplies for six or more people in the existing modules.
That makes the Orbital Space Plane the wild card in the space station’s future. O’Keefe, who—in either a clever career move or an example of karma—now heads NASA, has asked industry to accelerate designs for such a vehicle. Originally the space plane was supposed to be ready by 2010. Now NASA wants it to start flying by 2008 or sooner—a tall order.
But until it does, the space station will not be able to live up to its potential as a research laboratory, and critics will continue to express doubts about its value. Which leaves the orbiting outpost stuck again, even as the finish line finally appeared within reach.