WASHINGTON — The International Space Station this week gets a full crew of six scientists and engineers for the first time and, perhaps, starts paying off its $100 billion price tag.
On Wednesday, three astronauts — a Russian, a Canadian and a Belgian — are to ride a Russian Soyuz spacecraft from Kazakhstan up to the nearly completed space station, the first long-term human habitat in space. They're due to arrive Friday morning.
There they will join three others, an American, a Japanese and a second Russian, who're already circling 250 miles above Earth, at 17,000 miles an hour.
The space station, which is as big as a football field, has been occupied continuously since the first three-man crew boarded on Nov. 2, 2000. Only now, however, will it have enough people to operate the multiple scientific laboratories attached to its ungainly frame as well as carry out the many time-consuming tasks needed simply to keep its passengers alive and functioning.
Finally, the station is "about to get out of housekeeping and (into) doing science,'' John Olson, an official in NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, told a panel of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this month.
NASA Acting Administrator Christopher Scolese said the five ISS partner nations "are working together to realize one of the most inspiring dreams of the last 50 years: the establishment of a station in Earth orbit for the conduct of various types of research.''
Science was the original advertised purpose of the station when it was proposed early in the Clinton administration. Since then, however, financial and technical difficulties have severely cut back the science portion of the project.
It's been scorned by many in the science community as an "albatross'' or "white elephant,'' and a waste of money that could be better spent in earthly laboratories.
No scientific papers based on research on the ISS have been published in peer-reviewed journals, said a leading critic, Robert Park, a physicist at the University of Maryland and a longtime spokesman for American Physical Society.
"The sad fact is that they're spending $100 billion on the assumption that there must be a lot of things to study out there, when in fact the only unique variable on the ISS is gravity, and because gravity is such a weak force compared to inter-atom forces, it's just not important research,'' Park said. "NASA has been told this repeatedly, but they simply choose not to listen.''
The official ISS work schedule for a typical day, April 29, 2008, showed that the crew was to spend three hours and 20 minutes on relatively trivial science experiments, such as one studying how a flame behaves in near-zero gravity.
The next day, April 30, three hours and 25 minutes were given to science. Most of that time was spent collecting and incubating microbes harvested from outside the station to see if any could be harmful. They also worked on an experiment to see how a spinning top behaves in space.
The remaining 20-plus hours on those days were spent maintaining the station and attending to the crew's personal needs: mostly eating, sleeping and exercising.
In 2005, a year after then-President George W. Bush announced his plan for human space exploration, NASA declared that, from then on, the main purpose of the station wouldn't be science, but research to support humans on flights lasting months or years to the moon, Mars or elsewhere in the solar system.
As a result, much of the crew's work has focused on such problems as bone and muscle loss in weightlessness, protection against deadly radiation in space, and how to grow food and recycle waste.
"We're going to need all that (information) for Mars,'' said NASA's Olson.
Another major unsolved problem is getting from Earth to the ISS and back. NASA plans only eight remaining flights for its aging space shuttles, which carry the bulk of the crew and cargo to the station. The three remaining shuttles, Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour, are supposed to be retired at the end of next year, and the fleet's successor, the Constellation system, won't be ready until 2015 at the earliest.
So for at least five years, Russia's much smaller Soyuz will be the only available transport vehicle. It can carry people but very little cargo. NASA has contracts with two commercial companies, Space X of Hawthorne, Calif., and Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Va., to supply the ISS, but it's not clear when they'll be ready.
Until 2015, "We have no independent capability to get to the ISS,'' said Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee.
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