It is the largest artificial satellite known to exist – the result of an impressive international collaboration involving all the major players in space exploration. But what now?
The European Space Agency’s Director General, Jean-Jacques Dordain wants to know. The ISS is tentatively scheduled to be completed in 2011, and to operate for four years until its decomissioning in 2015. That is, to use the old Apollo adage, “if all goes well”. There is a possibility that the station may survive for longer than that, but the uncertainty is hampering potential projects requiring the station. Dordain believes the station should operate until at least 2020, but not all share his belief that the station is worth the investment.
Why have the space station at all? We still don’t fully understand the effects of microgravity on human beings, as well as quite a lot of other things – look at the difference between a flame in Earth’s gravity and a flame in low gravity!Many things change when gravity goes away – as it decreases, human immune responses are activated and deactivated, chemical reactions change pace, sometimes creating new exotic molecules that could never exist on Earth. If you’re thinking about long term habitation of the Moon or Mars, you’ll need to think hard about how your body will deal with microgravity.
Many people are thinking hard about it, too – America is reviewing its manned exploration program, which has an unappetising budget and a formidable reputation to live up to. Will the ISS fare well? Who knows. The Space Shuttle rapidly approaches its demise: NASA will soon have no launch vehicle. The onus will fall on Soyuz (and the Automated Transfer Vehicle christened “Kepler”) to pick up the slack, and continue to service the station and help maintain its orbit above the Earth.
I for one certainly feel that the ISS has a great deal of potential for scientific discovery and manned exploration, but needs more time to bring these fruits to their ripest. If we can corral off some funds to keep the station in orbit into the next decade, then I think we’ll start to see something really special. What do you think? I look forward to hearing your comments.