Ad Astra
Volume 15, Number 1 January/February 2003

By Frank Sietzen, Jr.

Karl F. Leib, writing in the recently published Space Policy for the 21st Century, makes a most telling observation about the future of space exploration. “The road to Mars passes through the space station,” he observes. And he is most correct in this observation. Bringing together a balky partnership of 16 nations, formed during the crucible of the Cold War, the station challenges policy makers as no other space project has ever done. When overlaid with the Russian Federation, the effort becomes even more daunting. Add to this the occasional technical delays faced by the space shuttle fleet, and the budget mismanagement under the NASA leadership from 1994 to 2001, and one has all of the elements of a space soap opera.

But instead, the partnership survives, and may be entering a critical stage of interdependence. If new NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe can stem the red ink hemorrhage, and find a path beyond core complete to a full-sized orbiting crew, the International Space Station may yet be the 21st Century version of the Hubble Space Telescope. That project was written off as a fiasco when its mirror-woes were discovered, rendering it a large piece of orbiting space junk. But shuttle astronauts brought Hubble back to triumph with a series of spacewalking fixes that are now among the space program’s greatest achievements. Just when so many are ready to similarly write-off the ISS, they might well pause to let the ‘system’ work.

Let’s speak bluntly: if humanity is to ever go beyond Earth orbit again with human crews, it will require an international partnership perhaps ever grander than that assembled for the station. Thus, the station project simply cannot be allowed to fail.

Which means that as the orbiting base grows in size, new methods must be found to manage and operate it. Meaning that we need to seriously begin crafting an NGO for the ISS. NGO? A Non-Governmental Organization akin to an airport-like authority that could provide management oversight of the day-to-day station operations. This, of course, would be unprecedented in a human space project. But isn’t it about time? Isn’t it about time the maturity of on-orbit operations reached the stage where no one government or one federal department could adequately oversee all of the station’s functions, come the day when its assembly is complete and its laboratories running at full capacity? That day isn’t today, but it is surely coming.

A successful International Space Station will open the way for more complex (is that possible?) and nuanced international space partnerships upon which future, more grandiose, space goals could be built. So NSS members should make sure that the number one human space goal is building out the ISS, and then arriving at a consensus of how best to manage its research programs, operations, and even tourist visitors.

Oh yes, space tourists, too. If our Russian partners continue to find humans willing to part with some of their hard-earned capital to fly to the ISS, is it not unreasonable to think that maybe the other partners could, too? Including the US? I’m not talking about hordes of picture-snapping folks cluttering the spaceways, but an occasional commercial researcher or journalist or photographer. In other words, an average citizen. Why should the Russians have all of the fun?

The station is a global resource. Increasingly, let’s think of it that way. And all work harder to advance the day when its benefits will be streaming down to Earth for all of humanity. If we want to go back to the Moon or onward to Mars, it simply must succeed. As a wise man once said, “failure is not an option.”
Ad Astra!

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