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Houston has a problem

Houston has a problem

作者:壤驷疵  时间:2019-03-08 09:03:02  人气:

By Charles Seife ON 4 December, the second component of the International Space Station roared into orbit aboard the space shuttle Endeavour. The station is the key to NASA’s ambitions to remain at the forefront of human space exploration. But as 1998 closes, those ambitions look increasingly fragile. The second component, called Unity, has now been bolted onto the Russian module Zarya, launched in November. It is basically a connector, but when Unity will acquire any further modules to connect with remains to be seen. The third major station component, the Russian Service Module, may not be ready for its scheduled launch next July. Without this module, which carries thrusters to keep the station in orbit, the partially completed structure will slowly fall from the sky. NASA must decide by March whether or not to build a temporary replacement module to keep the uncompleted space station aloft. The collapse of Russia’s economy made 1998 an extremely tough year for the station. Originally, the US had hoped that collaborating with Russia would trim $2 billion from the project’s price tag. But as the Russians scramble for funding, hardware sits in storage, launch plans must be revised and engineers stay on the payroll. Far from saving money, the Russian collaboration is actually costing billions of dollars. In April, an independent cost-assessment team headed by Jay Chabrow of JMR Associates in Las Vegas, a technology consulting firm, stated that NASA’s $17.4 billion estimate for the project was unrealistic, and suggested that the price would rise to $21 billion or more. If you include the cost of shuttle launches, the figure rises to $100 billion. And as New Scientist revealed in May, even these figures ignore the extra cost of any launch failures—which are almost certain to occur. With all these mounting costs, it is hard at first sight to see why NASA doesn’t call it quits. The station is certainly not being promoted in the interest of science. In July, the American Society for Cell Biology became the latest scientific body to say that the station would not serve any significant research purpose. It declared that crystallography experiments in microgravity—one of NASA’s crucial scientific justifications for building the station—had made “no serious contribution” to scientists’ ability to analyse protein structures or develop new drugs. So why is NASA so determined to continue with the struggling project, even at the expense of cheaper but highly promising proposals to explore the Solar System with robotic space probes? What is at stake, says NASA administrator Daniel Goldin, is the agency’s future as the torch-bearer for the human exploration of space. The space shuttle is nearly two decades old and a trip to Mars is not yet within reach. The International Space Station will keep the ball rolling until we have the ability to send astronauts beyond the Moon. “If you cancel this programme, you cancel the future of human space flight,