In the past fifteen years NASA has flown a total of 22 designated missions. Although NASA has fallen far short of the anticipated space exploration goals developed by the Reagan and Bush administrations, the Skylab has been remarkably productive. In a total of 180 days in space, scientists have generated more real scientific data than 25 years of Russian research aboard Salyut and Mir except in a few limited fields. World-class scientists form MIT, the University of California and the University of Texas, along with those from Europe, Canada and Japan have participated in these excursions.
The discoveries aboard these Skylab flights have not been the kind that immediately impacted our lives. Nevertheless, these sciences have made important discoveries which have impacted other areas. Some areas of space science such as crystal growth or pharmaceuticals have not lead to industrial breakthroughs as hoped. But, in all fairness, these experiments didn’t fail because of the scientists or the equipment. They were simply overtaken by superior science funded by private industry, and not subject to political appropriations.
It is currently anticipated that the International Space Station will not be operational for at least five or six years and that the current cost and then future growth expenditures will approach 100 billion dollars. And the opportunity to do rich and varied volumes of science is years beyond that.
So the question remains as to why is the International Space Station being built and at what expense. The Chabrow fiscal report notes that the program size, complexity and ambitious schedule goals were beyond what could be reasonably achieved within the $2.1 billion annual cap or the $17.4 billion total cap. It also noted that the uncertainty associated with our Russian partnership agreements and a number of critical risk elements are likely to adversely impact the scheduled completion of the International Space Station in a timely manner. Not surprisingly, many scientists have vociferously opposed the Space Station from the start, fearing that monies appropriated for this project would severely shortchange others. I personally know of one scientist who feels very strongly in a similar capacity. Such scientists hope to do away with space projects involving humans, especially the ones that orbit Earth in “tin cans”.
Such opposition inevitably attends the conquest of new horizons. Explorers since the beginning of time have been unable to envision the full impact of their achievements. Often, like Columbus, they made confident assessments which time has proved wrong. It usually remained for those who followed to find the real significance of the explorer’s effort and to reap benefits far greater than anticipated.