Construction costs consume most of the space station's budget, which was either sorely underestimated and/or grossly mismanaged over the past several years, independent oversight panels have concluded in a flurry of critical reports. Bailing out of the mess, however, is proving just as slippery.
A huge 44-foot-long truss segment rests in the cargo bay of space shuttle Atlantis. It is the spinal column of an expanded orbital complex intended to include laboratory modules owned by the Japanese and European space agencies. Launch is scheduled for 5:13 p.m. ET April 4.
"It will allow us to make the space station even more valuable in terms of a research facility," said astronaut Steven Smith, one of four Atlantis crewmen scheduled for spacewalks to attach the 15-ton structure to the top of the U.S. laboratory.
Woven into the truss are power, communications and cooling lines to support the entire complex. Future shuttle crews are to deliver additional truss segments, solar arrays and other equipment to build out the station to its planned 360-foot length. NASA even has paid for a mobile crane and carts to help its spacewalking construction teams.
Inside the station it is a different story. Experiment racks have been canceled, research programs have been cut and the station crew size has been stagnant at three, which is the crew needed to just operate the complex, let alone conduct research.
"I'm afraid we've built this beautiful Hilton Hotel, but it doesn't have any furniture and it doesn't have any staff to support it," said Martin Fettman, a University of Colorado dean who headed a National Research Council panel that disbanded after the members resigned to protest NASA's handling of space station research issues.
When NASA's $4 billion to $5 billion cost overrun came to light, the agency was told it would have to absorb the expense by cutting other programs. The Bush administration hired a top director from the Office of Management and Budget to run NASA and capped the station budget at $1.5 billion a year.
"The main thing they're doing now is holding the budget line," said Robert Sekerta, a Carnegie Mellon University physicist who chairs a NASA science advisory group. "But guess what gets cut? We're talking about 75 percent, 80 percent cutbacks in science."
For its part, NASA said it must focus on fulfilling its obligations to the international space station partners by providing the framework and facilities for their modules. Upon completion, now expected in 2004, the agency will be able to focus on equipping the labs and expanding the crew size, station program director Tommy Holloway said.
For scientists, that may be too late.
"Whatever we end up with, it's just going to be a miniscule fraction of what was initially contemplated," Sekerta said. "From a national point of view, this huge investment in the International Space Station isn't going to fulfill the potential that it was supposed to. When Congress allocated all that money, I don't think they did it just for the glory of flying around up there."
Added Fettman, "We've lost the momentum, we've lost the interest of future researchers."
"I used to be little Miss Mary Sunshine about the space program," said Fettman, who flew on a space shuttle research mission 10 years ago. "I looked at problems as opportunities, I tried not to criticize. But now I think we've taken one giant leap backward for mankind."