Just why do we have a space station, anyway? That's a question of relevance, because it turns out we might not have one after 2015. The International Space Science Station (ISS) is a football-field sized structure able to support six people 220 miles above us. It is a symbol of international cooperation, a marvel of technology, a new site for tourism and, to some, a project to be terminated in 2015.

What we've gotten from it? Some intangibles, some useful stuff.

  • advancing our space capability

  • increasing our limits on how long people can live in orbit

  • keeping nuclear scientists from going rogue after the breakup of the Soviet Union

  • research that benefits Earth

On this last point, NASA just published a report on eight years of ISS science. "The report includes more than 100 science experiments ranging from bone studies to materials research", including "advances in the fight against food poisoning, new methods for delivering medicine to cancer cells, and better materials for future spacecraft".

And the ISS isn't even completely built. Construction, which began back in 1998, completes in 2011. After that comes the tourists.

The Russian media (RIA Novosti) report that US commercial startup Space Adventures (SA) plans to be ready to send 2 tourists on each space trip. With a start date of 2012 and an initial price tag of $35 million for a 10-day trip, they already have at least one ticket sold (to Google's Brin).

Just to operate the ISS normally requires some sort of space vehicle to get there. With the US shuttle program being ended, and the next big launcher not yet set in stone, that falls upon the Russians and their Energia/Soyuz spacecraft. The ISS (notes SA's Russian lead, Sergey Kostenko) requires 4 Soyuz, and they in turn expect SA to pay to construct a 5th Soyuz, and cover launch and crew costs for the tourism portion.

Tourists have flown to the ISS since 2001, a feat which fills me with libertarian glee. Tito, Shuttleworth, Olsen, Ansari, Garriott, Simonyi, and Laliberte aren't exactly Aldrin-Armstrong-Collins in terms of historical name-checking, but they are the first crop of space tourists.

If the next batch of tourists start in 2012, what happens in 2015? As reported by Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach, we burn it. He cites NASA program manager Michael T. Suffredini stating "In the first quarter of 2016, we'll prep and de-orbit the spacecraft."

Joel poetically notes "That's a polite way of saying that NASA will make the space station fall back into the atmosphere, where it will turn into a fireball and then crash into the Pacific Ocean. It'll be a controlled reentry, to ensure that it doesn't take out a major city. But it'll be destroyed as surely as a Lego palace obliterated by the sweeping arm of a suddenly bored kid."

ISS image from APOD
The International Space Station Over Earth, Credit: STS-128 Crew, NASA; image via APOD.

Some speculate this is just political posturing, that by emphasizing NASA needs fund or they'll crash the ISS, the US Congress will pony up funds. However, as found with Apollo, with Skylab, with-- oh, heck, with just about every space program, eventually-- Congress has no compulsion against turning off space hardware.

At the same time, we have a growing private space industry. I've talked about it a bit here, including both the successes and the risks. Leonard David has an article at space.com summarizing industry views on commercial spacecraft.

In particular, he cites a cautionary view from "The Space Show" host David Livingston, as follows:

"The risk here is that as the extremes in the claims, rhetoric, and drama get exposed to the light of the day as being nothing more than what they are, they fuel the arguments and unenlightened ways of those in power - or in influential positions - and they add to the risks of sidetracking or slowing down commercial space development".

I'm going to quote an 'ordinary citizen' named Calvin, who had a good, if somewhat bleak, summary of what the commercial sector holds in his slashdot post.

"Space Adventures is a U.S. company; they're just using the Russian space program to send clients into space. Nothing is really being pioneered here, not even by the Russians. They haven't designed a new launch vehicle. They haven't made space travel more affordable. They haven't made it significantly safer, either. [...] This is akin to renting out our cutting edge nuclear subs to the rich and famous to use as a weekend pleasure vessel. Yea, it's 'pioneering' in the sense that it hasn't been done before, but it's not exactly an enviable achievement."

So what I see is a very tentative future. We have the international government effort, the ISS, which might or might not get funded. We have commercial ventures, which may or may not succeed. And we have... well, there isn't a middle. Space remains a hard problem. Space research returns dividends, but talking about spinoffs and technology transfer doesn't pay the bills.

Calvin had a good summary, with which I agree in my own biased way, as to what NASA should do. He notes, "I think it's a good thing that NASA has the federal funding to focus on science rather than having to rent themselves out as a space taxi for the rich for funding. If private companies want to invest in space tourism, that's their prerogative. That's not what NASA was created for. If anything, they should stick to developing cutting-edge technology (which eventually gets passed down to the civilian sector after they've matured and decreased in cost) and leave the commercialization of space to the private sector."

Our national space program is often at the mercy of funding cycles and political whim, and private space ventures are just starting to get traction. The question is more than just "if the ISS plummets into the atmosphere, where will the poor tourists go?"

The ISS is not 'all space exploration', but it is the largest single platform ever to be put in space, a first foothold. The question is broader than just why do we have a space station. The question is what would we lose if we stop space exploration now.

We are in the precarious gap years. Unlike post-Apollo, we now can see viable private sector movement into space. But we also can see the necessity of governmental investment until private industry carries on. We have facts-- the above NASA report, the growth of private ventures. But do we have the will to continue?

Alex, The Daytime Astronomer, Tues&Fri here, via RSS feed, and twitter @skyday

Read about my own private space venture in The Satellite Diaries