The Device NASA Is Leaving Behind
Sunday, December 2, 2007
After years of delays, NASA hopes to launch this week a European-built laboratory that will greatly expand the research capability of the international space station. Although some call it a milestone, the launch has focused new attention on the space agency's earlier decision to back out of plans to send up a different, $1.5 billion device -- one that many scientists contend would produce far more significant knowledge.
The instrument, which would detect and measure cosmic rays in a new way, took 500 physicists from around the world 12 years to build. But with room on the 10 remaining shuttle missions to the space station in short supply, many fear that it will remain forever warehoused on Earth, becoming the most sophisticated and costly white elephant of the space era.
As a result, the imminent launch of the $1 billion Columbus laboratory -- the kind of scientific workspace that the station's backers always said would be its reason for being -- will take place under something of a cloud.
"We are very excited about the launch of Columbus and believe this will be a major step forward for the international space station," said Martin Zell, who is involved with the European space laboratory as head of research operations for the European Space Agency and is also a coordinator for development of the cosmic ray project.
"But if the [other device] does not make it to the station, it will be a very great setback for the space community and the ISS," Zell said. "It would be the most visible, perhaps the most exciting, experiment on the station."
While the Columbus laboratory will allow scientists to conduct long-term biological, fluid and materials science research in weightless conditions, the cosmic ray detector -- called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) -- would look for evidence of how the universe formed. It would search in particular for evidence of the existence and workings of dark matter and antimatter, which theorists have concluded must exist but have never been identified or measured.
The science is considered innovative and important -- a major Department of Energy scientific review recently concluded that it "may well make some fundamental discoveries." But the fate of the instrument also has significant implications for international cooperation in space.
"The credibility of the United States is at stake here, because NASA made a commitment to bring Columbus and AMS to the space station," said Samuel C.C. Ting, a Nobel laureate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who conceived the project in 1994 and drew in collaborators from 60 institutes in 16 nations to build and fund it. "After all this work, it would be a terrible blow if the instrument cannot be used."
"Given all that has happened with the shuttle program, there is no reason to throw harsh words at NASA about this," said Giovanni Bignami, president of the Italian Space Agency, which has played a major role in developing the AMS. "But that said, it would be a true international disgrace if this instrument ends up as a museum piece that never is used."
The space station was built with four attachment sites that can mount experiments that need direct exposure to space -- and one was designated for the AMS. The project was sponsored by the Department of Energy in 1995, and NASA made a signed commitment to deliver the instrument to the station. Ting said the nations that collaborated on the project did so only because NASA promised delivery.
But that was before technical and funding problems slowed assembly of the space station, and before the loss of the Columbia shuttle and its crew on Feb. 1, 2003, halted all shuttle missions for 2 1/2 years. President Bush's 2005 manned exploration initiative -- which aims to develop a new spacecraft to travel to the moon and later to Mars -- formally lowered the priority of doing basic science on the station. The AMS was bumped soon after.
NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin has been firm in saying that the shuttles will be retired in 2010 -- in large part because NASA needs the funds to pay for the new spacecraft -- and that finishing assembly of the station, at an estimated cost of $100 billion over two decades, is the top priority for the remaining shuttle missions. Griffin initiated a study last year into alternative ways to deliver the AMS to the station, but they proved to be prohibitively expensive.