NASA has some decisions to make. After a quarter-century of work and nearly $100 billion, the International Space Station is almost completed. But that is a bittersweet milestone since, just as the space station becomes fully functional, the United States is set to retire its space shuttle fleet and reassess NASA's mission. The Obama administration, Congress and the space agency need a plan for maximizing this asset, which contributes to both science and global security.
So far, America and the 14 international partners in the space station have spent most of their time building the orbiting lab. Once construction ends next year, the focus turns to research. But 2010 is also the date that the United States has set to retire its shuttle fleet, a workhorse for the space station. And NASA has no money budgeted for the station beyond 2015. Without a change in course, NASA will have just a five-year window for research at the space station after spending at least $49 billion in direct costs for the project since 1994. Walking away would be a waste of money and a loss for research and diplomacy.
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, recounted this month the senselessness of spending 25 years building the space station only to operate it for another five. With construction completed, the station can be a full-time lab for many types of research, from space exploration to life sciences. There is room on board for even more commercial applications of research and development. The station also has been a valuable confidence-building tool for the United States, Russia and the Europeans, as they look to restrain nuclear weapons proliferation and the militarization of space.
The administration and NASA need to develop an action plan for the station, and Congress needs to show its support. Given the long lag time that research requires, especially to develop technology for the marketplace, the private sector will need to see a strong commitment by NASA and Congress before it steps up as a major partner in the station. Florida has much at stake, too, with the planned retirement of the shuttle. The station needs a clear, strong mission now that its astronauts can devote their time to research.