View of Earth from the International Space Station

After weather-related delays last Sunday, the space shuttle Endeavour and its six-member crew began its journey to the space station before dawn Monday. Their mission is to deliver the last major module to the space station, which has been under construction since 1998. Described by NASA as a “very complicated mission,” the astronauts must perform three space walks to complete their task.

From the beginning of the space station project, skeptics have wondered why we’re bothering in the first place. It began as a more politically viable alternative to aiming for Mars, because the Mars expeditions were considered too risky, too expensive, and had suffered embarrassing failures. Now we’re twenty-five years into a project that is not cheap, has cost lives, and what have we gained?

The Government Accountability Office is now asking that same question in a report released on November 25, 2009, a summary of which is available here. The primary objective of the project until 2010 had been construction of the space station itself. Research is projected to begin in earnest later this year, but it is far from certain that that research will produce new materials or technology of any kind. Meanwhile, there is currently no money designated to keeping the space station operational past 2015, making it unlikely that we’ll see any kind of return on our investment in the space station. And that’s not even considering the time and effort we wasted when we could have started exploring the solar system in a more meaningful way. Hopefully Congress will have the guts to approve a more ambitious project when it can extract itself from the space station, or, failing that, can avoid funding another dead end.

Liz Kelly

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