22 December 2001
- Habitat (None)
The ISS: Pro vs. Con
A debate
by Carol Pinchefsky
By Alan Breakstone and Patrick Collins

With the International Space Station ( ISS) in financial trouble and its future as a scientific laboratory in doubt, does it make sense to keep the orbiting outpost flying? The ISS program has grown into a $26.1 billion US effort, far more expensive than previous space station projects (Skylab — $9 billion US, Mir — $4.3 billion US). In the aftermath of Dennis Tito’s flight to the station, is there anything else that the ISS program can do to further space tourism? What are the pros and cons of continuing the largest and most difficult space project ever flown?


Even without serving as a science lab, the ISS is very important to space tourism and long-range space exploration (humans exploring Mars, etc.). This is because the ISS itself is the experiment: an exercise in hands-on learning about how to live and work (and play) in space for months and even years.

The station’s crews are still battling equipment problems and suffering from the short-term and long-term effects of space travel, which indicates that we still have a lot to learn and different approaches to experiment with. It is better to hone these skills in low earth orbit, where a return to earth is only an hour or so away, instead of out at the orbit of Mars, many months away from Earth.

If we are going to have hotels in space, we need to perfect our long-duration space capabilities. According to the US National Academy of Sciences, little is known about long-term effects of weightlessness and that NASA has done a terrible job of learning more about it. So seeing the ISS as the experiment makes sense. And in the meantime, we should keep using the ISS as a tourist destination. The medical information that can be gleaned aboard ISS is important for human exploration of Mars. It could also be important for long-term space tourism: not just for tourists but for space hotel staff members who might stay in orbit for months or years. We could learn how various kinds of tourists adapt to space for varying amounts of time, and let them have fun while they're doing it. Let them pioneer fun activities in orbit, for instance.

Such an experiment would be best run by an international quasi-governmental
organization along the lines proposed by the ISS Congress and the Space Frontier Foundation. This would free NASA to pursue a wider range of space exploration and RLV research programs, while freeing the station for space tourism enterprises, which would otherwise be discouraged by NASA.

So the ISS could be usefully employed as a tourist destination and as a proving ground for learning how to live in space for long periods.


While the ISS exists, it consumes vast quantities of money for activities with almost no economic value. If it didn't exist, that money could be funneled into more beneficial channels, not only in terms of reusable launch vehicle ( RLV) development, space tourism, and
other commercialization activities, but also in terms of space science.

Lest we forget, a large chunk of money that went into ISS was justified because of the ISS's promised capabilities for carrying out scientific research. But even if that money had been well spent, because of the current crew cutbacks there is no longer room for the actual scientists to carry out the research! From the point of view of NASA's space science divisions, the money the ISS takes would be better spent elsewhere. This is reinforced by the fact that none of the major science funding bodies or professional scientific bodies supports the ISS: the National Science Foundation (NSF), American Physical Society, American Chemical Society, Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, and others take the view that it is far from cost effective. (Please note: NASA's budget is more than twice the combined research budgets of the National Institutes of Health and the NSF, as Sean O'Keefe has pointed out.) In addition, the quality of micro-gravity onboard the station is far from that required for leading-edge science research.

The ISS is a black hole that absorbs funds, and it's impossible to get money allocated to useful space activities while it exists because of political pressure to use the ISS--just because it's there. So long as ISS exists, politicians and government officials will spend any amount of taxpayers' money to maintain the appearance that it is a valuable project. However, the truth is that the governments of the main European nations and Japan will all be relieved when ISS is cancelled, since this will save them hundreds of millions of dollars that they have agreed to pay NASA every year, in exchange for which they will get almost nothing of any value - a few weeks of one person's time, er, growing wheat, perhaps?

By contrast, for just $100 million they could buy a fully functioning, crew-tended space station like MirCorp's 'Mini-Station'. And for the hundreds of millions they are currently proposing to spend, MirCorp could supply them with a suite of proven, low-cost, stations - with crewed flights to and from them thrown in! Continuing the ISS is grossly irresponsible, politically-driven waste of taxpayers' money and is delaying the opening of the space frontier in order to allow those responsible for this farce to 'save face'. Taxpayers should not have to pay for that.

Although the ISS could be operated so as to do research valuable for space tourism, this is very unlikely unless it is privatised - but that would reveal to taxpayers that the current commercial value of our governments' $50 billion investment is, at most, $1 billion. Research into long-term habitation in space is irrelevant for tourism, particularly when it is performed on people who are selected for their statistically abnormal physical condition.


The diversity of opinions on the future of the ISS underscores the difficult decisions facing NASA, its new administrator, and its international partners. If we are to continue funding the financially struggling ISS, what is the justification for doing so? In particular, could the ISS represent an opportunity for space tourism, or is it simply in the way?

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Carol Pinchefsky 22 December 2001
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