AUGUST 15, 1997
While two Russian cosmonauts travelled back to Earth, the United States is trying to decide if it should stay on course with the Russian space station Mir.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, a look at whether the U.S. should stay the course with the Russian space station Mir. We begin with a background report by Kwame Holman.
KWAME HOLMAN: Two Russian cosmonauts dropped back to Earth today, having glided 200 miles from the orbiting Russian space station Mir. Their departure leaves the task of repairing the beleaguered Mir, which has suffered a series of mishaps in recent months, to the two Russians and one American still on board.
The most immediate problem for Mir is its lack of power. In June, a supply capsule rammed Mir, damaging solar panels that provided electricity. The impact also damaged a heater and may have punctured one of the six modules that comprise Mir. A new Russian crew arrived on Mir last week. Their assignment is to enter Mir's dark, airless Spektr module and attempt to restore power lost in the June collision.
No such repair mission has ever been executed. In its 11 years in space Mir has experienced hundreds of breakdowns, large and small. In February, an oxygen-generating cannister burst into flames, filling the entire station with smoke and nearly forcing the three crew members then on board to abandon ship aboard an escape capsule designed for such emergencies.
The very next month a malfunction in Mir's cooling system sent temperatures to an uncomfortable 90 degrees. Then in April, a carbon dioxide removal system broke down, causing the crew to suffer from nasal congestion. The crew ultimately managed to fix both problems. In May, astronaut Jerry Linenger was replaced by Michael Foale, the fifth American to spend time on Mir. The British-born Foale said he wasn't concerned about safety aboard Mir.
MICHAEL FOALE, NASA Astronaut: (May) I'm not worrying about this. The safety is perfectly assured. It's--what I'm preparing myself for is being away from my family and working four or five months with my crew in space.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Foale was on board when the supply capsule collision occurred a month later. And when soon after, cosmonaut Vasily Tsibliyev began experiencing heart problems with Russian doctors ultimately attributed to stress.
The problems for Mir weren't over. In July, computers malfunctioned after a cable was disconnected accidentally. And earlier this month, another oxygen generator breakdown forced the crew to use chemical canisters to create enough oxygen to breathe.
And finally, when the replacement crew arrived last week, Mir's automatic docking system didn't work properly, forcing the cosmonauts to guide their capsule to Mir manually. The United States has been a partner in the Mir project since 1993 and will have spent $472 million to train U.S. astronauts to fly to and work aboard Mir by the time the collaboration with the Russians ends in 1998. But the problems on Mir have raised concerns about another U.S.-Russian endeavor.
An international space station, now under development and expected to be operational in 2002. The football field sized space station to be called Alpha is a partnership among 15 nations. But delays have increased its price and forced liftoff of the first component of the space station to be postponed more than six months. Launched now is schedule for June of next year.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, to discuss U.S. participation in the Mir project we're joined by John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, and Robert Park, professor of physics at the University of Maryland. Thank you both for being with us. Mr. Logsdon, as we just heard, U.S. astronaut Michael Foale is on the Mir and Dr. David Wolf is training in Russia now, an American, to perhaps go in September. Should he go, given all of Mir's problems? Is it safe?
JOHN LOGSDON, George Washington University: (Houston) Well, there are a whole set of criteria that have to be met before a decision to send Wolf up will be made. The power, first of all, has to be restored to a level where Mir can be a useful facility once again. The problems with the oxygen, the problems with the water has to be addressed. If those problems are solved, then Mir is still a valuable facility and a decision to send David Wolf will be probably positive.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Logsdon, on the safety issue, even if those are fixed, given all the problems that we just heard in Kwame's piece, you think it's safe; you think that these problems don't indicate just so much that there's real dangers for astronauts.
JOHN LOGSDON: No. I think the most dangerous thing for a U.S. astronaut and one of the missions that's being launched on the shuttle, and I think Mike Foale said that before his mission; that the risk of space launch is greater than the risk of being in space aboard Mir.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Bob Park, safety.
ROBERT PARK, University of Maryland: Well, there are always hazards. It's a hazardous environment. I mean, there are the problem of meteorites, the problem of space debris, and they're always enduring a very heavy burden of radiation. And you can always find courageous men and women that are willing to do that. And what we have to decide is whether there's a compelling reason to have them there.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you don't think the Mir is unsafe. That's not a reason to decide not to send them at this point.
ROBERT PARK: Well, if it is unsafe, you have to decide what are the benefits of these missions. Does it justify putting human beings at risk? There's always risk involved.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Oh, I see what you're saying.
ROBERT PARK: It's simply a balance between what we're getting out of it and how much we're subjecting people to.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. How do you answer that question?
ROBERT PARK: I don't think even when it was working well that it justified the--either the expenditure of a risk--the scientific returns have been meager. I think what we have learned in the years of humans in space has been terribly important but what we have learned primarily is that first of all it's a very bad environment for human beings. Aside from the risk to your life, there is the burden of radiation.
There are the effects of weightlessness on the body, which are severe and long lasting. So it's always a bad environment. The other thing we've learned is that we can do better and better with robots. I mean, the vision of the future is on Mars right now. That little lap-sized robot up there is doing just great. And the--he never breaks for lunch or complains about the cold. And when we're through with him, we'll just leave him there, or she, rather.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Logsdon, how do you answer that, that the scientific reasons just don't compel staying with the Mir project?
JOHN LOGSDON: Well, I think it's a bit of a red herring to bring up--maybe literally red--to bring up a Mars exploration. I mean, the kind of science that's being done on Mars ultimately I think will be done by human explorers. But what will be done on--what has been done on Mir and what more to the point will be done on an international space station is a different kind of science. It really does need human involvement and intervention, material science, life science research.
We see Sen. Glenn asking to go up on a shuttle mission because of the work related to problems of aging. So there are different types of science. There isn't one thing called science in space. There are lots of different disciplines, and the ones that are going to be advanced by human involvement in Earth orbit are very different than deep space exploration.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mr. Logsdon, the Russians argue that just being there and solving these problems is--is excellent science in itself; that anybody on a space station will have to be able to solve problems like hatches that won't open, or pipes that don't work. Is that part of the science that is important?
JOHN LOGSDON: Well, I'm not sure I'd call it science. It's training.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Training.
JOHN LOGSDON: It's experience. I mean, Bob Park is very honest in saying he doesn't believe that humans in space are worth doing in the first place. And if you believe that, then the problems with Mir are not worth the risks, I think. But if you think the long-term future, space includes human presence, if you think that we're going to build a space station someday through lots of assembly, then all the experience we're getting working with the Russian partners on Mir is a bargain at $472 million. That's about the price of one shuttle launch. And this is spread over five years. I think it's one of the best buys for benefits to the U.S. space program that we've ever had.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about that, Mr. Park? Just having the Russians' experience and now the Americans' experience for less time, living under these circumstances, you don't think it's worth it, but you don't think people should be in space?
ROBERT PARK: That's wonderful spin control. I mean, the idea that we're up there learning to meet challenges, we don't usually put human beings in danger just to--just to see how they react to the kinds of challenges that they're having on Mir. No, I think the problems are serious. They keep going on.
We're having more of them now, and at the root of it, it is not that no science is done on space stations; the question is: Is this science that is worth the cost? This is not cheap. A space station is a terribly expensive undertaking. Mir for us is relatively cheap. The large expenditures have been made already by the Russians. But we face an enormous expenditure over a lot of years. And the question is: What research are we ruling out by investing our resources in lower Earth orbit? I mean, we're up there, dodging the debris from hundreds of previous missions. That's not exploration.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So, now let's move ahead, Mr. Park, into the international space station. So you don't think any of that expenditure will be worth it either. You'd like to do something different with that money?
ROBERT PARK: I think it's a serious question. The scientific community, I think, there's very little doubt most scientists do not believe that you can justify a space station on the basis of the science.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And is part of your reason for this also the cooperation with Russia; that you don't think we should do that?
ROBERT PARK: Well, that's another matter. Most scientists believe if you can justify the space station, it has to be on the grounds of international relations; that certainly it is good to work with other countries. It's good to develop these mechanisms. And from that standpoint, if you're going to justify the space station, it has got to be justified on the grounds of international relations. You can't do it on the basis of the science.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you wouldn't argue against it just on the basis that the Russians won't be able to make a safe space station, or something like that?
ROBERT PARK: No, that--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay.
ROBERT PARK: You've got to weigh a lot of things.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You're making a different kind of argument. I see. Mr. Logsdon, on the argument whether the international space station and cooperating with the Russians is worth it just in scientific terms.
JOHN LOGSDON: Well, I don't see why it has to be justified on any one criteria. It's a complex endeavor. There is science that's going to be done. It's science that can't be done in any other environment, except the--the absence of gravity in space. There are lots of security and cooperation benefits of working with the Russians and with the other 13 partner countries. There is the preparation, both managerially and with experience for eventual human travel once again beyond Earth orbit. So there are a whole set of justifications, I think, for this program. And to me, they add up cumulatively to a reason to go ahead with it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think of that?
ROBERT PARK: Well, I think, you know, that's a judgment I can't really make. All I can judge is the science. And, as I say, you really can't justify it on that basis. And I think almost all scientists agree with that. There are other reasons for having a space station.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You have such a strong difference on this. You say most scientists would not think that you can justify it on the basis of science, and you disagree with that, Mr. Logsdon. Tell us again, what is it that we're really getting from this that makes it worthwhile?
JOHN LOGSDON: Well, what is this? Now, what we're getting from--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: From the experience with the Russians on Mir and the coming space station. Mir is part of one of the space stations.
JOHN LOGSDON: That's right. Mir is phase one of a plan that really extends into the indefinite future for cooperation among the major countries of the world and more and more want to join in, in the process of space development, including both robotic and human missions. So what we're doing is, is taking initial steps into a long-term future that I think will include human presence back on the Moon and someday in the not terribly distant future initial explorations to Mars.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And your final words on this? We're just about out of time.
ROBERT PARK: I think it's questionable that we will ever go to Mars. Perhaps we will, but I think it's--we have an opportunity now. There is a delay and maybe we ought to start rethinking this whole project.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Well, thank you both very much for being with us.