SEATTLE — After decades of planning and years of delays, the International Space Station is now permanently manned and poised to begin its scientific mission. Though assembly is planned to continue through 2006, the recently added Destiny module - the first of six planned laboratories - is on the verge of becoming operational. Even as Expedition One - the space station's first crew - is readjusting to life with flush toilets, solid food, and gravity, the newly arrived Expedition Two crew will be at work with the station's first scientific payloads.
To many Americans, the space station embodies all that is noble with humanity. Ask, and eyes will sparkle as ordinary people marvel at this collective accomplishment of the tribe. But romance aside, not everyone is enamored. Keep asking, and you will find critics of the venture. The point of contention: a price tag that some say could top $90 billion over 15 years (NASA's estimate is $40 billion). At such cost, even the most starry-eyed enthusiasts exhibit signs of sticker shock.
Why so expensive? By any measure the project is immense: At "assembly complete," the station's 24 linked modules will make up a million-pound, self-contained biosphere zipping around the globe at 7 kilometers per second. Stretching the length and width of a football field, its volume will approach that of a medium-size strip mall. In all, 16 nations will have worked on the endeavor.
But impressive statistics aside, it is a fair question: Is it really worth it? The project is principally billed as one of science and exploration. That science is to be had onboard is certain, as is the notion that space exploration inspires us as a people. But many will argue that the $90 billion could be more effectively spent here on earth in our struggles against ignorance, disease, poverty, and violence. However, the space station has an additional aspect that, while often mentioned, is underappreciated - perhaps enormously so. I am speaking of its role as a test bed and training ground for large-scale international collaborations.
I spent a little more than a year (1999-2000) working on the International Space Station, most of this time in Moscow as a technical liaison - helping to bridge the organizational, cultural, and philosophical gap between Russian and American organizations collaborating on the project. As a result of that year, and an additional year (1993-94) as a graduate student at the Moscow Aviation Institute, I have come to view the vastness of the international collaboration as the station's preeminent value. To be clear, "on earth peace, goodwill toward men" is not the point of my comments. Rather, I am speaking of the specific experience the space station effort affords in approaching complex problems multinationally and multiculturally, from initial concept through a detailed, implemented solution. Why is this experience so important?
The "International" in the International Space Station, or ISS, came not as a gesture of goodwill; it came of necessity. The project is simply too expensive for one country to bear. But in making the project financially feasible, including so many nations has introduced additional complexity. Considerable additional complexity. In this sense, ISS becomes a metaphor for the challenges facing our planet in the coming century, and a model for tackling them. Global warming, mass extinction, overpopulation, epidemics, pandemics - all are problems whose solutions can be found only through consensus among all nations.
How much more complex does a problem become when multiple cultures and political systems are introduced? I can speak to the case of Moscow and Washington. In this world of detente and international goodwill, the media are awash with the sentiments of Americans and Russians fresh from their 10-day high school choir trips or two-week senior-citizen tours of Moscow. "We're all alike," we hear. "There is more that connects us than separates us." While the sentiment is admirable ... don't you believe it!
As individuals we may be alike, searching for meaning, happiness, love. At the societal level things are different. Snow geese and eagles are both birds, looking to eat and raise their families, but they behave very differently in their respective societies. My experiences in Moscow revealed vast cultural differences. My work on ISS leads me to believe that the most serious threats to its success stem not from engineering challenges, but from philosophical and cultural differences among the international partners. But these threats are being overcome. With diligence, the skills acquired in the ISS training ground will not be lost to the far more serious challenges ahead.
Is it worth the $90 billion? Who can say? But the next time you hear the question debated, consider that this space station is more than an orbiting laboratory - far more.
Robert Davies is a visiting professor of physics at Seattle University.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor