Space station under attack

July 3, 1998

Space science is under threat from missions that take place for political rather than scientific reasons, according to a study of 13 joint US-European missions.

To avoid failure, there must be a compelling scientific reason for each mission, says the report of a committee set up by the European Science Foundation, which represents about 60 national funding agencies, and the US National Research Council. The report took more than three years to produce.

It attacks the International Space Station, which will cost an estimated Pounds 100 billion to build and operate for ten years. "The space station's role may be abundantly clear within the agencies but does not appear to have been agreed upon and clearly stated to the communities it is to serve," it states.

The report calls on Nasa and its partners to "unequivocally define the purpose, goals and objectives of the space station". Launch of the first element of the space station has been delayed and is now scheduled for later this year.

Fred Taylor, of the University of Oxford and a committee member, said that cash restraints on space science make collaboration more appealing. But organisational differences can threaten joint missions. "NASA plans its missions centrally ... but in Europe, we don't have an integrated structure at all," he said.

The report calls for regular independent assessments of missions to check their scientific vitality, timeliness and see if they needed extra funding.

Eloquent leaders with a strong commitment to international co-operation and excellent interpersonal skills should also be selected to head the collaborations, the report recommends. Such leaders are needed to seek practical ways of minimising the friction in joint European and US missions.

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