WASHINGTON - Joining a chorus of academics and researchers, a panel of scientists yesterday released a report concluding that a crew of more than three people on the international space station is "essential" to doing valuable work on board the orbiting laboratory.
The National Academy of Sciences' Space Studies Board urged NASA to put the money needed to enlarge the station to a six- or seven-person capacity, or risk failure of the mission for which the project was designed.
"If the primary objective of the ISS is indeed to be a world-class laboratory in space, then the cost-benefit of taking this course of action is obvious," the report states. "Not to do so would be akin to building a million-dollar home but stopping short of running electrical and water services to it.
"Without plans and decisions based on cross-disciplinary priorities that are clearly articulated and supported by corresponding allocations of resources, the ISS can never achieve the status of a world-class research laboratory."
The report echoes the findings of a group of scientists commissioned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to look at the scientific possibilities aboard the station. That report, released in July, stopped short of recommending that NASA go beyond three people. But those 20 scientists stressed that that the project would not live up to its billing as a platform for groundbreaking research without more manpower, extra space on board and additional transportation opportunities to and from the station.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe has consistently said that he would not seek the money for a larger station unless there were compelling scientific reasons for doing so. In his previous job, as deputy White House budget director, he helped put together the package of budget cuts that slashed the project's estimated $4 billion in cost overruns over five years.
But in scaling back the project, NASA drew the wrath of its international partners in the station and further irritated the scientific community, which has long been dubious about the station's research potential.
During a meeting with reporters yesterday, O'Keefe said the NASA report and the findings of the Space Studies Board will be helpful in figuring out where to go with the project once the basic foundation, known as "core complete," is finished in 2004.
"Until we reach core complete, in 17 months and 10 days, we've got nothing to talk about," he said. "We ought to think about what the configuration is going to look like over time, not based on what your favorite number is, or how many arrayed different national patches you'd like to see, but what are the scientific objectives there we have to pursue?"
O'Keefe said the researchers' input is essential because it is helping NASA begin to set its goals for the station. He added that the agency's 2004 budget request, which is in the early stages of preparation, will include money for station elements that may be needed in later years if the project ends up in the larger configuration.
"We are prepared to look at any permutation of what the station should look like ... if it's driven by those kinds of objectives," he said. "What we're desperately trying to do is look at preserving the option to look at any configuration, and not shutting off those opportunities."
Gwyneth K. Shaw is a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.