July 1, 2005

President Bush’s vision for the US space program turns out to be no vision at all for many biologists. To revive flagging enthusiasm for sending humans beyond Earth, the president proposed last year that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) should work toward sending astronauts back to the moon by 2020, with a view to later launching crews to Mars.

There are reasons to doubt the political viability of the long-term goal. In 1989, the president’s father proposed a similar space exploration initiative that vanished within a few years. The same fate may yet befall the 2004 version, but there is a more immediate concern: the plan envisages a new role for the International Space Station, the future of which has been in doubt since the Columbia tragedy in 2003. The new vision requires that the orbital outpost be dedicated to research aimed at enabling astronauts to survive the harsh radiation environment of interplanetary space for a journey lasting several months.

That goal is challenging enough, but NASA budget planning documents indicate that in order to pay for the vision, some $160 million worth of station-based biological and physical flight research, as well as related ground research, will have to be phased out. The Advanced Animal Habitat, the last surviving biological research facility from the original station design, would be cancelled, and the retirement of the shuttle by 2010—required by the presidential vision—would put the kibosh on the Centrifuge Accommodation Module being developed by the Japanese Space Agency. The centrifuge, which had been scheduled for launch in 2009, was to have allowed the long-term study of the effects of varying gravity levels on generations of experimental organisms.

Observers who remember that biological research in microgravity was one of the principal reasons advanced for building the space station may be forgiven a little cynicism. If such research was so important then, why is it now not worth doing? Though it never seemed likely to be cost-effective in crude economic terms, fundamental research on the station might have led to significant discoveries.

NASA’s new administrator is now apparently reassessing many of the agency’s plans. But some biologists might wonder whether a revised vision is in order. An interesting and plausible one has been put forward by the B612 Foundation: to alter the orbit of an asteroid in a controlled manner by 2015. Such an ability would come in useful if an unruly fragment of solar system detritus looked likely to pass too close to our planet. Biologists who know the fossil record can advise visionaries on the probable consequences of an impact. Although a significant collision in this century seems unlikely, asteroids more than 100 meters across—big enough to devastate an area the size of New York City or Tokyo—pass close to Earth uncomfortably often. In the meantime, those who are interested in the effects of microgravity can advise on the potential impacts of fundamental discoveries in organismal development on crops, medicine, ecosystem functioning, and other pertinent aspects of life on our own planet. Mars will (probably) still be in its orbit a few decades hence.

Timothy M. Beardsley
Editor in Chief

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