With Atlantis docked with the space station there’s no denying that manned spaceflight makes for compelling watching. The first spacewalk has been postponed due to a mystery (but non-life threatening) illness to astronaut Hans Schlegel, and blogger Damaris Sattia is reporting that there may be a problem with the thermal blanket on the shuttle.
While attention is focussed on the station, I’ve been continuing my devate with Mark Hempsell about whether the UK should join the ISS project. My latest response is below, and previous posts are here, here and here.
You make a good case for the science that will be carried out on board the space station and although I’d still be intrigued to hear of, say, three really spectacular results from the twenty years of long term space flight with Mir and ISS, let me concede the scientific case for manned spaceflight for now and try a practical one. Many of the projects you outline – particularly research into medical applications and crops – are commercial ones. We’d expect Earthbound research into these topics to be supported mostly by commercial companies, and it seems to me that we’re getting near the point where the same will be true in space. NASA’s plans, while vague at this point, seem to call for the space station to be run by or for private experiments from 2015 onward, and there are several commercial companies like Bigelow aerospace working hard to make private space stations a reality. Shouldn’t we therefore concentrate government money on the things that private investment won’t do? As the BBC report here later this year the ESA member states will be asked to develop an independent transportation system for manned spaceflight. Why shouldn’t we lead this effort instead of subsidising the ISS?