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ISS science sacrificed on Martian altar

Budget slashed by $344m

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NASA is planning to slash millions of dollars from the International Space Station's science budget in a bid to find the cash it needs to fulfil President Bush's ambition to return to the moon, and journey to Mars. Somehow, the agency needs to lay its hands on an extra $5bn of funding.

The space agency is cutting $344m from the ISS' budget next year, The Guardian reports, by canning the station's research programme. Hundreds of contractors are being laid off, and many experiments are simply being cancelled, the paper says.

Michael Griffin, NASA administrator, explained that he has had to put the station's construction ahead of the science. Addressing the US House committee on science he said:

"It seemed to me it was getting the cart before the horse to be worrying about money for human or other life sciences when we could not assure ourselves the continued capability to be able to place people in orbit in the first place."

While the cuts will not be good news for those directly affected, many space scientists have regarded the space station as being very poor value for money in terms of the research output.

It is also way over budget and long overdue: it was supposed to cost $18bn and be complete by 2003. Instead it has been something of a black hole for NASA's funds. So far the US is estimated to have spent over $100bn on its share of the ISS, and it is not likely to be finished before 2017.

Keith Cowing, a former NASA scientist and now editor of the NASA Watch web site says that Griffin privately refers to the ISS as an albatross. "The only reason he has to continue with it," he told The Guardian, "is that we have binding international treaty commitments with Europe and the Pacific nations."

He's also constrained by the other nations who have invested so far: European and Japanese modules have yet to be launched and added to the station. Finally, consider how NASA's credibility would be affected if it did pull the plug.

"Picture a congressional hearing where Griffin says he's going to abandon this thing we just spent $100bn on," Cowing commented. ®

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