Despite the implications for international cooperation in space, it might be time to stop sending our astronauts to the ill-fated MIR. For the last 5 years the Soviet space program has been building up to a major disaster that will cause it's complete termination. From the collapse of the Soviet Union, space has ceased to have any importance, relevance or priority for the financially crippled government or people. It's continuation has been more a matter of inertia and fond rememberences of past glories- the phantom hand syndrome of an amputee. Space exploration was simply the technological and moral apex of Soviet civilization- the people might not have toilet paper, cars, or living space; but they had landed spacecraft on the hellish surface (100 atmospheres, 850 degrees F, sulfuric acid clouds) of Venus- 4 times successfully , something so difficult America never tried. Operating with a fraction the resources of the West, they used simple materials like steel rather than exotic and expensive titantium/vanadium alloys and, by dint of cleverness, patience, resourcefullness, and theft crafted a first-class space program in a third world country. Although the bottom line motivations were always military, they accomplished much pure science, especially far-out and theoretical options America never pursued. It was a remaining beacon of hope and pride in a desperately impoverished country that's seen virtually all it's institutions collapse and even the simplest pleasures become the exclusive province of the criminal, the corrupt, and the connected. It's collapse should not be applauded in the West.
But collapsing it is. One of the saddest things I saw in 2 years in Russia was in the massive Cosmos Hall in the World's Fair-like VDNHa- Exhibition of Economic Achievement. The actual spacecraft were piled like junk in the back corner, a few hanging forlornly over what had become... an American GM dealership. One could go up and rip solar panels off $100 million spacecraft designed to ply the heavens. The Baikonur Cosmodrome is now stranded in a foreign country-Kazahkstan, so the Russians won't sink any money into it, nor will the bitter Kazahks, who were used as unwilling nuclear fallout test subjects during 14 years of atmospheric nuclear bombs at Semipalatinsk. Even 4 years ago, metal thieves had reportedly ripped out and stolen copper cables in the outer third of the sprawling complex and reporters claimed to have seen children playing near the nozzles of rockets minutes before liftoff. The only thing keeping the Russian space program afloat is the billions of US dollars paid for MIR time for our astronauts, International Space Station components (which they haven't done), and launches (they still have the massive boosters that we foolishly abandonned after Saturn 5). Mir has suffered a collision, emergency depressurization, major fire; and repeated computer, power, cooling, and oxygen making failures.
Although I don't want to pile on in criticizing the long-overdue ISS, an enormous resource is being wasted: the huge 747 sized external shuttle fuel tanks that are blasted into orbit, then forced back into a fiery reentry. The biggest barrier to the use of space is the immense gravity gradient that must be overcome to place objects in orbit at 5 mps- costing $10,000/lb at current rates. Meanwhile dozens of these external tanks (ET's) that could be coralled together and constructed into a huge doughnut-like space station or used as components for interplanetary craft, are being heedlessly destroyed. True, such a construction would take an army of workers and undeveloped skills in engineering and welding, but that's what "working in space" means, not paltry 10 day stays with tiny agendas. The other desperate necessities: a big dumb booster to send aloft cargo cheaply, and a small 747 launched rocket plane (X-34+33) that can carry 4-6 passengers to orbit quickly, easily , and cheaply are proceeding glacially. 27 years after Appollo 13, if a serious accident were to happen aboard the MIR, shuttle, or ISS, people would probably die long before we could launch a rescue mission. The complicated expensive shuttle requires a month-long turn around. Without a 24 hr rescue capability, it's unfair and dangerous to even expect people to work in space.
Segwaying to breathtaking discoveries, the apparant planet-wide ice crusted water ocean on Europa, the 2nd big moon of Jupiter, has astronomers thrilled. Photo's from the Jupiter-orbitting Galileo spacecraft look like broken pack ice in Baffin Bay or snowmobile trails in Minnesota or the spidery network of human blood vessels (1000 mile dark cracks). The intrepid Galileo has made 10 or so passes of the absolutely smooth Europa, as close as 360 miles, revealing details 75 ft wide. The ocean may be as thick as 60 miles, containing more water than the earth, and is the first large quantity of water discovered off the earth. Europa is subject to the same massive tidal gravity fluctuations (from other moons) that's turned Jupiter's closest big moon, Io, into a volcano hothouse, with several continuously erupting. So it's likely that there are geothermal vents in the Europan oceans, and perhaps, like the chemical-eating tube worms and crabs discovered a mile and a half down in the the Pacific Ocean off Washington... life. All life that we know of requires water- Europa has a huge amount of water and has taken Mars' place as the most conducive place for life. Expect a sampler or lander and ocean probe mission to Europa within 3 years.
The last grand unmanned
mission- Cassini- just blasted off for Saturn and it's 20 moons.
Unfortunately, because of paranoia about carrying a liquid fuel booster
in the Space Shuttle and lack of a powerful ground booster, it's being
sent on an interminable multiple gravity-assist flyby route: looping past
Venus twice, and Earth and Jupiter once- 7 years instead of the 3 years
of a direct route. Besides cooking the components in the intense heat of
a Venus orbit, such a penny ante aproach allows years of unnecessary meteorite
, dust, and radiation damage- on the Galileo Jupiter probe, the result
was the main dish antenna never opened- every piece of data has to be sent
by a nondirectional antenna (like a car radio): 1800 times slower.
From here on the faster, cheaper, smarter philosophy will rule; but
on 8 year missions (with planning +construction) it's idiotic to cut corners.
The failure to test every component forced by budget constraints has already
lead to the criminally stupid launch of the Hubble telescope without
testing a defective mirror.
Cassini will drop a probe onto the massive moon Titan- at 3200 miles diameter bigger than Mercury and the only known body with an Earth-pressure atmosphere: 1.4 times Earth's, and composed mostly of nitrogen with methane, ethane, and an orange smog of unknown organics. That makes it the only place in the Solar System spacemen could walk around without a full (pressure) spacesuit. They would still need a thermal suit to protect them from the -290 degree F (-180C) surface temperatures and unknown gases (the upper atmosphere is up to 180F warmer). The frigid Titan has been hypothesized (and mysterious dark regions have been seen in infrared by the Hubble Telescope) to have oceans, rivers, volcano's, snow and rain of methane or nitrogen ; but the atmosphere alone would make it the most active and dynamic solid world outside of Earth. We'll know... in 2004.
Michael Hammerschlag has written articles about the Voyager missions to the Outer planets, the SETI project, and worked on the Subaru telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea astronomical complex, Hawaii..