When you spend 16 years and billions of dollars designing a new home, you'd think everyone would get a place to sleep. Last week, however, when the Russian space agency launched into orbit the 22-ton Zvezda service module--the latest, $320 million addition to the much delayed International Space Station--officials conceded they had overlooked something. Though the school bus-size pod will be home to three astronauts for four months at a time, it has been outfitted with only two tiny sleeping berths--leaving one crewman no place to bunk.
It's possible no one aboard Zvezda will be sleeping much anyway, since the ship was built with so little noise muffling that the crew has to wear earplugs to shut out the din of onboard equipment. Then there's the temporary lack of shielding to protect the module from a rogue meteor hit--a potential calamity that could keep any astronaut awake at night.
Despite such obvious design glitches, the launch of Zvezda was greeted with jubilation--and for good reason. The U.S.-led, 16-nation ISS had been on hold for two years while the cash-poor Russians tried to scare up the funds to get the module built and launched. It was only with an infusion of dollars from Washington--as well as from so capitalist a benefactor as Pizza Hut, which bought advertising space on the side of the Zvezda booster--that the job was completed. Zvezda now joins the Zarya and Unity modules, which have been in orbit since 1998, forming the centerpiece of a massive 360-ft.-long, 460-ton space liner, set to be completed in 2005.
Remarkable as the ISS may one day be, it's a ship that never should have set sail, critics say. Its cost is at least eight times the initial estimates, and the hardware is nearly a decade behind schedule. And after the ISS is built, there may be nothing for it to do. Many of the medical studies NASA hopes to conduct have been performed aboard Russia's Mir space station; other work on materials manufacturing could be performed by unmanned ships.
Despite all these problems, the ISS is probably here to stay. In the years the station has been in the works, it has become that rarest of Washington creations, the politically indestructible extravagance. How a project that has sparked so little interest and so much skepticism has taken on such an aura of inevitability is a case study in how good bureaucratic ideas turn bad--and bad ideas stick around. "The only way we're not going to have the station," says Chris Mehl, spokesman for Indiana Representative Tim Roemer, "is if pieces fall out of the sky."
The ISS, like so many of Washington's big-ticket programs, was a creature of the cold war. In 1984, President Reagan, smarting from the Soviet Union's long line of successful space stations, announced that the U.S. was getting into the station game. The American entry would measure a whopping 500 ft., cost a frugal $8 billion and go online by 1992. Dreaming up so grand a machine turned out to be a lot easier than designing it, however, and over the next eight years, NASA spent a staggering $10 billion drawing and discarding blueprints, without a single piece of metal ever getting cut. "The space agency has no clue how to develop anything large anymore," says James Muncy, a former staff member on the House Space and Aeronautics subcommittee.