There are three kinds of people in the world: those who are intrigued by and optimistic about the International Space Station; those who are outraged by and skeptical of it; and those who look blank and say, “What International Space Station?”

The third group is undoubtedly the biggest, so for them, here is the news (it won’t make headlines, but it should): After innumerable delays and cost overruns, the most ambitious construction project in history is about to begin. Next Friday, the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to head for the embryonic station to start outfitting the Russian service module Zvezda, which just docked in July, a year and a half late. The first crew will take up residence in early November. Meanwhile, participating nations can start the uniquely dangerous and difficult job of putting together what a NASA analyst described this week as “a giant Lego system in space” — actually in low Earth orbit, less than 400 km over our heads. When it is finished, this weird-looking orbiting village will be as big as a city block, with habitable space equal to two Boeing 747 jumbo jets. As die-hard space nuts say, is that cool or what?

Critics, on the other hand, think it’s just plain nuts. It probably did take a certain nuttiness to dream up the project in the first place, let alone stick with it through all the ensuing setbacks. Cynics allude darkly to the fact that it was first proposed, way back in 1984, by U.S. President Ronald “Star Wars” Reagan. Yet as initially conceived by the Americans, it was a modest enough affair, supposed to be up and running by 1990 at a cost of $8 billion. No one foresaw that it would become the baby of 16 nations, the United States, Russia (who would have predicted that in 1984?), Japan, Canada, Brazil and 11 European countries, deploying 10 years late at a projected cost of $60 billion.

And for what? Even in the beginning, its goals were not clearly defined. They still aren’t. NASA says mission success will be measured against three criteria: crew safety, useful hardware and “scientific results that are in line with peer review.” (Translation: There will be the usual experiments with seeds and bugs and fluids and other elementary school-type projects and we hope nobody gets killed.) But none of that is worth $60 billion. There has to be a bigger field of dreams here. And of course there is; the problem is, this is by definition an open-ended endeavor, and space agencies are not good at the rhetoric needed to sell open-endedness. They came close this week, though. “We don’t know what we’ll get up there,” a senior NASA scientist admitted. “If you’re lucky, you’re going to find yourself pushing the envelope and you’re going to find unimagined things. . . .”

Unimagined things: NASA need say no more. On those two resonant words the whole controversy turns. For those of a romantic bent — like explorers and adventurers throughout history — no other lure has ever been necessary, go as they might in the name of trade, empire or personal glory. Unimagined things are also the implicit goal of nearly all scientific research and discovery, as the space station’s defenders point out. How will we know what we’re going to find until we go out and find it? This is always the order: first, the leap of faith, by pioneers and financial patrons alike; second, the serendipitous discovery; and last, the retrospective blessing of history. Unfortunately, for every find, there are the 10 or 100 failures or false starts that history quickly forgets.

Perhaps for this reason, more pragmatic souls view unimagined things as an indefensibly expensive luxury. Unless they can foresee a good return for the outlay of such vast sums, they would just as soon spend the vast sums closer to home. It is not only politicians and social workers who think this way, either. Some of the ISS’ fiercest critics are scientists — physicists and astronomers, no less — who would rather be “pushing the envelope” a little farther afield, on Mars, say, or Jupiter’s fascinating moon Europa. From their point of view, the ISS is sucking up so much of the available space funding in so many countries that humanity will essentially be stuck in low Earth orbit itself for the next 10 to 15 years.

The critics could be right; they often are. The space station may turn out to be a waste of money and an obstacle rather than a gateway to the further exploration of space. Yet history usually rewards the visionary rather than the myopic view — and in this case the ones with the vision would seem to be the 100,000 patient, enthusiastic workers in 16 countries pulling together to build a fragile outpost on the threshold of space. It’s a long way to Mars. Won’t we need steppingstones?

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.