Washington DC

In a move poorly received by key members of the US Congress, NASA last week said that it might shut down scientific research on the International Space Station for at least a year, to save money.

NASA is struggling to fund its mission to send astronauts back to the Moon, while spending around $200 million a year on research in the station.

But Congress has mandated, as part of the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, that the agency should carry out “to the maximum extent practicable, basic, applied, and commercial research aboard the International Space Station”. The act also specifies that NASA should allocate at least 15% of the funds budgeted for space-station research to experiments not directly related to the human exploration programme.

Lost in space: the space station is using up cash that NASA needs to fund its Moon mission. Credit: NASA

“The International Space Station is first and foremost a space laboratory,” says Katie Boyd, a spokeswoman for Senator Richard Shelby (Republican, Alabama). His state hosts the Marshall Space Flight Center, which manages science work aboard the space station. “To suggest that NASA would not take advantage of this unique laboratory is shortsighted.”

A NASA spokesman, Grey Hautaluoma, said that he could not comment on ongoing budgetary discussions.“Right now, that funding is still there,” he says.

About three dozen experiments are currently under way on the station, from biology set-ups that use the the astronauts as guinea pigs, to aeronautics experiments that use polyhedrons to test flight-control algorithms.

A year-long hiatus from research would mean more than missing data points. Restarting stalled projects will require staff to be rehired and equipment replaced. In the end, taking time off from research would probably cost more than it saved.

I can't believe they are discussing this with a straight face.

“I can't believe that they would discuss this with a straight face,” says former NASA employee Keith Cowing, who broke the story on his website, NASA Watch.

Some of the 16 other partners in the station agree that the idea doesn't have legs. “If they were really going to, I think they would announce it to us first, before the press,” says Marc Heppener, head of the station science programme at the European Space Agency.