Is the science officer really a science officer

There still seems to be a division in the CB between pilots and "scientists" although the term mission specialist has helped narrow the divide somewhat. But in today's programme, are there really any scientists in the astronaut corps? There are relatively few MSs who have served up to ten years between graduation or medical school and their selection as astronauts. Many of them are not what could be called "pure"

scientists but worked in areas other than research. Dave Wolf has spent a considerable amount of time working on a cell bioreactor both before and following his selection as an astronaut, while Mike Gerhardt has logged many hours participating in decompression research. Then there is Franklin Chang-Diaz, who has worked on his VASIMIR propulsion system for years.

When the science officer role was instigated in 2002, the plan was to have one per residency crew of three crew members, but the following year Shuttle Columbia was lost and the resident crew of three was consequently reduced to a caretaker crew of just two. As a result, "science" was severely limited. It was hoped that programmes like the "Saturday Morning Science"-type of experiments conducted by Garriott on Skylab and Pettit on ISS could be continued, but this has not happened to date due to a lack of time available to the two-person crew. Perhaps the term "science officer" should be used only when an astronaut is able to perform more than baseline science on board the ISS - nominally when the crew of three is reintroduced.

ISS is an important international facility for good science to be conducted in a unique environment and to tell the world about it. Principal investigators are the best people to inform the media and public about their work and perhaps flying more PIs to conduct their own research after construction of the ISS is completed may be an option. However, this then raises more concerns for requisite training and preparation, in the same way as flying ill-prepared payload specialists or space flight participants.

Simple research and demonstrations were completed by Pettit on ISS-6, and despite being always busy there was still time to fit in the smaller demonstrations. This was due to them being well thought out, pre-planned and capable of evolving during the flight. A direct link between the PI and the astronauts to improve communications would be an advantage, as would a "basic chemistry set" for "Saturday Morning Science" demonstrations, as time allows. It has to be remembered that field science (which ISS research is) is not as well-defined as in a pristine laboratory-controlled environment.

There was interest among the astronauts to pursue more science, but always at the forefront of planning is the need to maintain and control the station, support (eventual) ISS construction and visiting missions, and receive the Progress re-supply missions.

So is the science officer really a science officer? At the moment, probably not - at least not until the Shuttle delivers more research facilities and crew numbers are increased to three. The caretaker crew includes a caretaker science officer, who may be able to perform some limited research, or send emails to tell the world about life and activities on orbit, but full-time "science" gathering has to wait for a larger commitment and, probably, the completion of ISS construction. It is simply a matter of priorities and resources. On Earth, a laboratory is usually built and tested prior to operational use, while scientists trying to complete pristine experiments do not normally have to share floor space with workers in muddy boots. It's the same on ISS: a reduced crew, limited power, logistics management and incomplete construction do not help in supporting a crucial science programme. Hence there are relatively few media reports about science being carried out on the station.

With Skylab, there was already a solar telescope package in place, as well as an Earth resources package and a host of other experiments. The difficulty involved in recovering from the loss of the micrometeoroid shield and solar wing meant science had to wait until later, although the first resident crew worked hard to get as much done as they could in the time they had. The second crew charged ahead and once the third crew had settled in, they provided the best results of the programme - although their station was not under construction, and no longer needed to be repaired. There was a limited programme of maintenance but there were no re-supply facilities, save for what the new crew could bring with them. By comparison, on Salyut and Mir the cosmonauts were constantly rushing around trying to keep the stations flying. Serious failures affecting Salyut 7 in 1984 and Mir in 1997 took precious research time away from the flight plan while these setbacks were overcome. Mir spent fifteen years in orbit and was obviously deteriorating rapidly towards the end of its orbital life. ISS on the other hand is only seven years old but already the paint is wearing off some of the EVA handrails. Will it survive for another decade? Scientists planning research on the station certainly hope so.

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