Friday, 10 January 1997 Washington, DC
1. SPACE STATION I: NEW CONCERN OVER THE ORBITAL DEBRIS PROBLEM.
"We can follow our dreams to the stars," President Reagan said in his 1984 speech announcing the space station initiative. But the international space station is not bound for the stars, it's headed for low-Earth orbit, a region of space littered with the garbage left behind by hundreds of earlier missions. Current plans call for the station to maneuver out of the path of debris large enough to be tracked from the ground. But an NRC report released Wednesday warns that smaller debris can still penetrate the hull, and very likely will given the size and 10-year life of the station -- particularly the Russian modules which are not as well shielded as US and Japanese portions. Nor can the space station dodge the big stuff if the shuttle is docked, because of structural stress. The report calls for stepped-up shield tests.
2. SPACE STATION II: EARTH COULD USE A STRONGER MAGNETOSPHERE.
The recent discovery of radiation damage to laptop computers on Mir raises concerns about systems as well as crew. Radiation monitoring tests are scheduled for the shuttle in May, but it is astonishing that these measurements have not already been made. In 80 shuttle missions, the effect of zero gravity was studied on everything from jellyfish to potatos. Now, one year before space station construction begins, it occurs to someone to ask if radiation levels are safe. Earth's magnetosphere offers a lot of protection (WN 20 Dec 96), but exposures of station crews will still be far in excess of limits for terrestrial workers. The greatest danger is from the gigantic solar flares that occur about every decade; the last was in 1989-90. Improved radiation detection technology and a storm shelter are being considered.
3. THE BUDGET: SCIENCE AGENCY IS TOLD TO EXPECT FLAT FUNDING.
The White House is not expected to release the President's budget request for FY 98 until February 6, but the DOE Office of Energy Research has been told to expect flat funding. DOE officials are even more concerned about the outyear budget. The Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology and American Chemical Society are arguing that the NSF budget should be increased 7.1 percent to make up for the loss of purchasing power since 1995. A letter to President Clinton from outgoing APS President Robert Schrieffer and current president Allan Bromley, calls for a 5-7% increase for basic research funding of NSF, DOE and DOD.
4. JUNK SCIENCE: JOHN STOSSEL OF ABC NEWS SAYS IT LIKE IT IS.
OK, so he lifted his title from Tom Gilovich's wonderful little 1991 book "How We Know What Isn't So." Still, Stossel pulled no punches Tuesday on Good Morning America when he dissed the EMF scaremongers. He leveled his harshest criticism at reporters for sensationalizing flimsy claims, but scientists might have squirmed a bit for failing to speak out earlier (WN 1 Nov 96).