If film-maker Stanley Kubrick and science fiction author Arthur C Clarke were to be believed in 1968 when they created "2001: A Space Odyssey", space travel would already be routine for many of us and scientific exploration as far out as Jupiter would be well within our grasp.

Nothing could be further from the truth. On the eve of 2001, the notion of people travelling to giant space stations in airliner-like launch vehicles, then catching shuttle services to sprawling moonbases, is still no more than a pipedream. Both the Moon and Mars are still largely unexplored, while interstellar travel remains more elusive than ever.

As for Arthur C Clarke's predictions of bicycle wheel-type space colonies with inter-connecting shuttles, we have instead the International Space Station (ISS).

And a huge bicycle wheel it certainly is not. It is modular for a start, it won't be completed until at least 2006 - already 12 years later than planned - and has little or no hope of turning Kubrick's and Clarke's vision into reality unless the financial and technical hurdles to space travel are overcome. What that vision needs is a viable financial model which balances risk with reward. Commercialisation is the key to exploiting space and unless the international space industry can identify commercial markets and find investors happy to accept that the returns on their investment will be a long way off, space travel and space exploration progress will be halted in its tracks indefinitely.

Even now, getting into space is still far too expensive to make a space station cost-effective. The industry is struggling to develop reliable expendable launch vehicles let alone establish safe reusable launch vehicles that will make space access cost-effective. And even once the orbital infrastructure created by the commercialisation of space provides the foundation for space exploration, there is no guarantee that there will be the funding for technology that may not be used for decades to come. Increased international co-operation might make space exploration more possible, but with the ISS project deemed to be more an expedient tool for politicians rather than the basis for bringing science fiction to life, even that argument is possibly ill-conceived.

Given the ISS's chequered history, it is no surprise that sceptics view the project as little more than a means to engage Russia in a mutual dependency with the USA, preventing another Cold War and ensuring the US Space Shuttle has plenty of work to do to justify its existence.

When completed, the ISS will be a space superlative, however. It will weigh 455,000kg (1,000,000lb) and measure 111m (365ft) end to end, large enough to take in a football field or two. But, once assembled and over $100 billion later, what will the station actually do apart from supporting Russia and preserving world peace?

It could well prove to be a beneficial medical and industrial research laboratory but it won't be a money spinner. "Scientists in every field from biomedical to fluids physics will be able to do research in an environment [microgravity] impossible to duplicate on Earth - research that will create new opportunities for scientific breakthroughs," says NASA. Yet like so many areas of space technology, the robotics, the manipulator systems, communications and other applications on the ISS will simply turn out to be testbeds of future technology on Earth.

Arguably, the greatest benefit will come from the pooling of expertise and resource of 15 nations. But even that brings risks. Further delays in the ISS' construction are inevitable and with over 30 Space Shuttle flights needed for assembly, it will only take one accident to stop the ISS in its tracks. The likelihood is that the ISS will develop on a step-by-step basis, according to the state of delays and finances, with continual redesigns and compromises. The station could well become regarded as another Tower of Babel - if it is ever completed.

Kubrick and Clarke's compelling vision for a space odyssey may still be alive but with no open cheques in the offing and a balance sheet drenched with red ink , that journey still appears more imaginary than ever.

Source: Flight International