MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The space shuttle is in its twilight. NASA has scheduled just 10 more flights before it retires its shuttle fleet for good. But the space agency may have to add one more. The House of Representative tomorrow will vote on a bill that would force NASA to plan an additional flight to bring up a seven-ton, $1.5 billion physics experiment. NASA long ago promised to carry the device into orbit but canceled its plans when the schedule got tight.
NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: The experiment is called the alpha magnetic spectrometer. It's designed to measure cosmic rays, particles zipping across the emptiness of space. But put that dreamy stuff aside because the important thing to know is that the project is run by a man named Sam Ting. Ting is a Nobel Prize winner at MIT. His colleagues describe him as intense, obsessively focused - and a really good lobbyist.
Representative NICK LAMPSON (Democrat, Texas): The first time I met Dr. Ting must have been a year and a half ago. He asked me to come and sit down with him.
KESTENBAUM: This is Congressman Nick Lampson, Democrat from Texas. His district is home to the Johnson Space Center.
Rep. LAMPSON: I sat down with probably six or eight people. They spent close to two hours telling me about the project. At the end of the meeting, I said Dr. Ting, I don't have a slightest idea of what you said. It was so far over my head.
KESTENBAUM: Sam Ting originally designed the experiment to look for evidence of galaxies made of antimatter by looking for bits of anti-atoms floating around. Today, cosmologists don't think those will turn up, but Ting told Congressman Lampson about other things the experiment might find, like dark matter, and Lampson was impressed. He decided this thing needed to fly.
Rep. LAMPSON: And so I sort of adopted it as something that I felt was one of the most important things that I could be doing up here.
KESTENBAUM: The ambassador from Italy came by to talk to him. Italy has put a lot of money into the project. In fact, Sam Ting got most of the $1.5 billion for the project from foreign governments. Congressman Lampson and other lawmakers feel the U.S. looks bad if it doesn't do its part and finally carries the thing into orbit, which is why you can now find these words in House Bill 6063, the NASA Authorization Act of 2008:
Rep. LAMPSON: The administrators shall take all necessary steps to fly one additional space shuttle flight to deliver the alpha magnetic spectrometer to the International Space Station. That's very clear, direct, mandatory language. We want it to happen.
KESTENBAUM: The full House will vote on that tomorrow. Sam Ting is a hard man to get in touch with. We finally reached him in Switzerland, where his massive spectrometer is sitting in a big assembly room.
Dr. SAM TING (Physicist): I hoped somebody would put into a space station, because the construction of the space station is about $100 billion, and it probably a good idea to have a good experiment there.
KESTENBAUM: When I ask people about what they think will happen, they say, well, the best thing I can say is, you should never bet against Sam Ting.
Dr. TING: What's that mean?
KESTENBAUM: That means - that means you always win.
Dr. TING: No, I so far fortunate enough, suspicious of myself enough - so far, have never made a mistake.
KESTENBAUM: Some scientists resent Ting because they feel he bends the rules to get what he wants. Others admire him for the same reasons. Things looked bad for his experiment after the Columbia shuttle accident. Seven astronauts had died. NASA decided to cut back shuttle flights to a minimum. Top priority: Finish the International Space Station. There just wasn't room to bring up Ting's seven-ton spectrometer. But Ting pressed ahead, which angered the head of NASA, Michael Griffin.
Griffin told the New York Times last year, quote, "Sam is the one guy we deal with who has not accepted this with reasonable grace. He continues to insist that he is a special case. I'm sorry, but he is not."
But Griffin seemed to change his tune when he went to Capitol Hill early this year. Congressman Nick Lampson, who you heard from earlier, asked Griffin if he thought it was important for the U.S. to be a reliable international partner. Griffin responded.
Mr. MICHAEL GRIFFIN (Head Director, NASA): I know where this is going. I will try to be short with my answers. I am well on record as believing that when the United States makes commitments, they should be kept.
Rep. LAMPSON: Okay. Do you have the authority to add an additional shuttle flight? Or would you need to be directed to do so?
Mr. GRIFFIN: I do not have that authority. If I had that authority, I would have added the shuttle flight, and we would not be having this discussion.
KESTENBAUM: Right now, he says, NASA's budget allows for just 10 more flights. If Congress wants an extra one, it will need to tell him soon and provide funds down the road. The cost could be a few hundred million dollars, maybe more.
David Kestenbaum, NPR News.