Critics doubt value of International Space Station science

Jan 28, 2014
International Space Station. Credits: ESA

After the White House decided recently to prolong the life of the International Space Station until 2024, the nation's top science official declared that the four-year extension would help NASA get a big return on its $100 billion investment.

The station is "proving to be an amazingly flexible laboratory," said John Holdren, chief science adviser to President Barack Obama.

Yet despite his endorsement, critics ranging from space bloggers to official NASA watchdogs say the agency still has work to do before the station reaches its scientific potential.

"The old adage is that if you build it, they will come," said Keith Cowing, a former NASA space station payload manager who runs the popular website NASA Watch. "Well, it's there, but NASA has a lot of catching up to do in terms of fully utilizing the capability of the space station."

Billed as the "largest spacecraft ever built," the football-field-sized observatory began in 1998 with the launch of a bus-sized module from Russia. Since then, the station's two major partners - the U.S. and Russia - have steadily added pieces and equipment, along with contributions from Japan, Canada and Europe.

Astronauts have lived there continuously since 2000, but as recently as 2008 crew members were spending only about three hours a week on science. Now NASA officials say it's up to about 50 hours a week, due largely to the crew size doubling from three to six members in 2009. But about 15 percent of the U.S. racks for experiments onboard the station sat empty as of Dec. 31, and in a report issued last July, NASA's internal watchdog raised questions about the "real world" benefit of station science.

"A vast majority of the research activities conducted aboard the ISS have related to basic research as opposed to applied research," wrote investigators for NASA's inspector general.

It's the difference, they noted, between figuring out the biology of life in space and developing "more efficient materials" for products that could be used on Earth.

"While discoveries made as a result of basic research may eventually contribute to 'real world' applications, investors and for-profit companies may be reluctant to allocate funds to basic research - especially when the likelihood of profitable results is unknown," the authors added.

Much of the research done so far on the station has focused on astronaut health, and that's partly by design. More than 200 space travelers have visited the station since 2000, and the steady flow has provided NASA scientists with plenty of test subjects to study risks to the body - from muscle atrophy to vision problems.

In a recent speech, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said this kind of research would be necessary if NASA were ever to attempt a crewed mission to Mars.

"From a NASA perspective, the ISS is absolutely essential to the goals of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s," Bolden said.

But the focus on astronaut health also has exposed NASA to criticism about whether the station can benefit the 7 billion people living on Earth. Aware of this concern, NASA officials last year released a list of the top 10 research results that have stemmed from station experiments.

They include the development of treatments for osteoporosis to finding ways to monitor water quality from space - an approach that has been tried by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"Two things that we really need to share with everyone are that the space station is up there with humans working on orbit and that it is bringing back concrete benefits for use here on Earth," wrote Julie Robinson, chief scientist for the station, in a blog post touting the facility's accomplishments.

In an interview, she added that there are plans to do more. "There is a real demand for doing the studies of rodents," Robinson said.

Not only are mice already desirable for testing new drugs, she said, but space has a way of suppressing the immune system - which means drug companies can more effectively gauge how well their experimental treatments are working on infected rodents.

There are plans to blast 20 mice into later this year, and Robinson said her long-term goal is to have "mice on every flight."

Another way NASA has tried to better use the station was hiring a nonprofit group in 2011 to manage the part of the station designated as a U.S. national laboratory and to entice non-NASA researchers to do their work there.

But the Florida-based group - the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS - had early management problems and was able to get its first sponsored payload onboard the station just this month.

A major obstacle is cost. The price of getting an experiment to the station can exceed $250,000, and that has made many researchers wary - even though CASIS often helps defray the expense with grants.

Another problem is interest. Although the microgravity environment is helpful for some experiments, such as crystal growth, CASIS executives said they are trying to educate other scientists - including those in the field of Earth observation - that the station can help them, too.

"We're at a time where we have to demonstrate the value of the asset," said Duane Ratliff, CASIS' chief operating officer. "We have to hurry up and really show the value."

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User comments : 17

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adam_russell_9615
4.2 / 5 (10) Jan 28, 2014
"While discoveries made as a result of basic research may eventually contribute to 'real world' applications, investors and for-profit companies may be reluctant to allocate funds to basic research"

What does that have to do with anything? Are corps funding the ISS? Are you deciding what research to do based on the value to private corps?

If a corporation wants specific experiments that may be more in tune with bottom line thinking then they should pay for it.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.9 / 5 (11) Jan 28, 2014
"Billed as the "largest spacecraft ever built,"

-Future versions of this tech will actually be going someplace. The ISS is a large engineering proof-of-concept project for testing materials, construction methods, systems performance, maintenance and repair procedures, and crisis mediation for more ambitious and more remote facilities.

By operating the ISS for an extended period of time we are gaining confidence that things we build can function farther out in space with limited options for repair and rescue. The operation of lab equipment for instance is perhaps more important than whatever research might actually be done with it in orbit.

-And the ISS will soon have its own engines.
http://www.adastr...c/VF-200
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (8) Jan 28, 2014
I had a few critics when I made a similar announcement...

http://phys.org/n...tml#nRlv
Caliban
4.9 / 5 (13) Jan 28, 2014
NASA's current critics are the same critics as NASA's critics of old, and these critics still deploy the same arguments against any and all NASA programs and proposed programs.
To wit: That NASA is just a black hole that sucks taxpayer funding and provides no benefit to the public. This allegation is demonstrably untrue, but doesn't prevent the mantra from being trotted out ad nauseam.

This is simply codespeak for "We want NASA funding to be diverted into the private sector, where our corporations can then have the opportunity to line our pockets with it."

verkle
4.2 / 5 (5) Jan 28, 2014
Let's be honest. The ISS is in know way going to give back the hundreds of billions of $$$ invested in it. But, it is a source of intense national and international pride, and of contribution to better relations with countries. It is hard to put a number on these benefits.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.3 / 5 (11) Jan 28, 2014
Let's be honest. The ISS is in know way going to give back the hundreds of billions of $$$ invested in it. But, it is a source of intense national and international pride, and of contribution to better relations with countries. It is hard to put a number on these benefits
Lets be honest. The only way to learn how to build a space station is to BUILD one. The only way to learn how to build large structures in space, whether as ships to move or as outposts to orbit, is to BUILD them.

The VASIMR engines will impart forces to all the joints and connections which will let us study how they perform as part of a ship. NASA knows what it is doing. You dont just build something like this:
http://en.wikiped...very_One

-from scratch and believe that it will get you to jupiter and back with any confidence. Space construction is something which has to be learned through many projects of increasing complexity, many lessons learned. And these are best learned in orbit.
Nestle
1.4 / 5 (10) Jan 28, 2014
it is a source of intense national and international pride, and of contribution to better relations with countries. It is hard to put a number on these benefits
On the contrary, the national pride is just a masked nationalism and demagogy and nothing healthy is in such attitude. Note that the primitive totalitarian regimes (North Korea, China afterall too) play the national pride tone very often. Otherwise it's just a salary generator for researchers and scientists involved without value added. If the physicists would really need the money, they would research the cold fusion or gravitomagnetic propulsion already for twenty years. Their ignorance just demonstrates, they don't need any.
Eikka
3.2 / 5 (6) Jan 28, 2014
This is simply codespeak for "We want NASA funding to be diverted into the private sector, where our corporations can then have the opportunity to line our pockets with it."


Or, we want government to stop taxing us so much, so they wouldn't spend it to line up rich people's pockets.

Where do you think all the NASA budget really goes?
betterexists
1 / 5 (3) Jan 28, 2014
Why This Junk?
There are other priorities; Can this beat such competition. Very Very Long Drawn exercise!
dan42day
3.9 / 5 (7) Jan 28, 2014
whether the station can benefit the 7 billion people living on Earth


Perhaps they could bill it as a free clinic. Walk-ins welcome 24/7.

For those who misunderstand my sarcasm, I fully support the ISS and any money spent on research in general. Re-directing the money to increase spending on welfare and social programs by .01% would only increase the need for welfare and social programs.
Guy_Underbridge
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 29, 2014
Re-directing the money to increase spending on welfare and social programs by .01% would only increase the need for welfare and social programs.
circular logic much?
chardo137
not rated yet Jan 29, 2014
I find it hard to believe that anyone would criticize NASA for doing too much basic science on the ISS. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer(AMS) is just about the only piece of basic science that the ISS has ever been involved with. When the AMS was launched, Sheldon Glashow said: "Finally some basic science on the ISS. Up until now it has been high-school experiments and a bunch of silliness."
aroc91
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 29, 2014
Let's be honest. The ISS is in know way going to give back the hundreds of billions of $$$ invested in it. But, it is a source of intense national and international pride, and of contribution to better relations with countries. It is hard to put a number on these benefits.


Unfortunately, you don't seem to understand where this research money actually goes. Hint: it isn't just packed up and launched into space. It's recirculated back into the economy through all the subcontractors and where they spend their money etc.
antonima
1 / 5 (1) Jan 29, 2014
Let's be honest. The ISS is in know way going to give back the hundreds of billions of $$$ invested in it. But, it is a source of intense national and international pride, and of contribution to better relations with countries. It is hard to put a number on these benefits.


Unfortunately, you don't seem to understand where this research money actually goes. Hint: it isn't just packed up and launched into space. It's recirculated back into the economy through all the subcontractors and where they spend their money etc.


If money is being given for work that has little real value it still results in inflation. Not to mention the wasted potential that the money could have achieved, or the wasted potential of the engineers who could have been working on something that would impact the lives of millions rather than just 6.
Nestle
not rated yet Jan 29, 2014
When the AMS was launched, Sheldon Glashow said: "Finally some basic science on the ISS. Up until now it has been high-school experiments and a bunch of silliness."
One of the reasons, why we are discussing the usefulness of ISS by now is, the results of AMS so far are much less conclusive, than the physicists expected. They didn't bring the observation of dark matter for example, so from scientific perspective the delayed and overpriced AMS project is rather disappointing. I'm still supporter of ISS once it is flying, but the risk presented at Gravity movie will be the more immanent, the more satellites will emerge around it. At the case of the serious ISS crash the space around Earth would be contaminated with debris and unusable for cosmic flights for many years. So that ISS doesn't represent only additional expenses, but a certain danger too.
El_Nose
1 / 5 (1) Feb 01, 2014
critics doubt we landed on the moon -- can't please everyone -- the flatearth society still exists after all
arom
not rated yet Feb 03, 2014
"A vast majority of the research activities conducted aboard the ISS have related to basic research as opposed to applied research," wrote investigators for NASA's inspector general.

It is interesting to note that there is one of the most important works which could be done on ISS, but not yet mentioned; it is the proving of 'aether' existence. According to the famous Michelson Morley which was concluded that no aether exist – on the condition that no earth dragging of the aether! Experiment on ISS will give the decisive result as mentioned below;
http://www.vacuum...=6〈=en