Doubts linger about space station's science potential

April 20, 2012 By Mark K. Matthews, The Orlando Sentinel

After more than 12 years and at least $100 billion in construction costs, NASA leaders say the International Space Station finally is ready to bloom into the robust orbiting laboratory that agency leaders envisioned more than two decades ago.

"The ISS has now entered its intensive research phase," said Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA operations and human exploration, in recent testimony to Congress in defense of the roughly $1.5 billion the agency spends annually on the outpost.

But doubts linger.

More than a quarter of the space that NASA has designated for experiments sits empty. Much of the research done aboard the station deals with living and working in space - with marginal application back on Earth. And the nonprofit group that NASA chose to lure more research to the outpost has been plagued by internal strife and recently lost its director.

And more broadly, questions remain about whether NASA can develop U.S. capability to send experiments up and bring them back to Earth - and whether, in fact, the station can live up to the promises that were used to justify its creation.

"Now that NASA has finished ISS construction, I hope the incredible potential of ISS is not squandered," said U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, chair of the House science committee.

This "incredible potential" is what NASA used to justify the decision to build a space station, which has been in the works since the Reagan administration.

"When we finish, ISS will be a premier, world-class laboratory in low-Earth orbit that promises to yield insights, science, and information, the likes of which we cannot fully comprehend as we stand here at the beginning," said then-NASA chief Dan Goldin during a 2001 congressional hearing.

In the decade following, NASA and its international partners used the space shuttle and other vehicles to assemble the station, complete with several on-board laboratories lined with science "racks." These racks, each about as big as a telephone booth, provide a home for dozens of experiments and can stream data and video to researchers back on Earth.

But then - as now - some questioned the station's future as a center of science. They note much of the research done aboard the station deals with surviving the space environment, from studies of spaceflight's effect on human muscles to developing improved smoke detectors for human spacecraft.

Privately, some NASA officials worry the outpost could feed into the agency's reputation as a "self-licking ice-cream cone" in that space-based experiments help NASA keep doing space-based experiments.

Others note that station research - there have been about 500 American experiments and 800 international ones - has produced comparatively little scientific literature. Thomson Reuters Web of Science, which tracks such publications, has identified about 3,000 scientific articles that have resulted from station research.

By comparison, a 2001 satellite that cost about $150 million - NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe - has generated more than three times as many papers; many scientists used the probe's analysis of temperature differences in space to theorize about the origin and structure of the universe.

"If you wanted to grade space-station science, it would be an incomplete right now," said Jeff Foust, editor of The Space Review, a popular online magazine.

He said critics could make the argument that money spent on the station might be better invested in other missions. For example, the budget-busting James Webb Space Telescope, seen as successor to the Hubble telescope, still is only a fraction of the station's cost at nearly $9 billion.

But, Foust said, "there is a rationale for the ISS that goes beyond simply science" - promoting partnerships and better relations among space-faring nations, including Russia.

NASA officials, however, say research is just beginning and already there have been advances.

Scientists at Johnson Space Center have taken advantage of the station's lack of gravity to develop "micro-balloons" the size of red blood cells that can carry drugs to cancer tumors. And the European Space Agency is looking to help doctors better diagnose asthma by using an air-monitoring device developed for astronauts.

"It's the tip of the iceberg," said Marybeth Edeen, NASA manager of the station's national laboratory.

The inability to completely fill NASA's science racks, she said, is simply one of priorities. Up until now, NASA has been more focused on building the station. Indeed, the station crew - which expanded from three to six members in 2009 - now spends about 50 hours a week on science, as opposed to just three hours a week in 2008.

"Our goal is to get the racks fully utilized," she said.

To help do that, NASA hired a nonprofit group last summer called the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to manage the national lab and find new experiments.

The early efforts of the Florida-based group, however, hit a bump when the center's director resigned in March and lawmakers started to raise concerns about its effectiveness. Congress since has put CASIS on notice to get its act together or risk losing its contact.

These issues, though, are less worrisome to Congress than concerns about how NASA plans to resupply the station with U.S. crew and cargo.

The retirement of the last year left NASA completely reliant on its international partners - primarily Russia - for these services, and NASA's plan to fix that situation depends on new commercial " taxis" from companies such as SpaceX.

While tests have been promising, these companies have yet to successfully dock with the station.

A key test is scheduled later this spring when SpaceX attempts to berth its Dragon capsule to the station.

If successful, SpaceX could start hauling cargo - and experiments - to and from the station later this year, a company spokeswoman said.

In the meantime, NASA is making plans to expand its research capability.

This summer, the agency plans to fly a small centrifuge to the station aboard a Russian rocket to increase the capability to conduct cellular investigations.

"The whole attitude and focus of the program has shifted in the last year," Edeen said. "We are increasing utilization as fast as we can."

Explore further: NASA extends its Russian space contract


Related Stories

NASA extends its Russian space contract

April 10, 2007

NASA has signed a $719 million extension of the International Space Station contract with Russia's Federal Space Agency for services through 2011.

NASA says Russian space woes no worry

February 2, 2012

(AP) -- NASA says it is still confident with the quality of Russian manned rockets, despite an embarrassing series of glitches and failures in the Russian space program.

NASA: Space station evacuation not likely

June 15, 2007

NASA officials said there's only an "extremely remote chance" the International Space Station might be evacuated because of ongoing computer problems.

NASA proposes $17.6 billion budget

February 5, 2008

U.S. space officials proposed spending $17.6 billion next year with a focus on the International Space Station and space shuttle programs.

Recommended for you


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

0.4 / 5 (38) Apr 20, 2012
Maybe NASA should start advertising via infomertials on late night TV.

There has to be someone out there in America interested in doing space science.

You know, like all them thar private enterprise companies that Conservative Americans are just sure will replace NASA exploration after they cut NASA's budget to zero.
2.5 / 5 (4) Apr 20, 2012
"there is a rationale for the ISS that goes beyond simply science" - promoting partnerships and better relations among space-faring nations, including Russia." Now there is a reason to spend a billion and a half, to convince the Russians to charge us $50 mil per astronaut to send them to our space station. Somebody should go to jail for this level of stupidity.

Squandering that much cash while Mars beckons? What a colossal waste of human effort. Why not unbolt our ISS modules, add a some hardware & reconfigure for a cruise to the red planet? Now that would generate a few papers. It's better than spending any more on the ISS or the International Sucking Sound.
not rated yet Apr 20, 2012
Weren't they supposed to be doing experiments like space-based hydroponics to learn how to grow food crops in space, and stuff like that?

What about the crystal growth experiments?

How hard can it be to set up basic, fundamental experiments like this in a booth?

I mean, grow some tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and corn in airponics an compare it to a control experiment on Earth with the same amount of light, water, and nutrients, and see what the differences are in growth rate, cell structure, proteins, carbs, net produce, foliage, etc.
3.6 / 5 (5) Apr 20, 2012
I am 100% in favor of the space program in general - I truly believe the future of mankind is out there in space. But I have to admit, 100 billion dollars is hard to swallow, even if it was internationally funded. Really hard.

I mean, what does the ISS accomplish that couldn't be accomplished more cheaply and without a 12 year construction time? It seems pretty silly to spend that kind of money on a laboratory. I just don't see the point of it. It does nothing to advance our overall goal, which should be the colonization of the solar system.

For all the money spent on the ISS, we could have a huge interplanetary starship. But instead the politicians give us this pile of crap... I think I've made my point.
1 / 5 (1) Apr 20, 2012
The problem most likely with growing food in space is that in order for seeds to grow you will need gravity.
But that is easily solved by a centrifugal breeding chamber. You probably dont even need 1g to save energy.
In hydroponics you need to breed seeds separately anyway.
0.3 / 5 (38) Apr 20, 2012
WHy not just turn the ISS over to commercial ownership and operation?

They could turn it into a giant coke vending machine or a largish cell phone, bingo ball, or something equally useful to humanity.

1 / 5 (2) Apr 20, 2012
And the current administration wanted to burn it down in 2015?
Yup good use of money.
3.5 / 5 (6) Apr 20, 2012
For the amount of money they spend on this thing, they could have made 11 James Webb Telescopes.

They could have paid for 20 million emergency room visits.

They could have paid for 1.1 million custom-made, per patient prostate cancer vaccines or other custom, per patient cancer vaccines.

They could have made about 400 gigawatts worth of solar boiler power facilities, which would pay for themselves dozens of times over the next several decades. If you did 50% subsidies instead, you could help companies build 800 gigawatts worth of solar boilers power facilities, which would equal about 1/8th of the U.S. energy consumption, or nearly 5% of world energy consumption...
3.8 / 5 (4) Apr 20, 2012 could build some unimaginable number of hydroponics or airponics facilities which produce 3 to 15 times normal crop yield per season, gain and extra season,and use less water and nutrients in the process.

Placing 8 to 12 additional orbital weather radars into space would be chump change. You could increase the NWS funding 10% and add 9 radar stations in Alaska and 3 or 4 in the plains states,a nd set up a deal with Mexico for the Baja and Gulf Coast of their nation for advanced radars and weather stations, and maintain and man all these facilities for decades, giving more complete data for global and regional weather and climate models.

You could fund DARPA, NIST, the FDA, IBM, and several universities and corporations' R&D for decades to accelerate nano-technology and medicine.

You could build what? 50 "Square Kilometer Arrays" in different parts of the world and link them together in different groups to basically turn the entire surface of the Earth into a telescope...
not rated yet Apr 21, 2012
Needless to say, the less expensive space missions are all unmanned. Probably politically incorrect to say so though.
1 / 5 (1) Apr 22, 2012
Its been said recently that we could have nuclear fusion for 80 billion dollars. I know what I'd rather have :(

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.