Handed US$100 billion to spend on research, few scientists would invest in a cramped laboratory in constant need of maintenance with few facilities and one hell of a commute. So it is worth stating the obvious up front: the International Space Station (ISS) is an expensive, wasteful and probably unnecessary way to conduct science. The value of research carried out on the station will almost certainly never justify its ludicrous price tag. The money could surely have been put to better use on Earth.
But would it have been? Construction of the space station was never really about science, and researchers should think twice before continuing to use the project's epic cost as a stick with which to beat it. In a time of austerity, they have been handed the ultimate luxury: a new frontier for research that is limited only by their imagination.
“Flagship shiny projects help to stir wider public interest in science and so loosen political purse strings.”
Conceived during the cold war, the ISS was born of global politics, and remains a showpiece of international collaboration. An engineering marvel, the orbiting laboratory came within a whisker of cancellation in 1993, yet is expected to remain a bright fixture of the night sky for at least the next decade. It is time for the ISS to show what it can do. So what can it do? “Grow crystals,” shout the critics. It is true that the image of research on the space station, and space science more generally, suffers from the limited scope of early experiments. Much of the research carried out on the ISS so far can, perhaps unfairly, be lampooned in a similar way. The impact of the lack of gravity on an experiment often seems to be investigated purely because it can be, rather than because the question has genuine scientific value. The other popular function of the space station's facilities — to probe the effects of weightlessness on its occupants — is based on the circular logic that demands such information as essential for continued human presence in space.
To their credit, those running research on the ISS seem determined to push those boundaries. Last month, the European Space Agency appealed for ideas and 'vision' from scientists to shape its next ISS research programme, due to be presented to member states in 2012. And next week, NASA will hold a public meeting to help throw open the airlock of the ISS to sister government agencies, chemical firms and pharmaceutical companies, among others (see page 610).
NASA is the biggest funder of the ISS and its biggest stakeholder, yet it would be a sensible step for the agency to hand over its control of ISS science to an independent body. Acting as a buffer between NASA managers and the broader research community who could use the ISS facilities, such a body was first proposed last year in the Augustine committee's review of US human spaceflight plans and was mandated by the NASA authorization bill passed this September. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, which oversees research on space telescopes such as Hubble, shows how such an operation can work well. If set up properly, a similar body could offer a useful arms-length approach to space science that could boost both the profile and quality of orbiting experiments. This could help to counter continuing accusations that expanded space-station research will merely throw into orbit good money after bad. But for such a strategy to succeed, the scientific demand to drive competition for expensive time aboard the ISS must be there — a condition that is by no means certain. But scientists, whatever their views on its cost effectiveness, should not glibly dismiss the research credentials of the space station and its possible contribution to science. Those with even a passing interest should take the officials in charge at their word and give serious thought to how the facility could be used.
Flagship shiny projects help to stir wider public interest in science and so loosen political purse strings to release funds that might otherwise not flow to research. And basic, blue-skies research, scientists often say, is the bedrock of useful creativity. Decades in the making, the overpriced and underused marvel that is the International Space Station offers bluer skies than most.