Has the science on NASA’s International Space Station been worth the money?
The political question of whether the International Space Station (ISS) was worth the money was answered when an amendment to kill the orbiting space lab failed by one vote in the House of Representatives in 1993. Ironically, the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a hero of the civil rights movement, provided the deciding vote, even though he had never expressed much interest in space policy.
Thirty years later, one might ask if the science on the ISS has been worth the $100 billion and more that NASA and its international partners have paid for it? Let us leave aside the diplomatic benefits that have allowed several nations to cooperate in space more or less in harmony. The ISS has allowed its partners to garner a vast amount of experience in maintaining human beings in space. With the Commercial Crew program, the space station has enabled the development of private space vehicles such as the SpaceX Crew Dragon.
NASA is sure that the science being performed on the ISS is worthy of American tax dollars. The space agency has a webpage describing the first 20 years of science performed on the orbiting laboratory, including 3D printing in microgravity. Experiments not only point the way to making tools and spare parts on deep space missions, but of growing human tissue and organs, something that would revolutionize medical science and organ transplant procedures. If doctors can grow a heart or a kidney using the recipient’s stem cells, patients would no longer have to wait for a suitable doner or take powerful antirejection drugs.
NASA also has a page that lists discoveries on the ISS that it feels directly benefit people on Earth. They range from new air filtration systems that would be useful in the age of COVID_19 to creating artificial retinas to help the blind see again.
All the experiments that NASA lists seem worthy to the layperson’s eye. However, even as profligate as the federal government is at spending, the budgets that Washington passes every year consist of choices. Could the money spent building and maintaining the International Space Station have been better spent on other priorities?
The time is long past when politicians like Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) could rail on the floor of the Senate against space projects such as the shuttle and a space station proposal in favor of social programs. “I believe it would be unconscionable to embark on a project of such staggering cost when many of our citizens are malnourished, when our rivers and lakes are polluted, and when our cities and rural areas are dying. What are our values? What do we think is more important?”
Even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) far to the left of Mondale, has confined his criticism of NASA to snarking against rocket billionaires such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.
One argument is that $100 billion might have bought a lot of other science research had NASA and its partners opted not to build a space station. According to The Guardian, Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal and a vehement opponent of human space flight, suggested that the science conducted on the ISS has been “meager” and would better be spent on robotic probes to other planets and orbiting space observatories. Of course, NASA has funded those sorts of projects as well, most notably the James Webb Space Telescope and the upcoming Europa Clipper, greatly undermining Rees’ argument.
An attempt to do a cost-benefit analysis on ISS science would be rather difficult. Science research rarely conforms to that kind of examination while it’s being done. Only after the fact, when an entrepreneur rolls out some new product or service, can one point to something done in a laboratory as having helped to make it happen. The best bet for ISS science is the technology for 3D printing human organs for transplant patients. The number of lives that would be saved might make the $100 billion spent on the ISS worth it.
The ISS allows experiments to be conducted under microgravity, a quality that can never be replicated in any lab on Earth. Indeed, NASA almost invariably lists that characteristic in the pages about the science research conducted on the space station. Microgravity research is a whole new area of science involving a wide range of disciplines. Its creation makes the money spent building and maintaining the ISS worth the investment.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.
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