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NASA Space The Almighty Buck Science

Is the ISS Really Worth $100 Billion? 503

Ponca City writes "JR Minkel writes on Space.com that as NASA celebrates the 10th anniversary of astronauts living on the space station — and with construction essentially complete — the question remains: will the International Space Station ever really pay off scientifically? The space agency contends that the weightless environment provided by the station offers a unique way of unmasking processes of cell growth and chemistry that are hidden on Earth, but some critics don't see a zero gravity laboratory as filling a crucial scientific need. Gregory Petsko, a biochemist at Brandeis University, says the only basic science justification he has ever heard for the station is that protein molecules form superior crystals in the microgravity of space than they do on Earth and a best-case scenario, in terms of return on investment, would be if a space-grown crystal were used to design a blockbuster pharmaceutical drug that worked by precisely targeting one of those proteins. Naturally NASA sees things differently. 'I think those who are naysayers haven't given us a chance — haven't given us enough time to show what we can do. We're just now turning the path to be able to go full force on our science. In the past we had to fit it in around assembly, we didn't have the facilities available, and the crew was always busy.'"
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Is the ISS Really Worth $100 Billion?

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  • by fkx ( 453233 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @05:45PM (#34095174) Homepage Journal

    I hear they are coming out with a new flavor .. of tang.

    That has to be worth something.

    • Ebay (Score:4, Insightful)

      by sycodon ( 149926 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @05:53PM (#34095272)

      Put it on eBay and find out what it's worth,

    • Honestly, I think the entire ISS/Space Shuttle platform should be revamped. I think that the shuttle has a good niche, but I don't see a reason as to why the shuttle shouldn't stay in space, while allowing the crew to return in a capsule-based vehicle.

      The shuttle is good at reaching things and plucking them out of the sky, and the robotic arm is really nice. I don't see why they don't leave the robotic arm in space, or in a shuttle like vehicle. I like the idea of a shuttle-like vehicle that stays dock
  • by cowscows ( 103644 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @05:48PM (#34095206) Journal

    I'm assuming that various technologies and engineering solutions were developed in order to build the station and get it assembled in orbit, so even if no science is done on the station from this day forward, much knowledge was undoubtedly gained already. Knowledge that would probably not have come about from non-space-station-related projects. 100 Billion dollars is a lot of money, but humanity has blown significantly larger sums of money on way less useful stuff on many occasions.

    • Salient quote (Score:5, Insightful)

      by dazedNconfuzed ( 154242 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @05:53PM (#34095288)

      Strange how much human accomplishment and progress comes from contemplation of the irrelevant. - Scott Kim

    • by Darkness404 ( 1287218 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @05:58PM (#34095354)
      Um, you mean the technologies that were basically all figured out with MIR?
    • The only piece of knowledge that I can think of which was a result of the ISS is knowing that the scuttle was a really bad idea. Personally I doubt if that knowledge was worth the price paid.
    • Is it really? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by pavon ( 30274 )

      Sure, back when the space agency was pushing the cutting edge it resulted in the development of a large amount of new technology. But is that really true today, now that we are just applying tried and true principles? I haven't heard of a single invention that came out of the ISS which has made it's way into the civilian marketplace.

      Furthermore, if building anything high tech will result in new tech, then doesn't it make sense to choose goals that are useful and worthwhile by themselves, over something that

      • I agree with you. I think that the space station was essentially a program championed by the aerospace contractors to keep the gravy train rolling after the Apollo program was canceled. The ISS was a huge waste of money. Big, inefficient projects to create things that had already been invented during Apollo. The Space Shuttle was a similar waste of money.

        Instead of spending money on these mundane things, NASA should have been pushing the envelope in new propulsion systems. Yet, almost all of that research g

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 01, 2010 @06:54PM (#34096024)

      Take a middle school student outside on a clear evening that will have the ISS fly over during the hour after sunset. Point out the bright light crossing the sky to him or her and explain what that bright moving light actually is.

      I do this on a regular basis, and every time I have done it, the result has been a youngster that is motivated to learn math and science so he or she can have a possible future in space-related work.

      Human beings need aspirations. We need something to lift our thoughts above the hum-drum of everyday life. In the lack of a space program that is moving beyond low earth orbit, the ISS is all that we have to serve that role. It is keeping the spark of the future alive.

    • by jmcharry ( 608079 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @07:17PM (#34096266)

      I wonder how much more might have been gained from that amount of targeted R&D.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Poorcku ( 831174 )
      100 billion = 1/7 of the economic rescue package for ze Banks...
    • by fermion ( 181285 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @07:36PM (#34096446) Homepage Journal
      I hear the Hobbit is going to cost at least $500 million to produce. Add the advertising and distribution costs and you have billion dollar film. Clearly this is an positive economic decision because even if the near term gross is only 1.25 billion, someone stands to make a lot of money.

      But what does the Hobbit give to Humanity long term. What does the billion buy us. Do we get experience building a reliable structure in a hostile, novel environment? Do we get to do science in an environment not available on earth? Do we get new technology?

      Ok, on such film we do get new technology. But when we do science, especially big science, it is not on the same basis as a production job. In science we throw money at problems, sometimes it shows results, sometimes it doesn't, but when it does the economy is transformed and the value cannot be calculated.

      I mean what is the value of radio? What is the value of tv? What is the value of being able to travel quickly from the US to New Zealand? What is the value of being to transmit data quickly form US to New Zealand? ATT certainly is not profiting off The Hobbits digital cameras, does that mean the CCD was a waste of money?

      Part of the problem with the space station is it took money from a relatively small pile of money that can be used for big science, which means that other project leaders are pissed that they cannot do their big science. But the bigger problem is that the common person sees the billion dollars and thinks that it is a lot of money. But do you think all the money that was spent on basic research leading up to the creation of the NAND chip hasn't been paid over many times in the transformative technology of the solid state drive? Do we seriously think that space is not going to transform and improve our society?

  • by dazedNconfuzed ( 154242 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @05:50PM (#34095234)

    "I think those who are naysayers haven't given us a chance -- haven't given us enough time to show what we can do."

    Wasn't the ISS built with an expiration date approaching ... about now?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The potential value to science can be found where else?

    If we are comparing similar projects the price tag becomes a useful thing. Unique projects are harder to judge. Is it worth more than a fraction of the gulf war(s)?
    It's not worth more than the cost of cleaning up government but then I don't thing that's on the table.

  • by jpmorgan ( 517966 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @05:51PM (#34095260) Homepage

    Scientific research is just gravy. The biggest benefit of the ISS is it teaches us how to operate indefinitely in space. All the little unexpected things that went wrong and had to be solved, was an important lesson learned. They all might seem trivial, but if we ever want to do more than hang around in low-earth orbit, these are all important lessons to learn. And they can only be learned through experience.

    When you're half way to mars, a malfunctioning toilet would be a shitty way to die.

    • But it didn't raise our stock this quarter! Fire that man and cancel everything he did!

    • by PCM2 ( 4486 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @06:07PM (#34095454) Homepage

      When you're half way to mars, a malfunctioning toilet would be a shitty way to die.

      I see what you did there.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Not to rain on this parade, but Russia figured most of these lessons out a long time ago with the Mir/Soyuz. Even now, the person who spent the longest continuous period in space did it on Mir, not the ISS. And even the US figured out a good number of these lessons with Spacelab. The ISS doesn't provide any really new experience in long term space survival, though it does provide some engineering challenges that Mir did not. And besides, neither the Mir nor ISS are close to operating indefinitely. Both

      • While the ISS has only served to continue early work on extended duration spaceflight as far as it being a space station, two things stand out as new with the ISS:

        1. Effective, large scale international cooperation.
        2. Large scale, in-space construction.

        In learning how to truly expand beyond Earth, these are important lessons. Add to this the lessons of everything that went wrong, particularly a dependence on a single launch vehicle for many components, and there is much to be gained from the experience. Y

    • by hweimer ( 709734 )

      When you're half way to mars, a malfunctioning toilet would be a shitty way to die.

      Oblig Race into Space [raceintospace.org] quote: "FOOD AND WASTE PROBLEM, CONTAINMENT BACKFLOW, QUITE MESSY. MISSION IS SCRUBBED."

    • Is it possible that at least a few of those who think the ISS is a waste are, right now, wishing that money was put into a mission to 'somewhere else'?

      Do you think learning how the toilets actually work on the ISS would be useful to this mission to 'somewhere else'. Like, somewhere the Shuttle can't deliver spares?

      Yes, the ISS is expensive. Going 'somewhere else' will dwarf this expense.

      Next question.

  • by BlackSnake112 ( 912158 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @05:53PM (#34095286)

    So we can build more things in space. What would happen if we were to build a foundry in space? Could we build new metals? Would they be stronger? Would they be applicable to more uses? What about making CPUs in space? Could we build a system that would align the materials better in space?

    Yes I am dreaming here. If we could safely work with liquid materials (metals, silicon, etc.) in space, we might be able to build better things.

    • by fpgaprogrammer ( 1086859 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @06:52PM (#34095994) Homepage

      contrary to the AC response, there are a lot of metal alloys that cannot be made on earth because gravity causes the mixture of liquid metals to form separate layers (like mixing oil and water) especially during the cooling process for making the allow. another possibility is the creation of metallic foams which cannot be made the same way on earth because gravity separates the liquid metal from the air bubbles.

      • by khallow ( 566160 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @08:00PM (#34096630)

        contrary to the AC response, there are a lot of metal alloys that cannot be made on earth because gravity causes the mixture of liquid metals to form separate layers

        Unless you mix them and/or pour them from a sufficient height (to get a few seconds of microgravity, enough for quick hardening alloys). It's tiresome to hear of all the things you can do only in microgravity, only to find that you can them good enough on Earth with some cleverness. What's the point of growing large perfect crystals of protein in space, when you can grow large enough protein crystals on Earth? Or specialized alloys that can be trumped by a cheaper alternative on Earth? It's not enough to do something unique in space, it's got to be valuable enough to beat cheap.

        I'm not a metallurgist or pharmaceuticals research, and I sure don't have a lock on what technologies are going to work in space. But a lot of this is hard even by the standards of today's science. You not just trying to find novel things never discovered before, here, you're also trying to find really valuable things that require some aspect of space such as the microgravity environment or the ready access to vacuum. To be blunt, that effort has been going on for decades by a lot of smart people with a lot of money and they still haven't found the magic discovery that will justify space industry.

  • It's fun! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Bromskloss ( 750445 ) <auxiliary DOT ad ... privacy AT gmail> on Monday November 01, 2010 @05:56PM (#34095336)

    I thought people fly in rockets and visit space stations and the moon because it's cool. I don't care if no scientific progress comes out of it - I like space travel because it's awesome. Similarily, I'm not attracted to science, mathematics or technology for their practical uses, but because it's fun understanding how the world works, being able to calculate things and think up and admire cool (preferably huge) machines.

  • Same old: (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Hartree ( 191324 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @05:57PM (#34095352)

    Here. Let me translate:

    "They've paid 100 Billion. Think how much more they would have gotten if they'd granted that to my field."

    I'm sure it is everywhere, but I've seen this personally in biochemistry, solid state physics, and particle physics.

    My original advisor in grad school was literally jumping for joy when the SSC was cancelled. He didn't like it when I pointed out that none of that money would be going to grants he was involved in and would in large part go back to the general US budget.

  • The alternative (Score:3, Insightful)

    by NoSig ( 1919688 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @06:07PM (#34095460)
    The alternative is not 100 billion dollars for a war. The alternative could have been 100 billion dollars on general science spending. That's 11 LHCs of science or 10,000 individual X prices of engineering. I'm not in a position to evaluate that against the current space program, but that's a lot of pay off to compete with.
  • by Mantrid42 ( 972953 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @06:07PM (#34095462)
    It's a space station. We're not getting enough science out of our space station?!

    It's a station. In space. Right now, we have humans off-world. Think about that for a moment. Surely these are important fields to develop if we want to survive as a species long-term.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Stuntmonkey ( 557875 )

      Yeah, it's just a space station, and that's the problem. We've had space stations since Skylab in the 1970s. They aren't good for very much. They make poor science platforms (all the jostling, noisy humans nearby), and there isn't any interesting exploration to do in low earth orbit. I can think of much better ways to spend the money on space exploration, both manned and unmanned.

      The ISS is the result of a long chain of mis-justifications. Various political forces wanted to keep the Shuttle flying for

  • by SloWave ( 52801 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @06:14PM (#34095566) Journal

    I remember when they shut down the Apollo program to do this thing it was suppose to be a permanent hopping off point in space to get us out to the other planets and beyond. They never told us it was just going to go around circles just outside the atmosphere and let astronauts perform little science fair experiments and do little else. Basically, I believe now the space station and the space shuttle were just welfare programs for aerospace companies. Now NASA wants to crash it back to earth and loose everything. I don't blame Russia and the other countries wanting to detach their modules and taking them to play elsewhere. If NASA really wants to salvage the space station project, they need to push it to a higher, more useful orbit, and start building some real interplanetary manned (and unmanned) spaceships out there.

  • Child support? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Fuzzums ( 250400 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @06:14PM (#34095572) Homepage

    Same goes for so many things. Part of the taxes I pay go to child support for dysfunctional families with a father in prison and so on.
    Most of those children will vote for people and have ideas that I don't like, yet still my money goes there...
    Where's my return of investment here?

  • Probably the biggest benefit of the ISS is the ability to be a stopping point for manned travel to other moons/planets.

  • Working together (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Sean_Inconsequential ( 1883900 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @06:18PM (#34095612)

    I would say the biggest thing we should take from the ISS is that it got several countries to work together toward a common goal. Certainly there were disagreements along the way, and that is to be expected. The main countries involved had plans for their individual space stations though none could afford them. Let's be honest, it is likely that will be the only way we get to Mars and beyond, several countries working together to get there.

  • by Snufu ( 1049644 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @06:24PM (#34095688)

    we could have sent up thirty Hubble telescopes ($5B).

    Just sayin'.

  • 100 Billion? Is that all it cost? With a population of just over 300 million, that means it cost us less than $350 per person over 10 years? I would have to give a resounding yes. ~$35 a year per person is a bargain.

    I have a crazy idea. Lets make a space tax. 1% of any revenue generated directly from space goes to new space research. So, any telephone plan that uses satellites, television programming that uses satellites, satellite photos that use satellites, all get taxed at 1% to further the ind
  • by Anomalyx ( 1731404 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @06:32PM (#34095794)

    I think those who are naysayers haven't given us a chance — haven't given us enough time to show what we can do.

    I'm 100% sure that in another 10 years, when we still haven't seen anything of value come from the ISS, they'll say the same thing. It's a convincing argument, until someone realizes that it follows horrible logic. Basically they want us to fund them until they find something, then fund them some more. There's nothing that says anything interesting will ever come out of it. I'm not saying they shouldn't do research, I'm just saying I don't want that much money coming out of my (taxpayer) pocket.

  • It's an invalid question for two reasons:

    1) It's teaching us about how to live, build, and work long term in space. We need that knowledge to go to the moon and mars.

    2) You can't put a price tag on basic research. There's no guarantee that you'll find what you're looking for, or if you'll find what you're looking for, or if you find something completely different. Any of those answers could be worth nothing, it could be worth new industries, it could be life saving. There's no way of telling until you'v

  • Google's what $150 billion, Facebook $10 billion , ISS is a steal at $100 billion and will in history be far more relevant than most other things from today.
  • by toppavak ( 943659 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @07:06PM (#34096160)
    "The product of mental labor — science — always stands far below its value, because the labor-time necessary to reproduce it has no relation at all to the labor-time required for its original production." - Karl Marx
  • Wrong Question (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mhollis ( 727905 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @07:08PM (#34096168) Journal

    This is the wrong question that keeps getting asked again and again. It's the "NASA shouldn't send men into outer space" meme that closely accompanies the "NASA should only use robotic spacecraft" meme.

    This is blue-sky (well, since it's space, its probably black) research. This is the last vestige of this type of research that the United States has any investment in. the Reagan Administration axed all federal funding for this kind of ongoing research at Universities and think tanks long ago. But, since NASA had landed on the Moon, the Reagan Administration didn't want to cut this for fear they'd be hounded out of office.

    But CNN correspondents breathlessly ask Astronaut after Astronaut in "exclusive" interviews, taking up precious air time, "Considering the dangers, should we really keep putting men up into outer space?"

    Call me an Old Fossil, but I was there. Not once did Walter Cronkite ask the Apollo Astronauts this question. Everyone knew the answer. "Of course!" Even after the near-disaster that was Apollo 13, everyone was still just fine with the idea of going to the Moon. And we did it four more times, putting eight more men on the Moon. And we completely revolutionized our understanding of the Earth-Moon system and its origins.

    When NASA pulls its head out and gets the right teams together, they can do anything. And that includes helping pull Chilean miners out of the ground. (Oh, maybe there are some scientists at NASA who know a thing or two because of all this money being thrown at these "blue sky" projects!) The only limitation is funding, and NASA's funds have been cut, sliced, diced and reduced to the point where they cannot get off the ground any more. NASA is on life support, dependent utterly on 1960s-era technology supplied by Russia. When NASA was flying things with the Shuttle, people my size could go into outer space (I stand 6'5"). Now that we're all "back to the future" with Russian space capsules, It has increased to 6'3" because Russia generously redesigned their capsules, which were limited to 5'11". Russian capsules are what our Astronauts called "Spam in the can."

    Everyone here on Slashdot uses a computer for something. And I'll bet over 90% of slashdotters are using microcomputers to get on line. Microcomputers were developed based on needs by NASA to have computers that were light enough to be on a spacecraft because you couldn't fit a room-sized mainframe on an Apollo spacecraft or on the Lunar Excursion Module. So, let's see. We have this little space race thing that ends in the 1970s with NASA pouring money into little teeny solid state computing devices and you get the Apple ][ computer in 1977. And the IBM PC four years later. The last Apollo spacecraft was designed around 1967 more or less so I have to ask the naysayers what they're expecting to see in about ten years now that the ISS is complete. because everybody knows NASA science doesn't contribute to anything down here on earth.

    I get absolutely disgusted and horrified when I hear and read this line of reasoning. Here we have this community on slashdot that is the beneficiary of the technology that NASA's scientists had a major hand in developing and you're discussing piddling nonsense.

    Blue sky research generally takes about ten to fifteen, sometimes 20 years to result in something you hold in your hand. That's why it's called blue sky research, because it seems like you're funding a bunch of people looking up at the sky and asking why it is blue. But it always results in benefits to humanity that are incalculable. The United States is the only remaining superpower in the world. Rather than developing and maintaining stuff to kill people, we should be throwing big budgets at NASA and at other blue sky research. But, ever since Reagan took away the funding in our Universities (saying the Government is the problem), we have had none at Universities and a dwindling amount at NASA.

    Slashdotters should be ashamed these questions are being asked.

    • by KZigurs ( 638781 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @09:24PM (#34097180)

      United States are a superpower? Ghmm, somebody please tell China that the fatties are getting all worked up and ambitious again...

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by lennier ( 44736 )

      Not once did Walter Cronkite ask the Apollo Astronauts this question. Everyone knew the answer. "Of course!"

      Everyone also 'knew' that we'd have colonies on the Moon in 2001 and that there would be a grand future for human life in the solar system, and probably alien ruins on Mars and Venus.

      I grew up believing this too. But the hard lesson I've learned is that most of that Space Age propaganda was just that - a falsely idealistic vision of human colonisation designed to justify what was basically the ICBM and satellite program.

      Yes, the Apollo computer did a lot of pioneering research in real-time operating systems

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by DerekLyons ( 302214 )

      But CNN correspondents breathlessly ask Astronaut after Astronaut in "exclusive" interviews, taking up precious air time, "Considering the dangers, should we really keep putting men up into outer space?" Call me an Old Fossil, but I was there. Not once did Walter Cronkite ask the Apollo Astronauts this question.

      You may have been there - but you sure weren't paying attention. That question was asked repeatedly.

      Everyone here on Slashdot uses a computer for something. And I'll bet over 90% of slashdo

  • by Swampash ( 1131503 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @07:16PM (#34096254)

    We're just now turning the path to be able to go full force on our science.

    what. the. fuck. does. that. mean...?

  • by petard ( 117521 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @10:10PM (#34097396) Homepage

    Especially on any kind of absolute scale, when the amounts get so large. It's easier if you consider it in relation to other large governmental expenditures. Fox News (which tends to under-estimate war cost, IMO) has estimated the cost of the Iraq war at >$700B. How does the ISS stack up to that in terms of value to the world? Is it worth about 1/7 of that? More? Less? I'm not sure it stacks up as well against every other possible use of $100B, but I'd personally much rather have another 6 space stations than what we've gotten in exchange for our other $600B spent on war.

  • In one word: Yes. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by TheDarkMaster ( 1292526 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @10:25PM (#34097472)
    Only a complete moron measures something important as the conquest of space solely in terms of money...

    We must learn to live and travel through space, period. This small planet where we live on does not have infinite space, nor will sustain us forever.

Mr. Cole's Axiom: The sum of the intelligence on the planet is a constant; the population is growing.