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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 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 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 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.

  • by mozumder ( 178398 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @06:17PM (#34095604)

    More people want to be like france than want to be like somalia.

    Therefore, a massive government is better than a "limited government".

    Remember, DON'T BE LIKE SOMALIA, with their silly "limited government".

  • by cheater512 ( 783349 ) <> on Monday November 01, 2010 @06:23PM (#34095672) Homepage

    Are you using a wifi network right now or in the last 6 months?

    If so bugger off. Australian taxes paid for the CSIRO to do their excellent work. Not even your own tax money.

    Your moaning, yet you still benefit.

  • "Competitive"? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mozumder ( 178398 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @06:24PM (#34095690)

    The ISS, or the LHC, or any other major research project wasn't built with competition in mind.

    Competition is a bad thing, not a good thing. It results in monopolies, since the whole point of competition is to eliminate competitors.

    Why would you want monopolies?

  • by Nadaka ( 224565 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @06:26PM (#34095716)

    Advanced research is and always has been funded by governments.

    Right now, the average corporation is barely looking past next quarters returns. Anything that can't turn a profit this fiscal year is not done by average corporations.

    Even long term investments expect a return within 5 to 10 years at the most. If it wont produce profit in that timeframe, it won't be done.

    Government needs to finance theoretical and advanced research, otherwise new opportunities for applied research that private orgs are willing to invest in will rapidly dry up.

  • Is it really? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by pavon ( 30274 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @06:33PM (#34095802)

    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 is a waste of money - we are getting the same indirect return either way.

  • 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 MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @07:04PM (#34096138) Journal

    The Internet is a spin-off. It was originally a Defense met (DARPA), then opened up to academia and then, through some twists and turns, by the late 1980s you had some individuals getting on board via facilities like UUCP (that's how I got my first mail and news feed around 1993).

    It's hard to see how private industry in and of itself would have the where with all to develop it. I know there were other forms of internal networking, but DARPA had fairly specific needs for a routed packet switching network, and not in the sort of fixed networks that corporations were using.

    But the fact, at the end of the day is that directly the US taxpayer funded the development of the Internet and its basic protocols, directly funded many of the early users (US military, defense contractors and academics) and directly and indirectly funded a helluva lot of the copper that ended up being used for ARPANET as it grew.

    However much the US government ending up spending on ARPANET, I'll wager the US economy has made it back many times over, and indeed it literally has created whole new marketplaces. So that initial investment has paid off hugely.

    That's the problem with Libertarians. They're like religious fanatics, and like all fanatics, they have tunnel vision.

  • 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.

  • Re:"Competitive"? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mozumder ( 178398 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @07:32PM (#34096408)

    No. Competition is what MAKES monopolies.

    The lack of competition IS a monopoly.

    Government is a monopoly.

    Fortunately, government's interest is the public's interest.

    Meanwhile, a private company doesn't have a public interest. They should not be allowed to have monopolies through competition.

  • by jd ( 1658 ) < minus city> on Monday November 01, 2010 @07:36PM (#34096448) Homepage Journal

    I don't know about making CPUs in space, but certainly if you made the silicon crystals in space you would have a major advantage. The microgravity would mean fewer flaws. The yield, as a percent, is very high as it is, but it's still too low to go to wafer-scale infrastructure. (Wafer-scale IS used, but not at the kinds of densities used in domestic electronics. A wafer-scale RAM chip at current densities would give you between 16-32 terabytes and require none of the support electronics required on a typical RAM card, for example. A wafer-scale CPU would turn Intel's dream of an 80-core CPU into a 512-core CPU. And so on.)

    The cost would obviously be much higher, done this way. You'd be looking at 200x current prices per gigabyte. However, that would not be a major problem in the supercomputer field, and I'm not all that sure it'd be a problem in the extreme gamer market.

    There are masses of molecules that cannot survive on Earth, so you're not even limited to metals. Anything with a crystalline structure would benefit automatically from the lack of gravity. Anything intended for space that can be damaged by launch (for example, a space telescope's mirror can be deformed by the acceleration forces) would benefit not only from the environment being easier, but also benefit from the lack of stress placed on it to get it into space.

  • 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.

  • by pgmrdlm ( 1642279 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @08:55PM (#34097036) Journal

    And even though nobody on this site wants to hear this, that would be the highest earners who paid the most. []

    But I doubt anyone wants to REALLY see what the tax break down is, and WHO actually paid the most for the space station. That would completely ruin their arguments of how THEIR money was wasted.

    I used that link because it references the IRS for its data, and the pdf that they used.

  • by Stuntmonkey ( 557875 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @09:19PM (#34097164)

    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 as long as possible, despite its horrible economics. So the Shuttle needed something useful to do, and the ISS was cooked up as the solution for that problem. Now we have the ISS, and we're trying to figure out what IT's good for. These are all solutions in search of a problem. Better to go after some real goal, like sending astronauts to explore a comet.

  • Simple Truth (Score:2, Interesting)

    by MissNoItAll ( 1103281 ) on Monday November 01, 2010 @09:43PM (#34097280)
    ISS equals processed dirt. Program costs equal processed money. Dirt goes to space. Money stays on earth. How difficult was that? We all need to see that space is the very best kind of welfare. Before you can collect it, you have to get off your butt, maybe even educate yourself and then 'oh my God', do something useful.

In less than a century, computers will be making substantial progress on ... the overriding problem of war and peace. -- James Slagle