Just what do we get from space stations?

Space stations like the ISS are first and foremost training grounds for future human space missions, writes Daniel Clery.

The International Space Station photographed from the space shuttle Endeavour.
The International Space Station photographed from the space shuttle Endeavour.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Using a smartphone app, it is easy to watch the International Space Station cross the evening sky – a bright spot, inside which six astronauts live and work for many months at a stretch. At a cost of about $150 billion, the ISS is perhaps the most expensive object ever built. But as you follow the glowing blob, it’s hard not to ponder what it is actually for.

NASA and its partner space agencies portray the station as an orbiting laboratory where scientists can perform experiments without the effects of gravity. Many scientists, however, say there are other, cheaper ways to experiment in microgravity, and a human experimenter in orbit is seldom essential. Most researchers would have preferred to spend that $150 billion on lots of robotic missions instead.

But human spaceflight and the ISS are not really about science. They’re about exploration: boldly going where no man (or woman) has gone before. From the days of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama, to Darwin on the Beagle and Scott in the Antarctic, many explorers have dressed up their ventures in the garb of science.

Much of the ISS research is about how to live away from the bosom of the Earth. The station may be just 418 km from the Earth’s surface but it is a means to an end. On November 2 it will have been occupied permanently for 13 years. During that time the space agencies have learned much about keeping six astronauts fit, healthy, safe and occupied for long periods. This will be useful when it comes to sending voyagers far from home.

Space stations have come a long way: Skylab was never meant to last more than nine months. Russia’s many Salyuts were plagued by failures. But Mir finally showed that long missions were possible, and the ISS has continued that trend.

A 2009 review of American spaceflight plans, ordered by the US Congress, summed things up nicely. The “ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path for human expansion into the solar system … Mars is unquestionably the most scientifically interesting destination.” Many scientists would agree. Indeed, a suitably equipped geologist on the surface of Mars could reveal more information, more quickly than any number of Curiosity rovers.

But travelling to, landing on and getting home from the red planet will be extremely hazardous and make the cost of the ISS look like small change. No US administration has been prepared to commit to that step wholeheartedly. Instead they’ve proposed interim goals to develop the necessary technology, including building a permanent Moon base, landing on an asteroid or on a Martian moon. Sooner or later, if we want to venture beyond low-Earth orbit, we’ll have to decide where we want to go, and go for it.

Daniel Clery is a news editor with Science magazine and the author of A Piece of the Sun: the Quest for Fusion Energy.
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