When will we know if research on the ISS has paid off?

I often have the opportunity to do interviews with reporters who are interested in the kind of research happening on the International Space Station. Sometimes they are veteran space reporters, other times they are new and just learning about space research for the first time.


Regardless of their past experience, they often ask me for evidence that research on the space station is worth the cost. It is a simple question, but a misleading one. This is because it counts every penny on the cost side, but fails to account for the multiple benefits in addition to research results: international cooperation, engineering accomplishments, and research accomplishments.


The space station already benefits the country and the world through its construction and operation—even if it were never used as a laboratory, this would still hold true. We should not lose track of the power of daily international cooperation in constructing, operating and using the space station. The fact that this cooperation is on the cutting edge of space technology and for peaceful purposes amazes the previous generation, but is business as usual for us today. I work closely with colleagues at the main partner agencies, including Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan, and Canada; over 59 countries have participated in space station research or education activities through 2010.


Crewmembers from ISS Expedition 20 represent five nations and the five partners in building the International
Space Station: Belgium (European Space Agency), Canada, Japan, Russia, and the United States.
Image courtesy of NASA: ISS020e008898


The value of the space station as an engineering accomplishment should also not be underestimated. Common standards allow parts manufactured all over the world to interchange and connect flawlessly the first time they meet in orbit. Year round operations, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, have now extended for 11 years, and we have more than a decade ahead of us. The various life support technologies developed for station provide redundant capabilities to ensure the safety of the crew. They also provide technology advances that benefit people right here on Earth—for example, new compact technologies provided water purification after earthquakes in Pakistan and Haiti.


Water filtration plant set up in Balakot, Pakistan, following the earthquake
disaster in 2005. The unit is based on space station technology and processes
water using gravity fed from a mountain stream.

                                       Image courtesy of the Water SecurityTM Corporation


Even if we could place a monetary value on peaceful international cooperation and engineering advances from building and operating spacecraft, finding the true long-term payoffs of scientific research is very challenging. Some items could be tabulated as direct benefits from space station research—things such as new materials and products that can have a measurable market impact. Beyond the obvious items, however, the calculations get fuzzy. New products can lead to long-term economic value by making safer vehicles, by extending human life, and even by advancing the quality of life. What might appear as esoteric knowledge may indeed be the first critical steps on the path to a high-value breakthrough. Let us not forget indirect benefits from educational activities, job creation, and economic growth, as well. Colin Macilwain wrote a great critical review of the general challenges of valuing the worth of science in Nature last June, Science Economics: What Science is Really Worth, which I recommend for those interested in the challenge of valuing science.


In the coming weeks I will share with you stories of some of the direct benefits that I see coming from space station research. These developed from the modest research throughput during the station assembly period, prior to the full use of the finished laboratory we have today. Based on publications so far, most space station experiments take 2-5 years post-laboratory to publish results. New products related to these results take another 5-10 years or more to transition to a direct benefit. In fact, the space station will be deorbited before an accounting can be completed.


Along this journey, there are some really exciting possibilities emerging. I invite you to browse developments from space station research via our key results Web site, as we monitor the progress from knowledge to direct benefits.


Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D.

ISS Program Scientist


4 thoughts on “When will we know if research on the ISS has paid off?”

  1. Great idea to have started this blog! During my career as a space writer, I often had to confront people who simply saw no value in doing science research on the Space Station (or, for that matter, during pre-Station assembly shuttle missions – Spacelab missions for instance). Mostly because they expected that some much-heralded medical research projects in space should have yielded immediate results upon their return to Earth. I would usually tell them that science research on the Shuttle or on the ISS, this magnificient orbital laboratory facility, is a matter of long-term activity, something that can be compared to what is going on in any Earth-bound lab, where research has to be carried on sometimes for years (and with billions of dollars of investments) before a “miraculous” cure to some desease finds its way to the patient… So, I’m looking forward to read your coming stories that will help us monitoring this new phase in the existence of the Station.

  2. I have to echo Olivier’s comment about people seeing no value in ISS research, but having little to no knowledge of the research being performed. However, even when I was developing hardware for several life sciences experiments, I often had little insight as to what the research would be used for, or what eventually happened to the data after the scientist received it. The few times I tried to read the papers associated with that research, I was quickly overwhelmed by the technical detail in the papers. I think it is critical to provide a “dumbed down” description of the experiments and their results, as well as their application for future space flight or life in earth. Something at the “Discovery Channel” level would allow the rest of us to figure out what is going on up there.

  3. Ironic that only two days ago I was having the same discussion with someone who is 100% opposed to the space missions and ISS and the grounds that it is a rediculous waste of money.

    I but forward that the costs are actually grossly overstated (especially in regards to the US governments input) and that the benefits of the research being done through this process.

    It didn’t matter what examples I used, she still believes that the costs aren’t worth the results &, in particular, argues as to why we can’t achieve these benefits without using the ISS.

    If I thought she wouldn’t be offended by the action, I’d forward this too her. Unfortunately, I think she’d be so annoyed that she’d not really read & take anything in.

    I think, as Ed suggests, a discovery style series that clearly weighs the costs against the benefits would go a long way towards showing the misled, deceived, or uneducated.

  4. Now that we have finished building the space station, the important question is not whether it should have been built, but how to make the best gains from this unique and amazing opportunity available to scientists. The leading scientific journal Nature, often critical of the space station in the past, is noting that now is time to explore this new frontier of research: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v468/n7324/full/468599b.html.

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