Saturday, May 12, 2012

The self-licking ice cream cone?

International Space Station (NASA/2009)

After 12 years and $100 billion, the International Space Station is complete. But where's the science?

From the Los Angeles Times:
More than a quarter of the area that NASA has designated for experiments sits empty. Much of the research done aboard the station deals with living and working in space — with marginal application back on Earth. And the nonprofit group that NASA chose to lure more research to the outpost has been plagued by internal strife and recently lost its director.

And more broadly, questions remain about whether NASA can develop U.S. capability to send experiments up and bring them back to Earth — and whether, in fact, the station can live up to the promises that were used to justify its creation. ...

This "incredible potential" is what NASA used to justify the decision to build a space station, which had been in the works since the Reagan administration.

"When we finish, ISS will be a premier, world-class laboratory in low Earth orbit that promises to yield insights, science and information, the likes of which we cannot fully comprehend as we stand here at the beginning," said then-NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin during a 2001 congressional hearing. ...

But then — as now — some questioned the station's future as a center of science. They note that much of the research done aboard the station deals with surviving the space environment.

Privately, some NASA officials worry the outpost could feed into the agency's reputation as a "self-licking ice cream cone" in that space-based experiments help NASA keep doing space-based experiments.

First of all, I'd say there's no question that NASA can develop a U.S. capacity to reach the space station (replacing the space shuttle, in other words). The only question is if we will.

We live in an America where we'd rather give tax cuts to the rich than educate our kids! We'd rather give tax cuts to the rich than see that our elderly get fed! We've got the ability to do great things. But do we have the will?

But what about the rest of this? Is it valid?

There's no doubt at all that we've made huge mistakes in America in recent decades, culminating with the biggest mistake of all (so far), the election of George W. Bush. If we haven't make huge mistakes in NASA, well, that would be the only place we hadn't.

But what about these particular objections? If we've been researching the effects of living and working in space, isn't that pretty much a prerequisite to everything else? We can't have scientists working in space if we can't keep them healthy and safe.

And it's not exactly worthless knowledge, anyway. Sooner or later, we human beings will have to leave this planet - or at least some of us will - if we expect our species to survive long-term. The Earth is a wonderful place for human beings, but it's also just one fragile basket.

There have been mass extinction events in the past, and there will be mass extinction events in the future. Heck, we're in the middle of a mass extinction event right now, and if we keep doing what we've been doing, that may come to include human beings, too.

So the ability to live and work in space is also a prerequisite for anything else we wish to do in space or on other planets, moons, or asteroids. It's valuable research, even though it might seem like a "self-licking ice cream cone."

For other scientific research, I don't know how valuable the International Space Station might be. Perhaps we would have been smarter to choose a different direction for our efforts. Well, as I noted, we Americans certainly have no shortage of mistakes to regret.

But now we've got the ISS. We've already spent that $100 billion. Are we going to just waste that investment?

To some extent, it's immaterial whether or not the ISS was a mistake. We've already spent the money. We're not getting that back. Yes, it will cost money to continue operations there, but shouldn't we at least attempt to get something back from that investment?

Well, as I say, research on living and working in space isn't nothing. We needed to know that, and we still do.

Furthermore, until now, we've been building the ISS. Logically enough, that's where we've focused our efforts. We seldom get much research out of a laboratory while it's still under construction. So it's a little early to be judging all this, isn't it?
NASA officials, however, say research is just beginning and already there have been advances.

Scientists at Johnson Space Center in Houston have taken advantage of the station's lack of gravity to develop "micro-balloons" the size of red blood cells that can carry drugs to cancer tumors. And the European Space Agency is looking to help doctors better diagnose asthma by using an air-monitoring device developed for astronauts.

"It's the tip of the iceberg," said Marybeth Edeen, NASA manager of the station's national laboratory.

The inability to completely fill NASA's science racks, she said, is simply one of the priorities. Up until now, NASA has been focused on building the station. Indeed, the station crew, which expanded from three to six members in 2009, now spends about 50 hours a week on science, as opposed to three hours a week in 2008.

We rarely know what we're going to get from scientific research. (If we did, there probably wouldn't be any reason to do it.) Knowledge is valuable. In science, even failures are valuable. If we know what doesn't work, we'll be better able to focus on what does.

Science is about evidence, and you have to do the research to get that evidence - or to confirm the evidence you've already got, or think you have. But look what science has given us. You wouldn't be reading this without science. You probably wouldn't even be alive without science.  I know I wouldn't be.

But these days, half the country doesn't "believe" in science. Science tells them the truth, and they'd rather believe fantasy. And that same half of the country would rather give tax cuts to the rich than anything else, apparently.

When tax cuts to the rich have a higher priority even than your own children or your own grandparents, then you know that science is going to be pretty far down the list.


Chimeradave said...

Yikes this article was in the "Los Angeles Times"? What the heck is a "self-licking ice cream cone"? I mean I guess the writer thought it was a clever idiom, but it doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Of course experiments in space are going to be partly about being in space otherwise WHY BE IN SPACE?!

It is my opinion that research on the space station should be concerned with getting more human beings into space. Finding cheaper ways to get into space. Finding cheaper energy sources. Doing research on long term effects of weightlessness. That sort of thing.

But there is also much that can be learned in other fields. They have weightlessness up there as well as space itself outside their walls. Both of these things are not easy to come by on Earth and so there are any number of experiments they can do.

It is such a shame that by the time we got this thing finished we decided to cut the only transportation up there.

That's like if we build a new White House for Obama on an isolated island and spent lots of taxpayer money on it, but then Congress decided not to pay for Air Force One to take Obama there, so it ends up he can't get to the new house unless he hitches a ride with Putin, who is representing the Soyuz Program in this analogy.

WCG said...

By "self-licking ice cream cone," they mean that NASA is just spending money to perpetuate itself. It spends money to research living and working in space so it can continue spending money on living and working in space.

And some people - some of them scientists themselves - think that all space research and exploration should be robotic, that there's no reason to have people in space, so there's no value in that particular research.

I disagree. I'm skeptical about Moon colonies and such, but we do need to know if we can live in space or even travel in space for very long. We need to know what our options might be.

And certainly, now that we've got the space station, we'd be stupid not to take advantage of it. Whatever you think about the decision to build it in the first place, it would be crazy to let it all go to waste.

Re. your last paragraph, John, don't give Republicans any ideas! :)