Friday, October 25, 2013

The International Space Station is Valuable, But Not For Scientific Research

Photo Credit: Popsci
Premier political science blog The Monkey Cage (now at the Washington Post) has a nice analysis of the research contributions of the International Space Station, showing a definite trend towards increasing scientific output. This bucks a set of conventional wisdom that sees the ISS as basically a massive waste of public funds. According to critics, manned space flight is an inefficient way of doing science in space--robots like the ones currently cruising around Mars are just as capable but at lower cost and risk. You know what? I agree. But that's not the point.

The history of space exploration has its origins in the timeless human virtues of competition, exploration, and greatness. Scientific research as its driving purpose came later, after the cold war, after easy appropriations and political clout dried up. The obvious link between the scientific community (necessary to build rockets and spacesuits) and space exploration made "research" an obvious marketing strategy to keep money flowing. But for the millions of kids and adult dreamers who are inspired by NASA and the story of humans pushing the last frontier, publishing statistically significant research results are at best a nice byproduct.

Space exploration is valuable for its own sake because it's one of the clearest examples of humanity flourishing on a global scale. With this in mind, the observation that ISS is producing more and more scientific research actually reveals a deeper accomplishment: we're getting better at keeping people alive in space. The true success of ISS is generating operational know-how about living in space. The less time ISS crew devotes to maintenance, repairs, upkeep etc., the more time they have to do other activities, like science. But who's to say that research is the best way to spend that space surplus? If robots can do the scientific stuff better, perhaps tourism or asteroid mining or competition for historical greatness is a better use of space-time.

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