ABCNews has a short interview with the current crew of the International Space Station.
It’s not mentioned in the interview, but there’s a strong perception out there that the ISS is a waste of time and money, that it’s a platform without a purpose. There’s no doubt that it’s a creature of political compromise, and there’s no doubt that it’s expensive for what it does, but I still feel uncomfortable writing it off completely. We should at least wait until it has had its full crew (of six) for a few years, doing science rather than construction. I don’t believe the ‘might cure cancer’ propaganda that got the thing built, but the fact remains that there is a vast amount of microgravity science that can be done, and we have no way of knowing what might (eventually) come of it.
The key for the ISS is not so much the station itself, but regular access to it. If it takes years to get a payload on board, and results of an experiment returned, before a follow-up can be flown (this was the experience of the space shuttle) then it’s hard to imagine how very much basic investigation could be done there before the end of it’s life. On the other hand, if experiments can be turned around in just a couple of months, researchers have a much better opportunity to test and explore their theories, and respond to the things they learn with re-designed experiments.
Is this possible with the current level of access to the station? No. But I believe it could be if one or both of the COTS companies, SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler, succeed in their task of demonstrating commercial access to the ISS.
We simply don’t know what might be waiting to be discovered up there, but it seems a fair bet, given that microgravity is such a radically different environment to the 1-G world in which almost all science has been, that there will be some very interesting surprises. We just need a place to do the experiments, and regular access.
When the Hubble Space Telescope was launched, it had a flawed mirror, and it looked like the mission was a failure. NASA figured out a way to correct its optics, and it has become the most amazing scientific instrument in history. The ISS is still in its construction phase, and there will be very little science done there until that is finished. It’s far too soon to write it off.