Since the height of the cold war it hasn’t seemed sensible for nations to spend excessively on advancing further into space, yet for the last 12 years there has always been a crew of people living and working in space.
The International Space Station, the effort of the collaboration of five space agencies spanning three continents has so far had an estimated total price tag of 100-150 billion dollars. With an official mission to provide a unique research platform and enthuse and intrigue all those at home, the project has always received criticism for its cost. It’s not always errant penny pinching either, since budget constraints have previously inhibited specialised equipment from being sent up, while the allocated sum for an extra module could sometimes fund thousands of terrestrial researchers.
Yet once up there, the crews do get busy. The work done covers a wide spectrum; from how microgravity affects simple physical and biological systems to the development of technology. A lot of the work revolves around living, working and getting to space and is not often fundamental in nature.
There are exceptions, long term experiments that require special conditions such as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a device that has found hinted evidence of particles of the theorised elusive dark matter. While there has been a wealth of information about the effects of low gravity on the human body there is a question as to its use; some of the work done may only be practically useful if commercial living and manufacturing in space is found to viable and becomes more common.
The ISS is also proving to be important for the growing private space industry. SpaceX, a US based aerospace company won a contract to resupply the ISS in 2006 and has independently developed a series of launch vehicles for the task. In 2012 their Dragon spacecraft was the first privately built vehicle to dock with the ISS. Elon Musk, the SpaceX CEO has the ambitious goal of reducing the cost of space travel by a factor of ten and eventually sending people to Mars and the bulk of their funding has come from ISS contracts.
Making space travel cheaper is vital to increasing the scope of future programmes but it is almost impossible to measure the changes made to our attitude about space. However, it is claimed that projects that capture people’s imagination do inspire entire generations of scientists and engineers. The ISS mission has kept this in mind and been used as an educational platform, broadcasts of spacewalks and launches are often streamed live.
The last commander, Chris Hadfield (pictured) even took the time to record the first music video in space, a cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, as well as a series of videos about life on board. With the recent announcement that Tim Peake, the first British astronaut to visit the ISS is scheduled to arrive in 2015, maybe a wider domestic interest will develop.
If you believe that investing in space travel is worthwhile then the ISS continues to be a valuable platform for its development. It has been costly and its science may currently have had little impact on normal lives, but if the lofty notions of space tourism and asteroid mining are ever going to happen then costs like this are necessary.