Is the $150bn International Space Station the most expensive flop in history?


Countries from Europe – as well as Japan, Canada and a rare collaboration between the United States and Russia – have helped to establish one of mankind”s greatest achievements; creating a laboratory and home above the Earth.

Almost 18 years and $150 billion dollars later we can ask: Has the ISS been worth it or has it just been an expensive ego boost for scientists to show the world what they are capable of?

For starters, it’s worth noting that around 50 per cent of that astounding sum has come straight out of the pocket of American taxpayers which has already left some feeling bitter – especially because of the hardships that its citizens had to endure during the economic crisis which began in 2008.

The ISS was supposed to be a laboratory and observatory in low orbit.

Experts were hoping to look at the effects of space on the human body and if we will be able to grow crops in space, among other research.

Some of the top highlights aboard the ISS include helping the efforts of water purification.

The view was that impoverished areas around the world are in desperate need of cheap water purification systems – as are astronauts aboard the station – so it was seen an excellent opportunity to perfect technology that could be cheap and easy to roll out.

Additionally, scientists wanted to study how some of the human body’s 100,000 proteins form in space.

The theory was that micro-gravity allows for “growth of unique and complicated crystal structures of proteins leading to the development of medical treatments”, according to NASA.

But experts have argued all of this could have been done on Earth.

Gregory Petsko, a biochemist at Brandeis University, told Space magazine: “I haven”t seen any really important structures yet that absolutely required the space station for crystal growth, and there are a heck of a lot of structures out there.”

David Leckrone, a former senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope, shared his frustration that scientists have not utilised the full potential of the ISS.

Dr Leckrone said: “I think it”s time to start showing what station can really do.”

But there is still hope – Robert Massey, of the Royal Astronomical Society, said that while it may be a failure so far, more is to come.

He told Al Jazeera: “You haven”t seen a sort of Nobel prize winning discovery coming off the back of this, at least not yet. 

“But what you have seen is the construction of a permanent lab in Earth orbit and that”s valuable to a whole range of sciences.”

With $150bn spent so far, it is fair to say that the ISS hasn’t been as much as a success as NASA would have hoped.

But it is expected to be in orbit for another 15 years meaning that there is still time for its huge price tag to be justified.