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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL January 24, 2001 Wednesday, A SECTION; Pg. A1



Michael Cabbage, Sentinel Space Editor

CAPE CANAVERAL -- Earthbound scientists have spent decades dreaming of breakthroughs such as these: Better drugs. Stronger, lighter metals. New insight into the fundamental forces of nature.

The possibility of such revolutionary advances has become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's main argument for building and operating the international space station.

However, as NASA prepares to launch the station's first laboratory next month, a number of leading scientists are predicting meager returns that won't begin to justify the project's staggering $95 billion price tag.

Supporters long have defended the 16-nation station program as a quantum scientific leap with unlimited potential to change our lives. Critics counter that planned space-station research has few, if any, practical applications. And, they argue, it isn't worth the money in any case. "It's going to give the American scientific community substantially more research time in microgravity [weightlessness]," said John Pike, a space expert and director of the GlobalSecurity.com policy research organization. "But I don't expect them to start pumping out Nobel Prizes any time soon."

Initially, that research time will be on the $1.38 billion Destiny module, the main U.S. laboratory. Destiny is scheduled to launch from Kennedy Space Center aboard shuttle Atlantis no earlier than Feb. 6.

Science won't begin in earnest before mid-March, when the first of Destiny's experiments is delivered to the station by shuttle Discovery. Five additional laboratories -- two built by the Russians and one apiece from the United States, Japan and the European Space Agency -- are planned by 2006, along with experiment platforms outside the outpost.

So far, only three experiments are under way on the station. Astronauts are looking at Earth and snapping photos to document climatic and seasonal changes. Corn and soybeans are being grown aboard the station as part of an experiment that will allow high-school students to compare the results with crops grown on Earth. And tests have begun on hardware designed to detect unwanted spacecraft vibrations and dampen them.

Station opponents say those and similar planned studies make for great public relations but are hardly groundbreaking research.

"They're not doing anything new," said Alex Roland, a professor of history at Duke University and a former NASA historian. "Some of these things we've been doing on the shuttle for almost 20 years."

To save money, much of the lab equipment that will be used on the station has been recycled from flights aboard the shuttle. But program scientists insist additional state-of-the-art tools and longer stays in orbit will make station research far superior to science done on the shuttle, the Skylab outpost of the 1970s and the Russian space station Mir.

All of those projects substantially increased understanding of what it's like to live and work in space. But station opponents argue none of the recent manned spaceflight programs have yielded a single breakthrough that has significantly benefited ordinary people -- certainly none worth $95 billion.

"The only thing you really can do on a space station that is worthwhile is investigate the effects of zero gravity on human beings," said Bob Park, a physics professor at the University of Maryland.

Roger Crouch, NASA's chief station scientist, disagrees.

"The new technologies give you capabilities that just were not available," Crouch said.

An example, Crouch says, is a tantalizing but brief shuttle biology experiment that indicated the brains of newborn mice grow larger in space than on Earth.

"You don't really know the significance of this snippet that you get in a shorter mission on the shuttle," Crouch said.

The council of the prestigious American Physical Society warned as long ago as 1991 that the station's planned physics experiments, such as studies of the behavior of fluids and fire in weightlessness, had only marginal value.

"Many of the scientific objectives currently planned for the space station could be accomplished more effectively and at a much lower cost on earth, on unmanned robotic platforms or on the shuttle," the council's statement read. Park, a member of the society, said the organization's position has not changed.

Plans to grow crystals of proteins found in human cells, another longtime staple of shuttle science missions, also have drawn fire in recent months. Supporters claim studying larger, purer crystals grown in weightlessness gives researchers a better opportunity to understand the proteins' structures and how they influence the behavior of cells. That could lead to the development of better drugs.

Atlantis will carry a crystal-growth experiment to the station next month. An experiment with 473 crystal samples spent five weeks aboard the outpost last fall. Many samples were grown for high-school students. The results won't be known for a while.

Are taxpayers getting any bang for their buck?

The American Association for Cell Biology doesn't think so. The association urged NASA to kill space-based crystal growth in 1998 after finding the program had made no serious contributions to the understanding of protein structure or drug development.

An independent study completed last year by the National Research Council reached a similar conclusion. Its report was unable to cite "a single case where a space-based crystallization effort was the crucial step in achieving a landmark scientific result." The study did, however, note the work had the potential to contribute to future advances.

Other human life-science research appears to have greater potential for breakthroughs. In particular, scientists plan to study muscle loss, changes in bone density and other physiological effects of long stays in weightlessness. Combating those effects is crucial for future human journeys to Mars and beyond.

"One day we're going to want to leave the planet and go somewhere else," said John Uri, a NASA station scientist at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "We need to have a full understanding of what it takes to do that."

Research aboard Mir gave scientists lots of general information about the effects of prolonged weightlessness on the humans. But NASA managers say sophisticated equipment aboard the international station will generate detailed medical data never before available.

Those studies will start this spring. A human research cabinet equipped with an ultrasound machine and other medical instruments is scheduled to be delivered to Destiny in March. A second cabinet with additional equipment will follow next year. Astronaut examinations also will be done on the ground before and after each stay in space.

Even so, crews will spend only four or five months in orbit. That's far less than the year-plus stints of many Mir cosmonauts or the time required for a Mars mission.

And perhaps the biggest threat to interplanetary voyages -- prolonged exposure to solar radiation -- likely will remain something of a mystery. The station's relatively low orbit keeps astronauts out of harm's way and complicates efforts to learn more about the radiation's effects. Charged particles in the Earth's magnetic field act as a shield against the radiation.

Other limitations, such as the huge cost of sending experiments to orbit, have made paying commercial customers wary. Space agencies around the world have been swamped with thousands of proposals to fly university- or government-sponsored research aboard the station. But few corporations have been willing to spend their own money.

A package deal for a 1,500-pound station experiment the size of a nightstand costs $20.8 million. That includes delivery, astronaut time, power and satellite time to relay data back to Earth.

NASA's goal is to fill up to a third of Destiny's capacity with commercial customers. Reaching that goal will be tough. One company, Baltimore-based StelSys, already has signed up to do biomedical research. But much of the commercial interest has come from entertainment and television ventures.

"This is an evolving process," Crouch said. "As we show more results on the technology side, then the commerce will come."

Quantum leap or $95 billion boondoggle? Like business, many scientists are waiting to see.

The answer may boil down to old-fashioned luck.

"Part of science is that you don't know until you do the experiment what you're going to get out of it," researcher Uri said. "Serendipity plays a large part."

GRAPHIC: DRAWING: The U.S. Laboratory module Destiny
SOURCE: NASA, Sentinel research
BOX: Feb. 6 launch
Shuttle: Atlantis   Mission: Connect a U.S. laboratory module to the
international space station   Duration: 11 days    Crew: Commander
Ken Cockrell, pilot Mark Polansky, mission specialists Bob Curbeam,
Marsha Ivins and Tom Jones

Copyright 2001 Sentinel Communications Co.