Space Stations

Space Station Science: Left In The Dust – Again

By Keith Cowing
April 5, 2013
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Space Station Science: Left In The Dust – Again
The International Space Station

NASA has touted the International Space Station as a world class laboratory. Indeed, with the urging of Congress it has been designated as a “national laboratory”. But just saying something is so does not make it so.
According to this press release “Breakthrough in chemical crystallography” from the Academy of Finland: “As the SCD analysis is carried out with only one crystal, smaller than 0.1 x 0.1 x 0.1 mm in size, the required amount of the target molecule can be as low as 80 ng. Fujita’s and Rissanen’s work reports the structure determination of a scarce marine natural product from only 5 ug of it. Many natural and synthetic compounds for which chemists have almost given up the hope of analysing crystallographically can now be easily and precisely characterised by this method.”

For more than 20 years one of the prime scientific uses that NASA has wanted to put the ISS to was the production of large, ultra-pure protein crystals – a staple of every chart or paper NASA has produced to justify the scientific uses and potential of the ISS. The idea being that such large, perfect crystals help improve the efficiency of traditional means of determining biochemical structure via protein crystallography. However it would seem that structural information for biological molecules can now be obtained from vanishingly small biological samples – on Earth. No need for all that expensive outer space stuff.

If only NASA could find a way to get things from idea – to hardware – to orbit – and back faster and cheaper, the ISS might have played more of a role in this field of protein crystallography. Instead, while it dragged its feet in orbit progress continued on Earth. That is not to say that there is nothing you can do on the ISS. Quite the contrary. But good intentions aside, unless NASA and its semi-unwanted step child CASIS can speed things up, ISS will simply become less relevant.

Using the ISS: Once Again NASA Has Been Left in the Dust, earlier post
Realizing the Research Potential of the ISS Once and for All, earlier post
While NASA Flies In Circles Technology Advances Back on Earth, earlier post
One More Reason Not To Use the ISS?, earlier post

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.