More than two decades in the making and less than three years into its operational phase, the International Space Station (ISS) is experiencing a public relations crisis of sorts.

Led by NASA, the ISS remains the largest international technology undertaking in history, one in which the U.S., Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan expect to have invested more than $100 billion by the end of the decade. In addition, NASA's ISS operations, transportation and research costs are estimated at more than $3 billion annually through 2020, excluding research expenses incurred by other space station partners.

So far, this expenditure has fully satisfied at least one of the space station's key goals—bringing together an international coalition, including the former Soviet Union, in pursuit of a common scientific endeavor.

A second goal—to get these same partners to view the station as a springboard for future exploration—has yet to be fully realized. The consortium cannot agree on a common destination—an asteroid, the Moon or Mars—though after more than two decades working together, all say the ISS partnership is a model for how to move forward.

More troublesome is the station's third goal, scientific and industrial research, perceived by budget-stressed governments in Europe, the U.S. and Japan as not having paid off, at least not yet.

Over the past decade, as construction of the ISS got underway, budgetary constraints led NASA to neglect the life and physical sciences portfolios most likely to benefit from unparalleled research opportunities aboard the station. Since 2002, NASA spending on life and physical sciences research dropped from approximately $500 million to less than $200 million in 2010, according to an April 2011 National Research Council report titled “Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration: Life and Physical Sciences for a New Era.” The report says NASA's present program has contracted to below critical mass and is perceived from outside the agency as lacking the stature and resources needed to attract researchers or accomplish meaningful science.

Under fiscal pressure to demonstrate the orbiting lab's real-world value, managers from the five partner nations attending an ISS symposium here May 2-4 said it is unfair to ask any infrastructure devoted to basic research to yield rapid results. But, despite having been operational for less than three years, the station “seems old,” according to European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain, because it took more than a decade to complete after the first module was launched in 1998.

“Utilization started only two or three years ago,” Dordain says. “You cannot expect tens of Nobel prizes after two years of using this laboratory. But even though it's very recent, we have already a lot of very interesting research.”

Soon after the ISS became habitable in 2000, researchers began using it to study the impact of its near-zero-gravity environment, making new discoveries in life sciences, biomedicine and materials science that could spur development of valuable high-technology products and services. One near-term industrial application the ISS currently supports is the Intermetallic Materials Processing in Relation to Earth and Space Solidification (Impress), a pan-European materials science research project.

Robert Guntlin, managing director of Access, an independent research center associated with the Technical University of Aachen in Germany, says the project has the potential to give European industry a leading position in fuel-cell development and turbine production, noting that new designs from Airbus, Boeing, Comac and Bombardier incorporate engines made with titanium aluminide blades.

Dordain says that the ISS has been instrumental in the fundamental science enabling development of these ultra-lightweight titanium aluminide turbine blades, which are expected to cut aircraft fuel consumption in half. But the public relations benefit of branding such ISS-enabled products is complicated by the fact that it is cheaper to manufacture technologies on Earth.

“It makes it very difficult to say the product was 'made in space,'” he says. “But without the research onboard the ISS, this type of turbine blade would never have been made.”

Other real-world spinoffs use technology from the space station's Canadarm2 and Dextre, Canadian robots that service and maintain the ISS, to produce the world's first robot capable of performing brain surgery. Dubbed the neuroArmTM, the technology is now licensed to a private, publicly traded medical device manufacturer planning to develop a two-armed version that will enable neurosurgeons to see three-dimensional images and apply pressure to tissue.

Packaged-food giant Nestle is also using the space station's microgravity environment to develop flavor enhancers and stabilizers to preserve storable foods.

The station's scientific and industrial research potential notwithstanding, its utilization comes at a price, one that Dordain says must be reduced to continue innovative development activities that could attract a new generation of scientists and engineers to space exploration.

“The ISS budget should not prevent implementing other space activities and other exploration missions—we have to perform other exploration missions also, especially to the Moon and Mars, and before 2020,” Dordain says.

EADS Astrium is under contract to manage Europe's ISS operations and has agreed to impose regular cost reductions to reduce annual operating costs 30% by 2020. Dordain also suggests that staffing four ISS operations centers in Houston, Moscow, Tokyo and Germany might be a luxury that the space station partners could do without.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says the agency last year selected the non-profit group Casis (the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space) to compete proposals for scientific experiments on the station's U.S. segment, a designated U.S. national laboratory, 50% of which has so far gone unutilized.

“NASA needs to get out of the business of running the competition and selecting experimenters and researchers to fly on ISS,” Bolden says. “We realize if we truly want to enhance the utilization, we've got to cast our net as wide as we can in bringing people aboard to do experiments.”

But Florida-based Casis has yet to identify any proposals worth funding and has been dogged by public relations issues, notably the resignation of its CEO after less than six months on the job. If Casis can sort itself out, “then our proposal would be that we expand it even more broadly so you don't just have academia and the partner organizations doing the research on station,” Bolden says.

NASA has already contracted two private firms—Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., and Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.—to ferry cargo to the space station. After years of delays, SpaceX is expected to launch its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo vessel to the ISS this month.

“When the hatch is opened on the Dragon module and Dragon becomes an integral part of the space station, that will be the realization of a whole new era in what we do, because that will mean that private companies have now entered the fray and are true partners with us,” Bolden says.

NASA ISS Director Mark Uhran says the logical next step for low Earth orbit is exploitation by non-governmental players. “I think by 2030 the ISS will be an important part of our legacy,” Uhran says. “I hope that we are able in the next decade to turn over the low Earth orbit environment for development by the private sector and I remain optimistic something like that is entirely feasible based on the progress that I see today.”

With its potential to function as a springboard for exploration, the partners have agreed to operate the ISS until at least 2020. They also agree there is potential to recertify ISS hardware and ensure spare components are available to 2028. Less certain, however, is the urgency with which the partners need to start planning for continued operation beyond the end of this decade.

Russia, for example, which has a plan for manned spaceflight in 2015-25, needs to start preparing for continued operations as early as 2014, according to Alexey Krasnov, head of human spaceflight at the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

Although the Russian government does not have an excess of cash, it is investing $1 billion a year in manned spaceflight and is willing to consider extending the ISS beyond the current decade.

After operating in low Earth orbit for the past 50 years, “it is evident that we have not learned all that we can from LEO,” Krasnov says. “Hopefully, again in the next decade we will witness the next step in the exploitation, in the evolution of the ISS for the future.”

The U.S. and Europe are less certain as to the space station's role beyond 2020. Dordain says, “clearly there will be something in low Earth orbit after this space station,” though it might look quite different than the football field-sized facility orbiting the planet today.

“This was the only way to make a space station together. But it is too big for one orbit,” he says. “I would like to look at how we can make an international space station in smaller pieces and maybe in different orbits.”

Bolden, who notes that the ISS is a less-than-ideal environment for certain types of experiments, sees a series of commercially owned free-flying space stations as the logical successors to the ISS.

“I think every experimenter knows one of the worst contributors to their experiments sometimes not working—protein-crystal growth or materials processing—is some astronaut jumping around on a treadmill,” Bolden says. “We need standalone or other platforms in orbit we can put experiments on that will not be bothered by humans for long periods of time.”

Bolden says NASA should encourage private industry to invest in free-flyers. “The way that we open up business is by allowing industry to build the second-, third- [and] fourth-generation space station, not nations,” he says.