More than a year after astronauts and cosmonauts completed the International Space Station, the pace of its utilization continues to lag. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (Casis), a Florida-based non-profit set up to organize and promote use of the U.S. National Laboratory portion of the station, finally appears to be getting its oar in the water after an unconscionable startup delay caused by bureaucratic wrangling. But priceless time has been lost, and probably continues to be, as the U.S. gets up to speed using its 50% of the orbiting laboratory.

The problem is not restricted to U.S. utilization. Johann-Dietrich Woerner, who heads Germany's space program as chairman of the executive board of the German aerospace center (DLR), says he is frustrated with Europe's use of the on-orbit research capability it has acquired through development of the Columbus laboratory module and the Automated Transfer Vehicle.

“We, the whole community—Americans, Russians, Canadians, Germans, Europeans, Japanese—invested a lot of money into the space station,” Woerner says. “And we, at least the Germans, invested to use it not just to have a flying object. [I]t is our deep understanding that we should use it now, for science, development and research in general.”

Woerner puts a diplomatic gloss on frustration voiced elsewhere about the slow pace of getting the station up to speed. And he worries that, at least in Europe, other nations appear to be backing away from space station research even before it gets well underway.

“We are a little bit concerned about the situation in Europe, because when we discussed it in the last European Space Agency (ESA) council on ministerial level, we saw that many other countries are reducing their interest in the station,” says Woerner.

Among ESA member states, he says, only the U.K., Switzerland and Germany increased their contribution to ISS activities. France cut its station spending, leaving Germany to pick up the slack to the point that it now funds about half of the European contribution, up from 43% before the ministerial in Naples, Italy, last fall.

“Our intention was to have a constant contribution, but because France reduced its [portion], we said we have to [make up the difference],” says Woerner.

The German space chief told an audience at this year's National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs that before starting a project, it is always important to ask why it is being pursued, because once a large space development gets started it is difficult to stop. For the space station, the answer goes beyond microgravity research to fields of research not even considered when the orbiting facility was designed and built. “At the beginning, ISS was thought to be only for specialists in microgravity experiments,” he says. “It turns out that ISS is much more valuable. Look to [the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer] (AMS).”

The last major payload delivered to the ISS by space shuttle, the AMS was designed to collect and study subatomic particles originating in space.

The international AMS team recently published its first scientific paper, reporting an usually high count of positrons that could lend weight to the theory that the particles are generated when dark matter collides and annihilates itself. But positrons may also be generated by pulsars, and researchers are happy with the long-duration exposure the AMS will receive on the station because it will add data to the statistics that will shape future conclusions about the positron sources.

The ability to repeat experiments in the same low-gravity, high-vacuum environment can also have benefits in biomedical research, materials science and Earth observation, Woerner says. His U.S. colleague, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations William Gerstenmaier, believes the “tipping point” for deeper human exploration in space is likely to be reached on the ISS, since it is the only facility able to support the research that can generate a return on investment for commercial space activities. If an orbiting pot of gold or killer app is found there, it can lower the cost of access to space for all kinds of exploration (AW&ST April 1, p. 56).

Like NASA, which is relying on Casis to promote commercial exploitation of the ISS, Woerner says government's primary role is that of enabler rather than entrepreneur. “I'm not a missionary to convince industry how to make money. That's their job—[as is innovation]. We can help open the doors.”

Gerstenmaier and his colleagues in NASA's human-spaceflight endeavor may soon get a chance to open a door for Dennis Tito's ambitious plan to send a man and woman on a 501-day flight around Mars beginning in 2018. Taber MacCallum, chief technology officer for Tito's non-profit Inspiration Mars venture, says it is likely the closed-loop environmental and life support systems (ECLSS) that will be necessary for the Mars flyaround to succeed are likely to be tested on the space station. An ECLSS expert who spent two years in the Biosphere 2 experimental closed-loop habitat, MacCallum says for simplicity and speed, the Mars ECLSS will be based on station systems. And for the sake of fidelity, they will need to be tested on the station.

“That's what it's for,” MacCallum says.