Space politics can take some weird, twisty turns. In the wake of the proposal to commercialize the international space station, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas expressed his reservations about the scheme, though most think he might be open to such an arrangement as long as scientific research continues to be conducted in low Earth orbit. However, Cruz has been attacked, in turn, in the pages of the American Conservative, for his support for the ISS. It seems that the junior senator from Texas needs to hand in his fiscal conservative card for supporting the “space turkey.”

What about science on the International Space Station?

The author of the American Conservative piece seems to be bent on burnishing the unfair stereotype of righties as being scientific illiterates.

For instance, he states, “you can’t do anything aboard the ISS that can’t also be done far more cheaply on earth.” The pronouncement would come as a surprise to the researchers who have been happily pushing the frontiers of knowledge, on the space station, for almost twenty years. If experience is any guide, microgravity on board the ISS has been crucial for a myriad of experiments. NASA has a page called “International Space Station Research Results Citations” that relates the matter in detail.

But is the science worth the $100 billion we spent on the ISS?

The answer to the above question largely depends on who one asks. Scientists whose research on the ISS has been approved will undoubtedly respond in the affirmative.

Those who think their projects should have been funded instead will have a different point of view.

However, if one asks whether research on the ISS will derive a benefit the value of which is more than $100 billion, one would get an argument. If the biomedical research on the ISS leads to new treatments of chronic or even deadly diseases, the case could be made that the investment was worth it from a cost/benefit perspective.

The killer app that could justify the ISS all by itself

For the past couple of years, a company called Made in Space has had a 3D printer, technology not imagined when the space station was first proposed, operating on the ISS. The experiments that have combined 3D printing with microgravity have, thus far, proved to be promising.

The results could lead to a trillion dollar industry based on the use of space resources mined from the moon and asteroids.

The idea is to mine materials from extraterrestrial resources and ship them to a manufacturing facility that would use 3D printers and robotic assemblers to build massive structures in space. Everything from mile-wide communication arrays to solar power collectors could be developed at a relatively low cost. Eventually, as the costs of space travel continue to plummet, products built in space could be marketed on Earth.

Bigelow Aerospace is betting that money can be made in low Earth orbit. The company just spun off a new enterprise, called Bigelow Space Operations, to find customer passengers to its proposed line of inflatable space stations.

The American Conservative piece sneers at the idea, calling it, “a Galaxyland for the ultra-rich.” Even so, it looks like Ted Cruz has the better argument where the utility of microgravity research is concerned.