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Doubts linger about space station's science potential

WASHINGTON (MCT) — After more than 12 years and at least $100 billion in construction costs, NASA leaders say the International Space Station finally is ready to bloom into the robust orbiting laboratory that agency leaders envisioned more than two decades ago.

"The ISS has now entered its intensive research phase," said Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA operations and human exploration, in recent testimony to Congress in defense of the roughly $1.5 billion the agency spends annually on the outpost.

But doubts linger.

More than a quarter of the space that NASA has designated for experiments sits empty. Much of the research done aboard the station deals with living and working in space — with marginal application back on Earth. And the nonprofit group that NASA chose to lure more research to the outpost has been plagued by internal strife and recently lost its director.

And more broadly, questions remain about whether NASA can develop U.S. capability to send experiments up and bring them back to Earth — and whether, in fact, the station can live up to the promises that were used to justify its creation.

"Now that NASA has finished ISS construction, I hope the incredible potential of ISS is not squandered," said U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, chair of the House science committee.

This "incredible potential" is what NASA used to justify the decision to build a space station, which has been in the works since the Reagan administration.

"When we finish, ISS will be a premier, world-class laboratory in low-Earth orbit that promises to yield insights, science, and information, the likes of which we cannot fully comprehend as we stand here at the beginning," said then-NASA chief Dan Goldin during a 2001 congressional hearing.

In the decade following, NASA and its international partners used the space shuttle and other vehicles to assemble the station.

Over the years some have questioned the station's future as a center of science.