Space laboratories have long been promoted as a boon to science and business. The near-weightlessness of orbit, NASA officials argue, is ideal for such tasks as processing materials--growing huge, pure crystals, for example. But payoffs have been elusive. After studying experiments done over the past decade on U.S. space shuttles and the Russian space station Mir, Gregory K. Farber, a Pennsylvania State University protein crystallographer, and his co-workers report in Nature that only one-quarter of the crystallography experiments worked. And the crystals were only slightly larger and purer than the ones grown down here.
The scientists believe it's still worth trying new experiments to make crystals of substances that won't crystallize at all on earth. But they suggest these tests should be done on Russia's Mir rather than the $40 billion U.S. space station due to be launched later this decade. "Mir is already up there--and it works," says Farber. "We can save ourselves a lot of money."