The International Space Station — half-built, over-budget and hard to get to — may not be as flashy as some of NASA’s other projects but its place among the premier laboratories of the world should not be underestimated, a top NASA manager said on Wednesday.

Charles Precourt, the station’s deputy program manager and former chief astronaut for NASA, said the public may not fully appreciate the station’s role because it fails to match the stream of headline-making discoveries of other NASA projects, like the Hubble Space Telescope and planetary satellites.

While space telescopes and satellites make news by looking where no one has looked before, Precourt said the space station was better understood alongside leading science labs such as Lawrence Livermore and Sandia.

“Those laboratories are national treasures and each day are doing great things for the country, but you don’t see something in the paper about them every day. Science does not lend itself to that kind of productivity,” said Precourt.

“We’re now producing a different kind of science because of the resources we have with the vacuum of space and micro-gravity,” he added in defense of the space station, which is marking its fifth anniversary.

The Bush administration has downsized the space station project and some Democrats want NASA to halt development of a lifeboat that would allow the station to support crews of six or seven astronauts needed for fully staffing science experiments.

The station can now support just three astronauts, and crews have been limited to two since the Columbia accident in February.

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