Preparing for the Research Decade
"If you build it, they will come," may have worked as a movie theme in "Field of Dreams," but space experts agree that it's time to spread the word that the International Space Station is open for business.
Several hundred leaders in space and science met in Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Nov. 16 and 17 to explore ways to open the vast and exciting research capabilities of the space station to a wide array of uses. The setting for the discussion was the national conference of the American Astronautical Society.
"The space station is truly a remarkable facility," said Bob Cabana, director of NASA's Kennedy Space Center and a former astronaut who, along with Russian Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, was the first to enter the fledgling station in 1998 after the Unity and Zarya modules were joined. "What it is to me, the most remarkable part of it, is as an engineering test bed. When you look at the environmental control systems that are on it, that’s where we can really learn. When we go to the moon or Mars, we're not going to be able to come home in a few hours like we can from the space station."
Those attending the gathering heard leaders from NASA and all the major international partners discuss their agencies' plans for the future, as well as their hopes for the next 10 years of operation of the completed station, which was characterized as a world-class research facility in the microgravity of space and a great platform for discovery.
"Now we have this amazing facility in space. I remember how many presentations I gave with graphical representations of the space station, of what it would look like, but then today to have in front of you an actual image of the space station, the real hardware that is in orbit with six crew members, it's pretty phenomenal," NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations William Gerstenmaier told the crowd. "We've achieved this wonderful thing, but that's not enough. We have ten years in front of us. We need to figure out with the same zeal, the same dedication, the same ability to challenge the difficult situations we are sure to face, to figure out how to utilize the space station in the most effective manner we can."
The American Astronautical Society, which was founded in 1954, used the occasion to honor Gerstenmaier with their 2010 Space Flight Award.
Throughout the two days of meetings, panels of experts from government, industry, science and education presented a look at past and present research in space as they pointed the way toward the means for achieving full use of the one-of-a-kind capabilities of the station.
"If we don't do these experiments in space, we'll never know what we don’t know," said Dr. Julie Robinson, program scientist for the station at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Robinson's comment seemed to sum up the simple underlying reason for the gathering's theme to promote full use of the station's laboratories for the coming decade.
In 2005, the NASA Authorization Act designated the United States' segment of the station as a "National Laboratory" and directed the agency to develop a plan to increase the facility's use by other federal entities as well as the private sector. With the station's construction phase now completed, those gathered at the conference heard the call to step up the focus on this concept to get the message out to a wider audience.
One panel focused on the various types of materials research possible aboard the station's labs, such as studying bacteria growth like MRSA to help develop vaccines back on Earth to tackle growing health concerns. Discoveries regarding other health issues like bone loss during long-duration spaceflight can assist earth-bound researchers in the treatment of both the elderly and of patients requiring long immobile recuperation. External platforms on the station can assist in the development of materials for future spacecraft that can better weather the harsh environment of space.
"For ten years, this unbelievable orbiting laboratory has not been without human life aboard. That's an outstanding feat, and so much has been accomplished over the past decade thanks to this engineering marvel," said Janet Petro, Deputy Director of NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
Participants challenged those in attendance to help not only spread the word about the station's assets, but to assist in developing partnerships that will help get research projects to space -- those developed by the largest corporations down to the small, student-run or individually-developed experiments.
The whole spectrum of future transportation vehicles that can get experiments to and from the station was presented, including those of the international partners as well as the new commercial ventures currently in development under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.
The conference closed with inspiration from those currently on the front line being discussed: the International Space Station. Astronaut Scott Kelly, who will soon take over as Expedition 26 Commander at the station, and the current Expedition 25 Commander, Doug Wheelock, spoke on behalf of the entire ISS crew and helped send the participants off with renewed dedication to seeing the station used to its greatest potential, benefiting life on Earth and future exploration of space.
Cheryl L. Mansfield
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center