Aging ISS a space lab of 'unlimited' opportunity

Jan 27, 2014 by Jean-Louis Santini
The Orbital Sciences Corporation's unmanned Cygnus cargo ship arrives at the International Space Station, on January 12, 2014

It may be 350 kilometers (215 miles) above Earth and a place that only a privileged few will ever visit, but the International Space Station is crucial to advances in science, health and technology, experts say.

Earlier this month, NASA said the life of the $100 billion ISS would be extended by four years, or until at least 2024, allowing for more global research and scientific collaboration.

John Holdren, a senior White House adviser on science and technology, hailed the space station—mainly built with US money—as "a unique facility that offers enormous scientific and societal benefits.

"The Obama administration's decision to extend its life until at least 2024 will allow us to maximize its potential, deliver critical benefits to our nation and the world and maintain American leadership in space," he said.

The orbiting outpost, which was launched to fanfare in 1998, has more than a six-bedroom house and comes complete with Internet access, a gym, two bathrooms and a 360-degree bay window offering spectacular views of Earth.

Its entire structure is made up of various working and sleeping modules, and extends the length of a football field (about 100 meters or yards), making it four times bigger than the Russian space station Mir and about five times as large as the US Skylab.

The aging structure requires regular maintenance, which is done by astronauts who don spacesuits and venture outside the lab.

One such repair was completed Christmas Eve when two Americans stepped out to replace a failed ammonia pump that served to cool equipment at the ISS.

Julie Robinson, an ISS scientist at NASA, insisted that the space station, which has a mass of 924,739 pounds (420,000 kilograms) but is near-weightless in space, is worth the trouble and expense.

The ISS, which is maintained by a rotating crew of six astronauts and cosmonauts who have hailed from 14 countries, allows scientists to study the long-term effects of weightlessness on the human body, she said, while testing new space technologies that will be essential for missions to Mars.

Crew members aboard the International Space Station release Orbital Sciences' Cygnus spacecraft from the station's robotic arm, on October 22, 2013

"The goal of using the space station is to make discoveries that cannot be made anywhere else... and do research that is really focused on bringing benefits back to Earth by developing knowledge that can directly help bio-medical treatments, make new materials, have better Earth and climate observations," she told AFP.

Robinson added that "many of our early research results are making their way into drug development, medical technologies, pathways. We also have Earth-remote sensive instruments that provide unique data about the Earth and its climate and there are a number of new instruments going up in the next two years.

"When you put all of that together it's really an extraordinary set of benefits back here on Earth."

Robinson noted that a used at the space station can save lives during brain surgery.

"What was special about this one is the ability of the arm to perform inside an MRI machine so that doctors are able to see the tumor and then use the ability of the robotic arm to be more stable than the human hand," she said.

A view of Earth as seen from the Cupola on the Earth-facing side of the International Space Station, on June 18, 2013

"Those two things together have allowed surgery on patients who were considered inoperable before."

Cheryl Nickerson, a professor of microbiology at Arizona State University, has been involved since 2006 in research that has taken place as part of the space program, for example homing in on the salmonella bacteria that causes food poisoning.

"I believe that the discovery potential at microgravity research is enormous and holds potential to provide ground-breaking discoveries in some of the major causes of human morbidity and mortality on Earth," she said.

"That stems from the fact that there is no way on Earth that we can study our cells and biological systems respond without the force of gravity affecting it."

Robinson described the possibilities at the ISS as "unlimited," and noted that a growing amount of private money was supporting research at the space station.

"This is an era of that is unlike the past and we are looking at the decades ahead as the time when science can finally pursue these boundaries, explore these frontiers and make these unique discoveries," she said.

"I think as we look back, 20 or 30 years from now, we will call this the era of the space station... because of the number of advances and benefits that will come out."

Explore further: NASA extends space station life to 2024 (Update 2)

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User comments : 8

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Osiris1
4 / 5 (4) Jan 27, 2014
It would be the largest and most heinous crime in the history of science if this lab was ever abandoned and scuttled like the United States seems to want to do.
Whydening Gyre
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 27, 2014
Sorry Osiris, not being intentionally confrontational, but the article said the United states EXTENDED it's operating limit.
Additionally, it was built mostly with American money, so... America should have the biggest say so as to when it should be decommissioned, wouldn't ya think?
ubavontuba
3.5 / 5 (2) Jan 27, 2014
Whatever happened to the advanced metallurgical and other materials science we were promised? I want my exotic, clear as glass, stainless duralloy.

la7dfa
1 / 5 (1) Jan 27, 2014
I believe the ISS is overrated. We do not need to send people to Mars in a good while.
Greatly improved robots and rovers will give much more science than planting a flag.
We need more efficient ways of propulsion to space and in space for future human travel. None of these are acheived by having the ISS platform. If the robotic arms can fix brain tumors, we could also use a small and cheap remote controlled lab in space? And why settle with low orbits when we can have complete weightlessness between Earth and the Moon?
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (5) Jan 27, 2014
We do not need to send people to Mars in a good while.

You still need data on what happens to people that are exposed to microgravity, radiation levels, and artificial, closed environments (with their spore/fungus problems) of space. Most importantly you need long term data. So we should gather this way before we make any trips to Mars (or wherever). That - and the analysis of such data - takes years and years. It's a good thing we're doing it now.
GSwift7
5 / 5 (4) Jan 27, 2014
That - and the analysis of such data - takes years and years. It's a good thing we're doing it now


I agree. They are learning a ton about how long term microgravity affects people. For example, we needed to figure out what to do about space suits fitting correctly before and after people change size/shape from microgravity. There's also the peculiar problems associated with eating, digestion, taste and smell. Remote docking, universal standards for interfaces and connectors, etc.

Perhaps the most important thing about it is in regard to human talent development. The project provides training and experience for the people we will need on other missions. It takes a lot of tallent on the ground to run a mission.
Thorium Boy
1 / 5 (2) Jan 28, 2014
The ISS was conceived as a make-work project after the Cold War to keep newly unemployed Russian nuclear scientists from building bombs for Arabs. It's cost $150 billion, not $100 as in the article and has yielded nothing of value. Contrast it with the Hubble telescope and what it has accomplished. Abandon it and put the money towards space exploration.
ScottyB
not rated yet Jan 28, 2014
My favourite part of this article is
mainly built with US money.
How much of a "OOOOH look what WE did" article is this?

yes but also mainly had a US crew

US trips: 234
US fliers: 138

Russia trips: 51
Russia fliers: 35

EU trips: 17
EU fliers: 12

Swings and roundabouts my friends.

But anyway, i am glad to see that it has been extended to 2024, it is providing invaluable information on how to create closed loop life support systems, VITAL for exploration of the solar system as is the study f microgravity on the human body pointed out by @antialias_physorg

the longer this flies and does research the better, it has just finished being built, it would be criminal to decommission it before it has had chance to provide any real advances.