By Jessica Nimon
International Space Station Program Science Office
NASA’s Johnson Space Center
When it comes to potential, sometimes a little space to grow can make a big difference. For the International Space Station, a little more time in space provides that room to flourish. The announcement by the Obama Administration to support the extension of the orbiting laboratory to at least 2024 gives the station a decade to continue its already fruitful microgravity research mission. This offers scientists and engineers the time they need to ensure the future of exploration, scientific discoveries and economic development.
The decision to extend the life of the space station was announced in a blog entry from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “The [space station] is a unique facility that offers enormous scientific and societal benefits,” Bolden wrote. “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.”
This decision provides traction for space exploration by prolonging the testing timeframe for essential technologies related to long-duration journeys—such as to an asteroid or Mars. Optimizing systems like the Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) aboard station refines designs for future spacecraft.
“I really see the space station as the first step in exploration,” said NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier. “It is gaining us operational experience in a distant location, well beyond the Earth, at 75,000 km off the surface of the moon. Those are the kind of experience, technology and hardware that we need to go to Mars, so all that feeds forward.”
Exploration is hardly limited to space travel, as investigators show with their pursuit of discoveries using microgravity research. In the decade ahead, scientists have the forward timeline necessary for research planning and to make the most of facilities being built today. With an already ready-to-use suite of facilities aboard station, opportunities to run studies will include a greater chance for follow-up investigations. This enables results from station science to cycle through follow-on studies and increase the collective knowledge in the various disciplines. Since the impact of science results emerges over a five to 10 year timescale, this is an attractive incentive for new researchers.
“For 14 years, the space station has had a continuous human presence, allowing breakthroughs in science and technology not possible on Earth,” said Sam Scimemi, NASA’s International Space Station director. “The ability to extend our window of discovery through at least 2024 presents important new opportunities to develop the tools we need for future missions to deep space while reaping large benefits for humanity.”
In the next 10 years a wide variety of investigations will begin, continue and complete experimentation in orbit. From developments in astrophysics from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) and the Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image (MAXI) we learn more about our universe. Meanwhile, space station Earth remote sensing instruments keep watchful eyes open to help researchers study our climate, planet and can even assist with disaster recovery efforts.
Anticipated developments from the upcoming 1-year mission and biology studies such as T-Cell Act In Aging aid not only future explorers, but people with related health concerns on the Earth. Industries also benefit, with applications from fundamental physics investigations, such as microgravity fluid physics and combustion tests.
“Humankind has never had laboratory capabilities like these—where gravity can be controlled as a variable,” said International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D. “The extension of the space station to at least 2024 gives scientists what we need: time to build the experiments and theories that could come from nowhere else.”
Now that commercial cargo vehicles are regularly serving the space station, this extension can help transition low Earth orbit from exclusive to accessible. Business opportunities and growth for companies that provide cargo to the space station helps them to expand and compete. This can drive down costs per visit, and eventually those costs will improve access to orbit without a NASA-maintained laboratory. The even more impressive aspect to this development is that as these international interests expand, they grow global economies. This means the potential for new jobs, technologies and the possible creation of untapped markets.
“Commercial use of the space station is growing for research and development each year. Other government agencies, such as NSF and NIH also are funding scientists to use the laboratory,” said Robinson. “Space agency funding is enabling a much larger set of innovative research ideas from the private sector that will transform the way we see orbit.”
This extension shows a belief in the continued potential and a recognition of the growing benefits of this singular laboratory. Even as the space community is abuzz about the decade ahead, NASA moves forward with the conversation, continuing with international partnership talks and the possibility for space station life beyond 2024.
“We’ve talked to our partners about this,” said Gerstenmaier. “They want to go forward with this. It’s just working through the government approval, through their individual groups to get to where they need to be.”
Ultimately, the space station provides the capability for us to perform microgravity research in important areas of study, understand our changing planet from climate and global perspectives, and figure out how to survive in the harsh, but necessary environment of space. The benefits from the station already enhance our lives and enrich our future as we continue with missions to low Earth orbit and beyond.
“If we as a species are going to get off the Earth…we are going to have to use this small foothold called the International Space Station to go do that,” said Gerstenmaier. “This is our only opportunity to really move forward in this manner. So that should be our focus going forward, is how can we optimize and maximize the use of what we’ve got from this facility.”