At the edge of the human frontier, 220 miles aloft, and moving more than 17,000 miles an hour, the formation of entire new industries is underway. Aboard the International Space Station (ISS), companies are conducting research on a widely diverse array of topics in microgravity – which would be nearly impossible to replicate on Earth.
In this emergent spacefaring era, entrepreneurs are asking the intriguing question: what are the unique characteristics of the domain beyond our planet from which we can benefit?
And there is no better place to make such inquiries today than on the ISS.
Back in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan directed NASA to build a permanently crewed space station, the nation and the world set upon an engineering journey. After twelve years of construction, the station went operational in November 2000.
A colossal achievement by any measure, the ability to establish an outpost in such an austere environment is an unsurpassed triumph. Without question, the ISS is truly a jewel in the crown.
To date, more than 2,400 experiments have been conducted and the station’s crew have logged over 1,000 extravehicular activity (EVA) hours on more than 200 spacewalks.
Despite the ISS’s unquestionable success as a research platform, NASA has been criticized for prioritizing legacy programs at the expense of deep space exploration. With limited resources, NASA was forced to set priorities. Today, despite the struggles to regain the luster of the early Space Race days, a new and reinvigorated NASA has emerged with a vision for the ISS and commercial industry that can captivate even cynics.
Under Space Policy Directive 1 (SPD-1), NASA has fully embraced its charge to facilitate and encourage the commercial sector. After all, NASA has fostered some of the greatest technological developments in all of human history.
For example, on the ISS, NASA and Boeing are applying engineering lessons – learned over nearly two decades – to maximize the platform as a test bed to fully evolve our understanding of microgravity’s effect on metabolic systems. From examination of seed exposure and gene expression during germination to countering age-related macular degeneration, the ISS has become a premier research center unto its own.
But the sheer enormity of maintaining this orbital toehold cannot be overstated. Despite being sheltered within Earth’s magnetic shield, the ISS has endured a battering equivalent to a carrier in the Battle of Midway.
Space Shuttle veteran Alvin Drew recounted last year at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event his experience outside the ISS with razor sharp exterior surfaces due to the sandblasting effect of the LEO environment. Just maintaining the operational status of the station alone is a feat.
Not surprisingly, the lion’s share of onboard station research is aimed at solving long-term challenges for survival in deep space. Humans are fragile, after all.
With ISS as its point of departure, the planned NASA Gateway, a cislunar space station, will be the platform to prepare and propel us to Mars. To paraphrase NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, Gateway is the permanent command module which, in 2024, will facilitate the mission objective of Artemis 1 to land astronauts near the South Lunar Pole.
But we can’t get there from here. Not without the ISS.