Space Station Ramps Up As Shuttle Winds Down

Jul 18, 2011

Imagine you own a small factory, and you learn that your main supplier is going out of business. What do you do? You put on a brave face for employees and investors, and scramble to find alternatives.

That's pretty much where managers of the International Space Station find themselves.

"Because there's so much emphasis on eulogizing the shuttle, a lot of people are getting the misimpression that we're done with the space station," says Julie Robinson, station program scientist for NASA. Robinson says NASA spent the past decade building the station so it can fulfill its role as a unique laboratory for cutting edge research.

"Now the next decade and more is getting that research benefit, and getting the discoveries that we'll get from being in space," she says. The space shuttle program may be wrapping up, but the station is just getting going.

But there's no getting around the fact that without the shuttle, operating the station will be trickier. The shuttle provided the bulk of the equipment and supplies needed to build and operate the station. From here on out, NASA will have to rely on other countries and private companies to do those jobs.

"Logistics is the most constraining resource. There's absolutely no doubt about that," says Mark Uhran, head of the space station office at NASA headquarters. Nothing can match the shuttles to take stuff to and from orbit. But Uhran says Russia, Japan, the European Space Agency and private companies will be adequate to fill the shuttle's role. Uhran also believes science aboard the station is set to take off. "We've never really had a permanent continuous laboratory operation, which is now going to be available to us," he says.

But many scientists are skeptical. Richard Muller, a physicist and author of Physics for Future Presidents, says NASA has had a decade to show how valuable the space station is for science. "The science has simply not been outstanding. Nobody can talk about an important discovery that came out of the billions of dollars that was spent on this program," says Muller. He doubts the future will be any different; he says the space station was never about science.

"People built the space station because they wanted to put man in space, for the sheer adventure of it. That's the purpose of the space station," he says.

Understanding Humans In Space

But Muller agrees one thing the space station is good for is understanding how humans function in space. That's what Corinna Lathan is interested in. She's an engineer, neuroscientist and entrepreneur who has been studying how weightlessness changes the way we perceive the world around us.

In a conference room at her company Anthrotronix in Silver Spring, Md., she offers a simple example of what she's talking about.

"If you put up your finger in front of me, and I close my eyes and I point to it, I'm very good at it," she says. "In space, if I did that, I would be off, I would not be pointing at your finger," she says.

On earth, our arm movements adjust to the tug of gravity. In space, there is virtually no gravity, so the arm just floats there, and its sense of directions gets screwed up. "If you are trying to operate a robot, and you have to estimate a distance, you have to use visual cues to guide yourself, you move your head and you get a different input than you're expecting, it could lead to critical mistakes," she says.

There are also scientists who think research in space may be helpful here on Earth. Declan McCole is a gastroenterologist who hails from Ireland but is currently working at the University of California, San Diego. He studies the cells that line our intestines.

"We know that cells are responsive to stretch, for example, a fundamental physical force," says McCole.

Gravity is another fundamental physical force. McCole says studying cells in weightlessness could provide some fundamental insights on how they work. He's also interested in what happens when he pours alcohol on them, since alcohol damages these cells on Earth.

"So I've gotten quite a bit of teasing about that," he says. "That NASA is going to do a study on the effects of alcohol in space, and they're getting an Irishman to do it. To which I always respond, 'Well, they obviously want it done right.' "

Joking aside, McCole thinks more scientists will become interested in doing experiments on the station. It's there, it's paid for, it might as well be used.

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