In my role as president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, I’m sometimes asked this question: “Now that the space shuttle is retired, whatever happened to our human spaceflight program?” My response: “It’s alive and well in the form of the International Space Station.”
I then tell them that if they go to the website spotthestation.nasa.gov, they will be able see the largest international cooperative science and engineering project ever constructed, gracefully arcing across the sky.
Shuttle launches were exciting, but imagine what it must be like for a crew member to be up in space for six months to a year at a time, conducting research to better people’s lives on Earth while also learning how we can extend our exploration reach to the planets.
Often underappreciated in media stories about space is the great success story the ISS represents. Continuously occupied by human crews for nearly 13 years, the football field sized ISS currently has a six-member crew, and receives regular cargo flights launched by the United States, Europe, Japan and Russia.
Congress has designated the U.S. segment of the ISS as a national laboratory, and through the work of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, companies and university researchers are provided regular and affordable opportunities to get their experiments into the unique microgravity environment offered by the ISS. Transportation of research payloads is provided through CASIS essentially for free, offering companies a tremendous opportunity.
Examples of ISS research include the following:
The ISS is slated to operate through 2020 and NASA believes it could function safely through at least 2028. An extension would be good news to American industry – both for the companies providing cargo and crew resupply services to ISS, as well as those interested in making use of this unique space platform for medicine, materials science and other research.
I certainly want our space program to take on bold new objectives, such as the human exploration of Mars — something research on the ISS will also help enable. But for the time being, we should not forget that this unique research platform is being utilized 24/7 to help make life better for all of us here on Earth.