July 16, 2012
Frank Morring, Jr. Denver
The International Space Station (ISS) is built, stocked with scientific gear, and fully staffed with crew trained to use it. Now, as Earthbound researchers prove slow to realize the orbital capabilities available to them, top managers are beginning to worry that support for human spaceflight could wane unless the station produces some significant results—and fairly soon.
There is a growing realization at NASA that the success of the ISS as a research tool might determine whether the agency takes its planned next steps into the Solar System or into a backseat on future human exploration—and not just because some of the research will be needed to go to Mars.
”We have to go advance the ball and move forward, or we're about ready to retreat from space,” says William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations.
Over a three-day conference here sponsored by the American Astronautical Society, NASA representatives and others pointed out that the $100 billion-plus that went into assembling the station in orbit has been spent, and now it is time to collect the return on that investment.
“It was a huge challenge to build the ISS, but now we have a challenge in front of us that's more important, and that is to utilize what we've been given and were allowed to build,” says Mike Suffredini, NASA's ISS program manager. “We need to do it in a way that benefits humanity.”
To promote that goal, Suffredini, other managers responsible for station utilization and scientists who have conducted space research outlined the value of using the station for all kinds of research, and they described the support that is available for them in the U.S.-controlled spaces on orbit and on the ground. That includes crew time and the promise of more of it.
Since station assembly was completed last summer, the U.S. controls the time of three of the six crewmembers onboard. That includes astronauts from NASA's international partners in Canada, Europe and Japan. They have been averaging a collective 35 hr. of hands-on research a week, the planned amount, given the time they must spend maintaining the station and exercising to stay healthy in space.