Gerstenmaier has told Congress that once NASA has access to commercial crew vehicles that can carry more seats than the three-person Russian Soyuz, the agency plans to add a fourth crewmember to help with U.S. research.
Suffredini led a NASA delegation to a station-partnership meeting on utilization in Moscow in June. During those sessions, NASA scientists raised the possibility with their Russian counterparts of bartering for help with U.S.-side research from the three Russian crewmembers, who are sometimes underemployed for lack of research to do and equipment with which to do it. Those talks will continue in an effort to stretch U.S.-side crew time as funding cuts threaten to delay U.S. commercial crew capability (AW&ST June 25, p. 35). NASA already has equipped the space station with a host of specially designed research racks. The agency also has plans to upgrade its facilities in the months ahead to make it more efficient as a research laboratory. Efforts are underway to improve communications links that scientists on the ground can use to help astronauts run their experiments, add more internal and external research equipment, and take advantage of planned commercial cargo deliveries to the orbital laboratory.
“We don't believe we should be spending any time and money trying to make space station any bigger,” says Suffredini. “What we think we should be spending our resources on is making it able to produce more research.”
Among improvements underway are high-definition video to further fluids and combustion research by sharpening the view of how flame and various liquids perform in microgravity, and new instruments to allow more kinds of sample analysis in orbit instead of requiring the return of samples to ground labs in scarce “down-mass” capacity.
Today, down-mass is limited to a small amount that can be carried with returning crews on Russian Soyuz capsules. But the rendezvous and berthing of the first SpaceX Dragon cargo carrier at the station May 25 clears the way to transport more samples to and from the station. That Dragon returned a load of cargo to a parachute splashdown in the Pacific. Beginning on the third Dragon mission to the ISS, NASA will fly six powered middeck lockers to and from the ISS in a new deal with SpaceX, Suffredini says. The agency also has approved a redesigned middeck freezer called Polar that will double the capacity of existing freezers of that size originally built to fly on the space shuttle.
The added down-mass also will permit NASA to maintain 40 mice on the station for experiments, he says, including provisions for freezing killed mice after the experiments, returning them to Earth for analysis and delivering more to habitats in the station. If necessary, the number of mice might grow beyond 40, Suffredini says.
Veteran ISS astronaut Mike Fincke calls crew in space the “hands, eyes, ears and noses” of scientists. To improve links between scientists and crew, NASA will begin installing communications upgrades this summer to double down-link bandwidth to 300 mbps and increase uplink to 25 mbps. The Improved Communication Unit, which will take the place of seven Orbital Replacement Units on the station, also will allow ground commanding via Ku-band links as well as through S-band. And it will add two more channels to the air-to-ground voice links.
“Today we have two com channels to talk to the crew,” Suffredini says. “That is always busy. When we're trying to talk multiple research things, . . . it always gets clogged. So we're adding two additional com channels in order to increase our capability to have multiple payload-specific conversations with multiple crews at one time.”
For external payloads, NASA plans to upgrade the external Wi-Fi system so experiments can be installed anywhere there is structure to mount them and a power source nearby. Command and data handling will go wireless. Inside the station, NASA plans to install 110-volt alternating current outlets so “if you can plug it into the wall over here, you can plug it into space station,” Suffredini says. “You can just imagine the applications that has.”
As the conference opened, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (Casis) issued its first request for proposals as the independent non-profit organization selected to run the U.S. National Laboratory on the station. Congress established the National Lab as a microgravity-research resource available to U.S. scientific and commercial interests, essentially for the cost of any equipment they want to send to the ISS.