The nonprofit has focused its efforts to find projects and outside investment in the technology-rich areas around Cambridge, Mass., Houston and Denver, and plans another drive in Silicon Valley in California soon, Ratliff says. Sticking points with potential partners include uncertainty over how long the station will continue to operate, and concern that the Casis agreement with NASA does not offer sufficient protection of intellectual property. Both issues are being addressed as Congress works on a NASA reauthorization bill.
Meanwhile, the space agency has started producing some meaningful results with the station research it funds through its own scientists and those affiliated with U.S. academic institutions. Among advances reported at the conference here were the discovery at the University of California, San Francisco, via some very sophisticated skeletal measurements of returning astronauts, that a combination of rigorous resistive exercise and doses of alendronate or other bisphosphonates in orbit can virtually eliminate the weakening that occurs when bones lose their gravity loading during extended missions.
Researchers at the University of Delaware used magnetic fields to align colloids in microgravity, holding promise for manufacturing more efficient solar arrays and other applications requiring nanostructures. Space-combustion studies at NASA's Glenn Research Center that detected and characterized previously unseen “cool flames” as various chemical fuels burned out holds promise for more efficient internal combustion engines, as well as fire-safety implications for spacecraft.
In non-NASA government research, the station's Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean (HICO), when combined with careful in situ calibration, has given the Environmental Protection Agency a new tool for monitoring coastal water quality from space that may produce a smartphone app for swimmers, campers and boaters.
But while there is increasing interest in using the station as an orbital platform for remote-sensing and technology research, there also is a perception among possible users here that safety and other regulations will make it more trouble than it is worth to get on board.
NASA and Casis officials deny that is the case, and point to a changing attitude among station gatekeepers as the program shifts from managing an incredibly complex space-assembly job to running a functioning scientific laboratory.
“Now it's built,” says Mike Suffredini, NASA's ISS program manager. “Now we're making our switch, and we're changing our mindset to a more research-mission phase, and with that you've got to increase the throughput. So there's been a paradigm shift in the program. This almost sounds sacrilegious, but to operate safely is just not good enough anymore. The trick is, how do you operate safely, and get more and more out of this spacecraft?”