Certainly 2020 is a year that will be characterized by its powerful effect on how we as humans come together to overcome adversity and disaster. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, we have had to learn new ways to maintain friendship and affection at a distance, often balancing new and/or intermingled stressors of work, childcare, elder care, finances, mental health, and others.
Concomitantly, amidst a global cry to end racial injustice, we were challenged to learn how to talk about vulnerable and difficult subjects that, as fellow humans, we must have the strength to discuss. Furthermore, natural disasters, from hurricanes to floods to wildfires, tested our ability to maintain hope. All of these crises resulted in loss of life, and the scars we bear as a nation and as global citizens will shape our future. But one cannot grow without facing and overcoming challenges, and as a species, I hope we will remember 2020 as a year of not just pain but also growth toward a shared future on Earth.
Meanwhile, the legacy of the International Space Station (ISS) in 2020 somewhat dissonantly showcased the power of global cooperation to achieve incredible feats of science and engineering—and the perhaps too-often overlooked strength we have when we peacefully come together with a shared goal. For 20 years, we have had a continuous human presence in space onboard the station. During that 20 years, 240 people from 19 countries visited the station, living and working in space. Teenagers on Earth have never lived a day of their lives while someone was not living and working in space, most of the time alongside international partners with diverse backgrounds, cultures, languages, and national interests.
These facts are humbling on their own—that we can come together as a global population and overcome political landscapes to unite in pursuit of something much greater. Perhaps it should not be surprising then, that the space station was nominated again this year for a Nobel Peace Prize. While it is an inanimate object, it is a poignant example of what human curiosity can ignite when fueled by collaborative spirit.
While the November 2020 celebration of 20 years on the ISS is accompanied by a global climate of adversity, the space station reminds us of what humanity is capable, a beacon of hope toward a certainly brighter tomorrow.
Space for Everyone
As a human being, the 20th anniversary of humans living onboard the ISS was awe-inspiring. As a scientist and communicator, however, I am also inspired by the science and technology initiatives from researchers around the globe that every day take advantage of the ISS as a long-duration orbiting laboratory.
For almost the past 10 years, a portion of this R&D has been sponsored by the nonprofit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), manager of the U.S. National Laboratory onboard the ISS—an arrangement mandated by Congress that aimed to provide flexibility for and improved access to the ISS by non-NASA researchers for non-exploration goals. NASA has a long history of engaging with industry and other government agencies, but the ISS National Lab construct opened up new opportunities and access points to the myriad research conditions uniquely onboard the station.
More than 3,000 investigations from hundreds of countries have taken advantage of the ISS as a research and development (R&D) platform over the past 20 years, approximately 500 of which funneled through the ISS National Lab, whose purpose is to support R&D that benefits quality of life on or economic advancement for the Earth, and specifically for the U.S. taxpayers who helped fund this incredible spaceborne engineering achievement. At CASIS, we are not only inspired by the legacy of ISS R&D but also impassioned to see the value and availability of space-based R&D platforms preserved for the next 20 years and beyond.
Economic Growth Despite Challenging Times
Of note, much of this work is not possible without the services provided by a growing community of Implementation Partners, private-sector organizations that work with researchers to translate ground-based objectives into flight-ready payloads that maximize the chance of meaningful science return.
Over the past 10 years, dozens of Implementation Partners have grown in their ability to execute these tasks for increasingly complex payloads and R&D objectives. Ten of these organizations currently not only assist in preflight preparations but also operate in-orbit facilities onboard the ISS, within which experiments are housed and executed, often with real-time data downlink capabilities. The expertise of these organizations is paramount not only for the continued success of R&D initiatives but also in envisioning the future.
Impressively, despite 2020’s economic turmoil, we saw much needed and continued private-sector involvement and investment in space last year. In January, NASA awarded Axiom Space to develop a new module for the ISS that will be habitable by crew members. In May, the first U.S. astronauts to launch from U.S. soil in more than a decade did so on a commercially designed and manufactured rocket, as part of SpaceX’s Demo-2 launch. Finally, in the summer and fall, various commercial participants in the growing economy of low Earth orbit (LEO) received seed funding from the government and venture capitalists to continue technology development or R&D activities.
United in Discovery and Hope
These developments are critical as the U.S. evolves toward NASA’s goal of ultimately being one of many customers in LEO. As part of a national strategy to democratize access to space for many industries (e.g., tourism and entertainment—not just R&D), the space industry must help new participants define the value of taking their services to space and trust that these industries will pave the way toward a robust, scalable market in LEO. We also must continue to prioritize use of space to not only inspire the next generation but to innovate new approaches for equitable aerospace workforce development across all fields of study—and to promote general science and technology literacy in our leaders of tomorrow.
Moving into 2021, in an era when science and data are in the driver’s seat, the importance of continued national support of the sciences could not be more apparent. The ultimate goal of science is to explain the unknown, but the nature of science is that it often—if not always—leads to new questions and more opportunities for discovery. The ISS National Lab is a public service enterprise in support of that knowledge advancement in biomedical fields, the physical sciences, and technology development (among other disciplines), and it further supports the parallel maturation of business models to sustain such inquiries for the next 20 years in space, and beyond. Open to everyone as a mature platform for R&D and a bridge to the future, the ISS is truly a symbol of humanity’s shared future, even in the most challenging of times.