The International Space Station is an engineering and space operations marvel, but that alone doesn’t make it successful. NASA invested $100 billion to design and build the facility, offering for rationale the station’s research potential. And NASA is devoting about $3 billion per year to operate it. The station is our only permanent outpost in space, and it constitutes the only NASA human spaceflight mission flying through at least 2016.
Congress, for its part, has designated the International Space Station a U.S. National Laboratory for research and has tied the success of the station to how well it carries out that mission. But with the lack of research emphasis in the station’s first dozen years in orbit, and the not-yet-very-impressive research accomplishments there, the research community is understandably skeptical that the space station can succeed as a National Lab. But it must.
To succeed as a research lab, the International Space Station must now do more than simply fly, maintain and improve itself. It must morph from an operations-centered facility to a research-centered facility, carrying out world-class research across the space and Earth sciences, microgravity science, technology testing and life sciences. It must also prove that microgravity commercial processes and applications in low Earth orbit are profitable.
The International Space Station Program, the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory, and its operator, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (the ISS National Lab), must put these objectives above all others except safety. Unless it succeeds, the space station may not have support beyond its current 2020 mission horizon. If the station’s mission is not extended, NASA’s human spaceflight portfolio would be compromised, potentially crippling prospects for future NASA stations in Earth orbit and squandering an opportunity now upon us after more than 25 years in the making.
What are the most important steps for the ISS National Lab and the International Space Station U.S. National Lab to succeed? For me, as an experienced NASA principal investigator, a research group leader, NASA’s former science boss, and a possible future station user, it’s pretty simple: Top-notch researchers and research teams must be attracted to use the station, and their work must flower into commercial or basic science breakthroughs.
Accomplishing this objective means first lowering the barriers that keep researchers pursuing other lines of work away from the space station, and then making researchers who use the station effective in making discoveries. How do we approach these goals?
- By creating quick cycle times and low-paperwork paths to conduct experiments onboard the station
- By funding more teams to experiment onboard the station
- By putting researchers (not just NASA astronauts) onboard the station
- By dramatically increasing the crew time available for research
- By funding the development and launch of new experiments and facilities to the station
- By rewarding successful research teams with more station resources—crew time, experiment run time, and funding to leverage even bigger discoveries
None of these changes requires any technology breakthroughs, but they will require a new perspective in how and for whom the International Space Station is operated.
Speaking at the dawn of the Space Age about another goal for U.S. leadership in space, President Kennedy said, “Now it is time to take longer strides . . . time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement.” The President put it well, and I can’t think of more important space achievements for our only active NASA human spaceflight program than these:
- To discover exciting knowledge and create processes and applications that become widely and instantly known as originating onboard the ISS
- To show that human-tended laboratories in space like ISS are more valuable for what they enable than for how they were constructed
- To make the ISS so valuable to external communities that they create the demand for more human activity in Earth orbit, not less
The ISS must succeed, and it can. We don’t need more budget for ISS, we don’t need new technologies, we simply need the mindset to do it—most of the rest of what we need is already on orbit. Go the ISS National Lab! Go ISS! Go NASA!