The announcement of the Obama administration’s funding extension for the NASA International Space Station (ISS) is a triumph for continued experimental progress on board the station that circles Earth. The vessel that has orbited Earth since the 1998 has seen an annual injection of three billion dollars, and yet its continued existence has not been unblemished by the continual pressures of financing and ambitions of space exploration.
However its struggles have fared politically, the ISS has relentlessly circled above Earth at an elevation of approximately 250 miles, in a zone called the Low Earth Orbit. The types of experiments and studies that have been conducted on board range from biology, data collection, technology to experiments without one of Earth’s most potent forces – gravity.
The extension – however small a triumph – will deter the ISS from being decommissioned into the Pacific Ocean, and according to William Gerstenmaier, the NASA associate administrator for human exploration, nurture a burgeoning space industry as well as allow for the continued progress of on-board experiments.
Some of the findings from their years of experiments, as published in NASA’s 2009 report, include over 100 experiments conducted on board the ISS between 2000-2008. Up to 2009, there were only three astronauts on board the ISS on each of the 15 missions conducted. Starting in 2009, the number of astronauts on board the ship doubled in size to six.
While many of their experiments were naturally dedicated to the pursuit of long-duration spaceflights, according to NASA’s report, there were also many findings and benefits applicable to life on Earth.
Medical advancement for drug delivery
One experiment conducted on board involved microgravity, which was a key component in developing liquid-filled balloons the size of blood cells to transport medicine to identified cancer cells.
Minimizing the viral nature of germs and disease infection
This was one of NASA’s most compelling finds – where they discovered that the common germ’s ability – in this case, Salmonella typhymurium – to inflict disease increased in space, and thus developed the strategies to minimize its effects.
Amongst the innovations from on-board the ISS included patents for Earth applications, such as the use of air-purifying technology which has been incorporated into a pathogen effective against Anthrax spores.
Within all the experiments conducted between 2000-2008 in the areas of technology development, the physical and biological sciences, human research, and Earth observation, the number of experiments have ranged between 20-30 conducted in each category.
The short number of years the space station’s life has been extended to may only elongate the debate that still continues to swirl around the ISS.
“For folks like me…the ISS is the essential demonstration site and stepping-stone for a sustained future in space with humans,” said Harley Thronson, a senior NASA scientist for a Washington Post feature.
For others, the ISS had lost its way since the Apollo mission, as summed up by John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “It was not given a strategic purpose after Apollo. Why does it exist?”
Whether its fate lies in the waters of the Pacific in a number of years or whether another extension is still ahead remains yet to be seen. In the meantime, NASA’s ISS station continues to triumphantly forge ahead with its experiments amidst an unresolved debate.
By Joscelyne Yu