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Research Shifts at Space Station

The mission of the international space station has changed from doing basic research to studying the effects of life in space on astronauts.
The mission of the international space station has changed from doing basic research to studying the effects of life in space on astronauts. (Nasa Via Associated Press)

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By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 10, 2006

When the international space station was initially proposed by President Ronald Reagan, its central mission was conceived as providing the most innovative and unusual research center that mankind had ever created. Orbiting 250 miles above Earth, the station would be a laboratory for developing medicines, for learning how single cells, plants and animals adapt to life in space, and for discovering technologies for processing metals and other materials in a gravity-free environment.

Twenty-two years later, the space station is half-built and can carry out some experiments, but the U.S. view of its science mission has greatly changed. The primary U.S. goal is no longer basic research, but to support President Bush's initiative of manned missions to the moon and to Mars by learning about how astronauts can live for long periods in space.

The morphing of the space station's role has not been without controversy. Some scientists fret that critical research in medicine and on atmospheric change is being de-emphasized in favor of splashy projects that will have little earthly benefit.

Much of U.S. research is focused on the rigors of living long term in zero gravity and with constant bombardment from solar radiation -- among the greatest hazards faced by crews traveling in deeper space.

"As it was originally planned, the space station would be a facility for all users," said Donald A. Thomas, NASA's space station program scientist. "Any scientist with an interesting experiment to do -- combustion and fluid scientists, plant and cell scientists, crystal growers -- they could all come to NASA, and we would try to accommodate them. But our cutbacks and refocusing have changed that."

So instead of learning how a particular gas or cell behaves in space, NASA's scientific effort is directed toward such problems as how to keep kidney stones from developing in astronauts and how to use long-distance ultrasound technology to diagnose stones if they develop. Avoiding bone and muscle loss is also a high priority, as are learning why immune systems of astronauts tend to deteriorate and how to stop that.

This refocusing does not mean basic science on the space station has ended or that planning for more elaborate and dramatic research is over. Rather, NASA's partners in the space station -- most notably Japan, 11 European nations and Canada -- will do substantial research of their own.

By the end of next year, the Japanese-developed science module Kibo and the European-built Columbus module are scheduled to be in place at the station, and both will be filled with basic research experiments. "They've gone ahead with their programs pretty much unchanged, so they'll be doing what we initially planned to do," Thomas said.

The Japanese program will focus on collecting information about trace chemicals in the atmosphere that might be associated with ozone depletion or global warming, and on the effects of weightlessness on a broad range of living things. It will also send up the world's largest wide-angle X-ray camera for use in examining very deep space.

The Columbus module, developed and manufactured by the European Space Agency, will also focus on basic biological and earth sciences research -- with experiments such as assessing the ability of bacteria to survive on an artificial meteorite and looking at volcanic activity far below Earth's surface.

Because U.S. space shuttles will carry much of the big equipment to the station, American researchers in return get room on the research modules and some access to the experiments of other nations. But to many scientists in this country, the shift in emphasis from research to furthering space travel is misguided.

A 2005 report from the National Academy of Sciences reflected that concern, with the panel worried that U.S. objectives "no longer include the fundamental biological and physical research that had been a major focus of [space station] planning since its inception. In addition to increasing fundamental scientific understanding, much of that research was intended to have eventual terrestrial applications in medicine and industry."

Without greater support, the panel concluded, the scientists who came together to work on space station experiments will soon be lost.

Even if U.S. science policy had not changed, however, it would be difficult to maintain an active research program on the station. It has housed only two or three crew members since the demise of the shuttle Columbia in 2003, and experts say it takes two people just to keep the space station operative. One of the astronauts who just arrived on space shuttle Discovery, Thomas Reiter of Germany, will remain at the station in the hope that a three-person crew can do more scientific work.

Despite the cutbacks and disappointments, NASA's Thomas said more than 100 journal articles have been published based on space station data. He said researchers have made important discoveries by growing protein crystals in space that could not be grown on Earth -- research that could lead to new drugs. Research into the nature of vibrations only possible in space, he said, could have implications for better understanding earthquakes and for protecting buildings against them.

He also said he was excited by the presence of bowling-ball-size satellites at the space station -- battery- and gas-powered units that astronauts are learning to control and perhaps will someday use on missions. Thomas said that a second mini-satellite was ferried up by Discovery and that crew members will work on synchronizing its movement in tandem with the other. A third satellite is expected up soon.

Thomas said that the satellites are largely sponsored by the Defense Department, but that NASA has some use of them and is excited about the possibilities. If the three can be controlled, he said, they could be the prototype for a free-flying space telescope.

"To be able to test them in the space station, where there's zero gravity but where they can't fly away, is an enormous plus," he said.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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