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For release: 12/23/03
Release #: 03-219  

International Space Station Science — One of NASA's rising stars

Photo: International Space Station (NASA/JSC)

Orbiting some 240 miles above the Earth, it's one of the brightest objects in the night sky - the International Space Station. In just over five years in space, the unique orbiting laboratory has grown from a lone, uninhabited module into a permanently staffed, house-sized research facility.

"During this first five years of operation of the International Space Station, we have learned quite a bit about building and operating a world-class research facility that now orbits the Earth," said Dr. Donald Thomas, ISS Program Scientist. "The scientific research program has gotten off to a great start and the possibilities for new discoveries are as limitless as the number of stars that form the background for the Space Station as it orbits above."

The first three-man crew inhabited the Station on Nov. 2, 2000, taking their place on the most ambitious space research project in human history. Since then, science operations have expanded to include a varied cross section of important scientific research -- thanks to the crewmembers, as well as the partnership of ground controllers and scientists around the world.

The Space Station's many residents, who have lived and worked onboard the orbiting laboratory anywhere from four to six months at a time, have performed research in bioastronautics, physical sciences, fundamental space biology, space product development and space flight disciplines. In the U.S. Destiny laboratory alone, 22 crew members had worked on more than 70 different science experiments by the end of 2003.

But the Space Station is a work in progress. Conducting science on the Station has been compared to having a dinner party at your home while it is still being built. John Uri, who served as the lead scientist for the International Space Station's first four expeditions, said, "Right now, we are at a place with science on the Space Station where we have served up the appetizers, and have started on the main course. But the kitchen is still being expanded with new facilities being added."

That's why an extra set of eyes or pair of hands can always come in handy. Although physically, there have always been two or three crewmembers onboard the Station at all times, an "extra" crewmember has always been "right there" with them. That crewmember is actually a team of people who work in a sophisticated facility known as NASA's Payload Operations Center, or POC, at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

A little more than three years ago, the Payload Operations Center began full-time operations as the science command post for the Station. Staffed around the clock by three shifts of eight to 10 flight controllers, this science command and control center links Earth-bound researchers with their experiments - or payloads - in orbit. Together with the flight controllers at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, they serve as an extra set of eyes or pair of hands devoted to science, thus increasing experiment efficiency and saving precious crew time for operations that require a human touch.

This group of dedicated professionals create the weekly schedule of science activities; to coordinate the use of valuable on-orbit resources, such as power and crew time; to orchestrate delivery and retrieval of payloads; to ensure the safety for Space Station crews performing experiments and to configure research facilities aboard the Space Station to support payloads.

Working with scientists and other control centers around the world, the Payload Operations Center team sends commands to experiments, watches their progress, monitors their health and receives data. The team members are always available to answer questions from the Space Station crew and assist them in their research activities.

In addition to managing all science research experiment operations onboard the Station, the Payload Operations Center also is responsible for coordination of the mission planning work of the Space Station's international partners, all science experiments going to and coming from the Station, and experiment training and safety programs for Space Station crews and ground personnel.

Teams of planners look days, weeks and months into the future to orchestrate the use of Space Station on-orbit resources such as equipment, electrical power and crew time to fulfill science and research objectives. The planners develop timelines of activities for U.S. experiments, then integrate those timelines with those of the other International Partners to create schedules of all payload activities aboard the Space Station.

Some scientists are able to monitor their experiments from their laboratories, while others use four science centers, called NASA Telescience Support Centers, also known as TSCs. Each Telescience Support Center focuses on a different field of space-based research, allowing researchers across the country to collaborate and share common hardware, facilities and resources aboard the Space Station. They can manipulate their experiments onboard the Station from any one of these centers.

At the Marshall Center, the Telescience Support Center manages materials sciences, biotechnology research, microgravity research, and space product development. In Moffett Field, Calif., the NASA Ames Research Center's facility manages gravitational biology and ecology - research on plants and animals. Managing fluids and combustion research is the specialty of the TSC at NASA's John Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. And at the Johnson Center, the TSC manages human life sciences, including physiological and behavioral studies, and crew health and performance.

State-of-the-art computers and communications equipment at the Payload Operations Center link these TSCs and remote-site researchers with their experiments and the crew aboard the Space Station.

When it comes to living and working in space, one thing is certain - microgravity - the low-gravity environment created as the Space Station travels around the planet at a speed of 17,000 mph - changes everything.

One of the most important things this long-term research platform provides is a place where scientists can study how living in the unique microgravity environment affects humans. If we ever hope to leave the planet on even more challenging missions to Mars or beyond, we have to know more about the effects of microgravity on humans and materials. The results of many microgravity experiments have potential applications on Earth as well.

The first Space Station crew on Expedition 1 spent most of its time constructing the Station and stocking it with equipment, but the crew was able to conduct several experiments. In February 2001, the Shuttle delivered the Destiny Laboratory - the bus-size, modular lab where most Station science activities take place. The Expedition 2 crew set up the laboratory and conducted numerous experiments. Over the course of the next few years, Space Station crews, with the help of many visiting Shuttle crews, outfitted the laboratory with seven, floor-to-ceiling, telephone-booth-size, research racks that are filled with scientific equipment.

By Expedition 4, science really hit its stride, with its crew devoting more than 300 hours to U.S. research.

The tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in February 2003, during Expedition 6, has since limited the amount of science equipment that can be transported to the Space Station. Crews have continued science experiments that were already on board, and several smaller experiments have been flown to the Station on board Russian Progress supply vehicles. Scientists have been ingenious, inventing new experiments that can be conducted primarily with equipment already on board the Station.

And you just can't beat the view of home -- another reason to leave planet Earth to conduct research. The Station crosses the same area of the planet every three days and covers more than 90 percent of the populated Earth. Astronauts have photographed fires, volcanoes and hurricanes. During the four-month Expedition 3 research mission that ended in December 2001, astronaut Frank Culbertson even photographed the destruction of Sept. 11, 2001, in Lower Manhattan at the World Trade Center. And in the first week of Expedition 8 that began in October 2003, ISS Science Officer Michael Foale photographed the devastating California wildfires as seen from the unique vantage point 240 miles up. The photographs were published and broadcast by news media outlets worldwide.

In the past four decades, astronauts have taken more than half-a-million images of Earth. These images have helped Earth scientists track both long- and short-term changes, as well as natural and man-made changes. And thousands of students, participating in educational Space Station experiments, have instructed a camera onboard the Space Station to take pictures of cities, mountains, coastlines and other places they're studying in their classrooms. These images have been sent back via Web sites for the students to use in various history, geography, science and environmental lessons.

In addition to taking photos of Earth, more than 700 students and teachers have helped scientists in their labs by loading samples of biological substances into experiment equipment used to grow crystals on the Station. This biochemistry experiment and many other Station experiments study how the unique space environment changes chemical and physical processes that we take for granted on Earth.

Crew members have helped with numerous experiments that study how microgravity affects plants, crystals and other materials and processes. The Microgravity Science Glovebox, a European-built, multi-user facility launched in May 2002, has been used extensively in the past year for a number of investigations. These have included solidification experiments to better understand how imperfections can be minimized in metal castings, and a study of materials with unique magnetic properties that may be useful in designing shock absorbers and earthquake vibration damping systems for buildings in the future.

Many life sciences experiments also have been conducted using the Human Research Facility located in the U.S. science module Destiny. Investigations have been completed that have studied the pulmonary function or lung capacity of astronauts in a microgravity environment, and more recent studies are in progress which direct measure the forces experienced in space by astronauts on their lower limbs, seeking to better understand how bone and muscle loss experienced by all astronauts during long-duration spaceflight can be minimized.

Scientists have conducted medical research in osteoporosis, breast cancer and kidney stones aboard the orbiting research facility. They also continue gathering basic data on radiation that will tell them how to make space exploration easier for astronauts and more useful for other scientists planning future experiments.

If exploring the heavens and pushing the boundaries of science and technology weren't enough, the International Space Station has also opened up new frontiers of international partnership and cooperation. Today, 15 other nations have joined the United States in this peaceful and productive pursuit of new worlds, new science and new technologies.

The international cooperation being demonstrated aboard the Station in the scientific research programs continues to be impressive. One recent example involves a protein crystal growth experiment -- the Granada Crystallization Facility. The facility was built in Europe at Granada University, the principal investigator is from Japan, the facility was launched and retrieved using the Russian Progress and Soyuz launch vehicles, and the experiment was performed aboard the Station by an American astronaut and utilized a commercially built cooling facility already onboard. Such cooperation has become commonplace today aboard the Station.

Once the Space Shuttle returns to flight and the assembly of the Space Station is resumed, a number of additional research facilities will be launched to the Station. These will include refrigerator and freezer units critical for preserving biological samples such as blood, urine and saliva samples needed for life science investigations into how the human body adapts to the space environment. A combustion research facility also will be launched, adding to the understanding of burning processes that may lead to development of more efficient fuels. Also awaiting launch are more solar arrays and support structures that will triple the sunlight-gathering, solar cell area -- thereby increasing the power dedicated to research.

"The research that will be conducted will touch nearly all branches of science, and will help us expand our understanding of the laws of nature and enrich our lives on Earth," said Thomas. "Additionally, much of what we will learn aboard the Station will better prepare us for our next steps in space out beyond the Earth and help us to development the technology to make this exploration possible."

The Italian-built Node 2 module that will serve as a connector between the U.S., European and Japanese research labs is undergoing pre-launch processing. The Kibo Japanese Experiment Module, including a pressurized lab, also will be added to the Station. And the European Columbus Laboratory, under construction in Bremen, Germany, will expand the Station's volume to almost that of a five-bedroom house.

"It's amazing in this short time we find ourselves only a few Space Shuttle assembly flights away from completion of the first phase of construction of the United States' contribution to the Space Station," said Thomas. "We have successfully met the challenges of assembling this remarkable facility, while at the same time conducted a wide range of scientific investigations that could only be performed in the unique microgravity environment of space."

The International Space Station is fulfilling the promise of expanding research into space and continuing its mission of promoting international cooperation, understanding and protecting our planet, teaching and inspiring our children, and improving life on Earth for many years to come.

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Steve Roy
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