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Ad Astra | Future Plans for the International Space Station

image of the entire space station with a black backdrop
The International Space Station pictured on Nov. 8, 2021.
Credits: NASA

Perspectives from the space station partnership 

Having entered its third decade of service, the sponsoring partners of the International Space Station are once again considering extending operations. This time to 2030. Originally scheduled for a 15-year mission, the station will have doubled its originally planned length of service by that time. As illustrated by the many examples of research accomplishments found in this book and the plans discussed by the partnering space agencies in this article, the third decade of station activities will indeed be one characterized by increasing research results. 

Canadian Space Agency

image of a group of astronauts near a plane
2017 Canadian Space Agency astronaut team. Back: Jenni Sidey-Gibbons. Front, left to right: David Saint-Jacques, Joshua Kutryk, Jeremy Hansen.
Credits: NASA/Bill Stafford

Canada entered the space program in 1962 with the launch of the Alouette 1 satellite into low-Earth orbit. Following the development of the original Canadarm for the space shuttle, the first Canadian astronaut launched into low-Earth orbit in 1984. In 1988, Canada joined the International Space Station Program. CSA has supported the station’s construction and operation through sophisticated robotic systems including the Mobile Base, Canadarm2, and Dextre. This contribution led to the participation of Canadian scientists and engineers in 78 station investigations, including seven technology demonstrations and 12 educational and cultural activities between 2000 and 2019.  

Research and development aboard the space station is now an important component of the Canadian Space Strategy published in 2019. Using this experience in space science and technology, Canada will continue to use the station to pursue the following goals: 1) advancing human space exploration by conducting health research and supporting technology development leading to socio-economic benefits and commercialization of new products; and 2) inspiring the next generation of Canadians to pursue an interest and studies in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). 

So far, Canada’s space activities have benefited space exploration through the development and demonstration of a wide variety of technologies such as robotic manipulators, neutron dosimeters, wearable physiologic sensors, and biomedical analytical instruments. These instruments and technologies have been validated in the microgravity environment of low-Earth orbit and have demonstrated their functionalities and usefulness for future space missions. Scientific knowledge generated through Canadian investigations are detailed in this document. By increasing our understanding of the impact of the space environment on human physiology and psychology, Canadian researchers have contributed to improving crew safety on future missions into deep space. Canadian utilization of space station resources will continue with this momentum to prepare humanity for the next steps of space exploration. 

Past activities have brought social benefits back to Earth. Important examples are advances in health sciences and medicine. Canada’s involvement in the International Space Station Program has led to a better understanding of a number of space health challenges and advanced the development of related biomedical devices. As described in this new edition, R&D in space robotics has led to applications in healthcare and industrial manufacturing. Future Canadian activities related to the program will continue on this trend and will generate socio-economic benefits such as knowledge translation, industrial applications, training of highly qualified personnel, and development of new technologies that benefit the Canadian population and humanity. 

In 2016, the Canadian Government provided support for Canada’s continued participation in the space station and secured future Canadian astronaut flights to this unique international laboratory. Space is the most exciting laboratory imaginable from which to inspire a new generation of Canadians in the pursuit of science, discovery, and technological advancement. Space capabilities will also play a central role in developing and supporting emerging technologies. Canada is now involved in discussions with the space station’s international partnership on utilization beyond 2024 to maximize the benefits of space station research and development activities and to continue to open the way to space for all humanity. 

European Space Agency

The space station international partnership recently celebrated 20 years of continuous operations. Those past 20 years of continuous human presence on station have resulted in a record of operations and utilization that have paved the way for many new inventions and opportunities. The International Space Station is now entering possibly its last, but potentially golden, decade of use with increased crew time, increased capabilities, and upgraded infrastructure. During this decade of operations, the station shall continue to be an essential and integral component of space research and shall continue to serve as the world’s leading laboratory for cutting-edge research and technology development that will enable human and robotic exploration of the Moon and Mars, advancing critical capabilities that will take humans farther into space and reduce the cost of human spaceflight.  

While international partners prepare for the next chapter of human exploration, it is critical that we learn from those experiences. But we must also recognize the limits of that experience. A lot remains to be understood about the physiological and performance effects related to exposure to spaceflight hazards such as radiation, altered gravity, and hostile environments. The same is true when considering the unique challenges of providing medical and behavioral health support critical to successful human exploration of deep space.  

To this end, it is important that the International Space Station partnership continues to maintain and, where feasible, upgrade station capabilities to ensure efficient operations and utilization until the station’s end of lifetime. ESA has initiated (and will soon complete) “Columbus 2030” activities, which aim to enhance and expand on-orbit infrastructure, thereby increasing space station utilization while reducing operational costs. Columbus 2030 will modernize the European Columbus module’s information technology infrastructure (including ground and support infrastructure), allowing more efficient station operations. New infrastructure elements will be added, such as the European Drawer Rack Mk2, the European Transport Container-Replacement, Live Cell Imaging, and upgraded Biolab capabilities including a 3D bio-printing and 3D cell culture facility, to name a few. Furthermore, inflight technology demonstration activities (e.g., advanced life support systems like ANITA-2 and 3DMetalprinting) will continue to translate space station research into space exploration technology systems that enable exploration missions to the Moon, Mars, and eventually deep space. The station will therefore continue to provide unparalleled opportunities for scientific research and translation, and technology demonstration and validation, and will continue to serve as a staging post for preparation for long-duration exploration missions, advancing critical capabilities to take humans further into space (ad astra!) and also reducing the cost of human spaceflight. 

Italian Space Agency

The Italian Space Agency (ASI) Human Space Flight Program has the specific objective of gaining knowledge through space research and transferring it to biomedical and technological applications on Earth, as well as to relevant applications for human exploration of space. 

The primary goals of this program are: 

  • To understand life processes and adaptation mechanisms associated with long-term stays in the space environment. 
  • To sustain a human program of exploration in the solar system and beyond.
  • To foster the integration of multi-disciplinary expertise, both scientific and industrial, for programs of high-level technology transfer. 

ASI provides access to different space platforms, thanks to cooperative agreements with ESA (E3P) and NASA (MoU ASI/NASA). New national initiatives and international collaboration perspectives are being nurtured. The aim is to define a path for Italian research activities that build upon and consolidate previous results and contribute to international goals. The program focuses on the following research areas, which require specific facilities and flight opportunities:  

  • Life sciences, and particularly macro-areas such as integrated physiology, microbiology, plant biology, bio-regenerative life support systems, and radiation.  
  • Physical sciences and especially fundamental, material, and fluids physics.
  • Technological demonstrations and commercial developments. 

Studies in these areas are encouraged because of their connection to future human exploration scenarios. 

The majority of ASI experiments focus on biology and biotechnology, human physiology, and technology demonstration. So far ASI has carried 73 experiments aboard the International Space Station, 69 of which have been implemented thanks to the Memorandum of Understanding between ASI and NASA, three in the frame of the ESA’s National Contribution program and one by virtue of a specific agreement with ROSCOSMOS. 

During the last mission of an Italian astronaut, Luca Parmitano, ASI brought six new experiments on board the station, four of which are still operational. The next challenge for ASI is represented by Samantha Cristoforetti’s mission in 2022, for which ASI is launching a group of new experiments.  

For the purpose of composing the new utilization plan, ASI has recently selected a list of new experiments, mostly of biology, human physiology, and technological demonstration. These experiments will be gradually launched over the next few years. 

In parallel, ASI is among the promoting agencies of the ISS4Mars project. ISS4Mars is an international proposal to use the space station as an analog platform to support the next steps for human exploration. The International Space Station is the only possible available integrated analogue for a mission to Mars where the impact of all space conditions, even if approximately, can be simultaneously mimicked. The utilization strategy shall focus on solving the still-open research questions and technology gaps necessary for deep space exploration. The feasibility study of this project is under way. 

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

JAXA continues to encourage use of the ISS Kibo module for a broad range of activities to maximize benefits to the Japanese economy and add to the significant contributions already made toward scientific and technological discovery. Kibo’s external platform is home to many Earth and deep space observation instruments as well as space exposure experiments, while the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM) airlock continues to support small satellite deployments. As one example, HISUI (Hyper-Spectral Imager Suite) developed and operated by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has been active since 2020. It collects Earth observation data that are useful for mapping the location of mineral deposits for potential extraction, identifying plant distribution for environmental studies, and tracking soil condition for agricultural uses.

Internal facilities provide one-of-a-kind opportunities for researchers. For example, Mouse Habitat Units allow biologists to study physical adaptations to partial and microgravity conditions. The Electrostatic Levitation Furnace provides materials scientists with the ability to conduct research on materials at very high temperatures without concern for contamination from containers.

As many examples in this book illustrate, JAXA has focused the use of Kibo facilities for drug design, aging research, small satellite orbital deployment, and space environment exposure by academic, commercial, and public entities worldwide. JAXA aims at consistently achieving 30% to 50% commercial utilization for these purposes by 2024. A growing number of collaborations between JAXA and user-service providers continues to fuel the formation of new organizations and groups that independently provide high-quality services for users of Kibo facilities. As these partnerships deepen, operational know-how continues to be passed along, expanding new markets in low-Earth orbit.

Commercially, JAXA has partnered with companies such as PeptiDream Inc. and Sony Computer Science Laboratories (Sony CSL) to provide new pathways for research and technology development. Furthermore, to promote diverse partnerships using the space station, JAXA has invited Asian and Pacific nations to participate in the use of Japanese facilities. For example, an agreement with Singapore enabled the use of the JEM Small Satellite Orbital Deployer (J-SSOD) to launch a Singaporean satellite that tested new thruster technologies for use with small satellites.

JAXA continues to focus on promoting strategic partnerships to commercially establish the research and development testbed aboard the Kibo module, building on successful fee-based agreements such as that with the Japanese drug discovery company, PeptiDream Inc. That agreement enabled more frequent launching of samples, increasing the number of tests performed in Kibo, which accelerated the development of new drugs while reducing overall research costs. Furthermore, the company can expand Kibo utilization in its collaborative research activities with other entities. Such benefits strongly appeal to potential candidates of commercial users who have already participated in the Kibo experimental programs since 2013, including Chugai Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd. and Taiho Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd. JAXA has selected Space BD Inc. as a private business operator and has established a system to develop customers and operate experiments in the private sector by using some of the experiment opportunities.

The Space Exploration Innovation Hub program by JAXA created another successful partnership with Sony CSL. JAXA’s already-existing, IVA-replaceable Small Exposed Experiment Platform (i-SEEP) on the Kibo Exposed Facility will play a key role in establishing a mass-data communication system between multiple satellites or a satellite and a ground operation interface. This innovation is also widely open for future longer-distance optical fiber communication on the ground.

In closing, the sustained use of the International Space Station and the Japanese Kibo module to their full extent through 2030 shows significant promise for continued scientific, innovative, and economic development.

image of a diagram showing a strategic plan
Credits: JAXA

International Space Station National Laboratory

Moving into its third decade of continuous crewed presence, the space station is now transitioning from an era of utilization to one that builds on past outcomes to establish the robust low-Earth orbit economy of the future. Results from the last 20 years of research and technology development on the space station have shown the unique, tangible benefits that such development in the low-Earth orbit environment offers. Now, the ISS National Lab plays a crucial role in demonstrating the economic value of space-based research and development, and in driving a sustainable market in low-Earth orbit. To achieve this, the ISS National Lab works to increase demand among industry users. It fosters supply-side growth by supporting a growing number of companies and organizations that provide services related to payload development. Finally, it works to attract private-sector investment into the low-Earth orbit economy. 

For the past 10 years, the ISS National Lab has been managed by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, Inc. (CASIS). In this time, more than 500 ISS National Lab-sponsored payloads, representing more than 600 investigations, have launched to the space station. Almost 70% of these payloads represents research and development from the private sector to advance commercial products and spur economic development. Fortune 500 companies that have leveraged the ISS National Lab include Procter & Gamble, Merck & Co., Adidas, Colgate-Palmolive, Target Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp., and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, among many others. To date, more than $240 million in external, non-NASA funding has been committed in support of ISS National Lab-sponsored investigations. Additionally, through a multiyear partnership with Boeing, the ISS National Lab supports innovative startups through the MassChallenge Technology in Space Prize. Since its inception in 2013, the prize has provided $8.8 million in funding to 27 start-ups for ISS National Lab-sponsored research and development.  

Through knowledge gained in the last decade, the ISS National Lab has identified key areas of research and development with the most potential to provide economic value and lead to the production of commercially relevant products. ISS National Lab Research Announcements now target these strategic areas of focus, which include technology development and demonstration and in-space production applications in advanced manufacturing and materials as well as tissue engineering and biomanufacturing. The ISS National Lab has also established multiyear partnerships with other government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), which together have provided more than $35 million in funding to support nearly 50 ISS National Lab-sponsored investigations. In the last 10 years, more than 150 peer-reviewed articles have resulted from ISS National Lab-sponsored research and development, lending credibility and prestige to research conducted on the space station. 

On the supply side, the ISS National Lab provides funding and support to a diverse group of more than 35 Implementation Partners that offer services to aid investigators in translating ground-based concepts into flight-ready payloads. To facilitate business-to-business relationships, the ISS National Lab uses an online portal to connect Implementation Partners with investigators that can use their services. The ISS National Lab also provides access to and creates demand for an increasing number of commercially operated facilities on the station that serve to expand the in-orbit capabilities available to investigators. Currently, 18 space station facilities are owned and operated by 10 Commercial Service Providers (a subset of Implementation Partners). 

Utilization of the ISS National Lab is also generating substantial investment. Both the awarding of, and subsequent flight of, ISS National Lab-sponsored investigations are key indicators of economic value creation for start-up companies. Since 2014, start-ups that have completed projects sponsored by the ISS National Lab have collectively raised more than $1.1 billion post-flight. These funds were raised from public equity markets and venture/private capital, and via public and private grants. Additionally, the ISS National Lab has established an Investor Network that currently includes close to 250 members. Through this network, the ISS National Lab has facilitated nearly 1,000 introductions to date in support of capital-raising efforts in the ISS National Lab ecosystem. 

Advancing science literacy in the future workforce is also central to the mission of the ISS National Lab. Leveraging the space station as a powerful platform for education, the ISS National Lab is helping to shape the next generation of innovators and leaders that will play a key role in ensuring the success of the future low-Earth orbit economy. The ISS National Lab partners with 25 educational programs that are part of the Space Station Explorers community, and in fiscal year 2021 alone, nearly 3.8 million people engaged with these programs. 

Building on the strong foundation established over the past decade, the ISS National Lab will continue to work with NASA and International Partners to accelerate growth and investment in the low-Earth orbit marketplace. The successes achieved so far have paved the way for a sustainable and robust low-Earth orbit economy of the future, where multiple platforms and a space-based national laboratory will support both government and commercial research and development that provides valuable benefits to our nation and the world. 

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

image of an expedition crew
Nine crew members gather for a group portrait in the International Space Station’s Kibo laboratory following a joint crew news conference.
Credits: NASA

On November 2, 2020, NASA marked 20 years of continuous United States human presence in low-Earth orbit onboard the International Space Station. Research and technology demonstrations aboard the space station have provided the foundation for extending human presence beyond low-Earth orbit into deep space, while two decades of continuous 24/7/365 operations have generated expertise and insights that can only come with experience.

As the world’s first truly international orbiting laboratory, the space station continues to represent an unparalleled capability in human spaceflight. Scientific investigations from the quantum realm to the cosmological nature of our universe, and at every scale in between, have pushed the frontiers of knowledge in every major discipline of science. Earth-observing instruments mounted externally have generated unique datasets, helping scientists improve climate and ocean modeling. All this knowledge has the potential to benefit life here on Earth while enhancing the competitiveness of U.S. private industry.

The international partnership created through the ISS Program and its accomplishments exemplify how countries can work together to overcome complex challenges and achieve collaborative goals. Indeed, more than 100 countries have used, or are currently using, the orbiting laboratory. However, the experience gained in more than two decades of collaborative operations of five space agencies, representing 15 ISS Intergovernmental Agreement signatory nations will be a lasting legacy, providing a framework for collaborative exploration efforts for decades to come.

The International Space Station is a stepping-stone for NASA’s Artemis program that will land the first woman and person of color on the Moon. As the only place for conducting long-duration research on how living in microgravity affects living organisms, especially humans, as well as testing technologies to allow humans to work at the Moon, the space station serves as a unique asset in the effort to establish a sustainable presence at the Moon. We have tested important technologies for the Artemis program on station ranging from life support systems to radiation sensors.

Looking forward, NASA’s vision for low-Earth orbit is a sustained commercial space marketplace where NASA is one of many customers. The development of a healthy commercial supplier base for low-Earth orbit activities is critical to achieving that vision. Today, the space station is already enabling commercial cargo and crew transportation that industry is working to make more cost effective. More than a dozen commercial research facilities are in active operation onboard the station while more than 20 companies provide payload development and integration services in support of the International Space Station research community. NASA has also initiated the Commercial Low Earth Orbit Development program to further the development of private on-orbit capabilities beyond what is available today through the space station.

As we prepare for human exploration missions into deep space, it is important to reflect on the critical value of the proven partnership that has made the International Space Station possible and to consider how to build on these relationships as humanity proceeds into cislunar space. It is necessary to maximize the value and impact of the space station today to allow users to explore new microgravity applications, test new markets, and communicate those success stories to stimulate broader interest in low-Earth orbit from non-traditional space users.

ROSCOSMOS State Corporation for Space Activities

ROSCOSMOS State Corporation for Space Activities supports the implementation of the Russian Federation space program. ROSCOSMOS responsibilities also include developing international cooperation in the space sector and creating conditions for using the results of space activities in Russia’s social and economic development.

With more than 20 years of successful use, the development of the Russian Segment of the International Space Station (ISS RS) continues. In 2021, two new Russian modules, the multi-purpose laboratory module Nauka and the node module Prichal, launched and successfully docked to the ISS RS. The Multi-zone Electric Vacuum Furnace science hardware, which was included in the module, supports research activities to grow semiconductor crystals using replaceable heaters and processes for zone melting, bulk crystallization, and directional crystallization. The integration of the Nauka module enables an estimated increase of more than 17% in the quantity of research activities carried out on the ISS RS.

Processes to expand use of the ISS RS also continue to evolve. An organization formed under the auspices of ROSCOSMOS functions as an operator in providing commercial services to use the Russian Segment and enables interested organizations to fund such activities.

In cooperation with academic and commercial organizations from different countries such as Kazakhstan, United Arab Emirates, and Hungary, ROSCOSMOS continues to devote special attention to studying the influence of low-Earth orbit on human life support, plants, materials, and combustion processes, as well as the orbital deployment of satellites.

All these actions are directed at increasing research in various areas to generate significant results in scientific and applied research activities while maximizing the investment return and economic impact.



Last Updated
Sep 29, 2023
Ana Guzman