Aging International Space Station a space lab of ‘unlimited’ opportunity

By Jean-Louis Santini, AFP

WASHINGTON — It may be 350 kilometers above Earth and a place that only a privileged few will ever visit, but the International Space Station is crucial to advances in science, health and technology, experts say. Earlier this month, NASA said the life of the US$100 billion ISS would be extended by four years, or until at least 2024, allowing for more global research and scientific collaboration. John Holdren, a senior White House adviser on science and technology, hailed the space station — mainly built with U.S. money — as “a unique facility that offers enormous scientific and societal benefits. “The Obama administration’s decision to extend its life until at least 2024 will allow us to maximize its potential, deliver critical benefits to our nation and the world and maintain American leadership in space,” he said. The orbiting outpost, which was launched to fanfare in 1998, has more living space than a six-bedroom house and comes complete with Internet access, a gym, two bathrooms and a 360-degree bay window offering spectacular views of Earth. Its entire structure is made up of various working and sleeping modules, and extends the length of a football field (about 100 meters), making it four times bigger than the Russian space station Mir and about five times as large as the U.S. Skylab. The aging structure requires regular maintenance, which is done by astronauts who don spacesuits and venture outside the lab.

One such repair was completed Christmas Eve when two Americans stepped out to replace a failed ammonia pump that served to cool equipment at the ISS. Julie Robinson, an ISS scientist at NASA, insisted that the space station, which has a mass of 420,000 kilograms but is near-weightless in space, is worth the trouble and expense. The ISS, which is maintained by a rotating crew of six astronauts and cosmonauts who have hailed from 14 countries, allows scientists to study the long-term effects of weightlessness on the human body, she said, while testing new space technologies that will be essential for missions to Mars. “The goal of using the space station is to make discoveries that cannot be made anywhere else … and do research that is really focused on bringing benefits back to Earth by developing knowledge that can directly help bio-medical treatments, make new materials, have better Earth and climate observations,” she told AFP. Robinson added that “many of our early research results are making their way into drug development, medical technologies, pathways. We also have Earth-remote sensitive instruments that provide unique data about the Earth and its climate and there are a number of new instruments going up in the next two years.