International Space Station: What Does the Future Hold?


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The International Space Station. Photo Courtesy of NASA

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has closed the book on the Space Shuttle program, which begs the question: what is the focal point now for space exploration? Is there a still an ongoing role for the International Space Station’s (ISS) to support NASA’s space research and exploration?

Why ask these questions? Without the capability to send United States (US) astronauts to the station, how can the space station remain a realistic platform for space science?

These questions and many more are driven by the recent commitment by the Multilateral Coordination Board (MCB) to extend the life of the ISS into 2020. The board consists of representatives from NASA, Roscosmos, European Space Agency, Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (NASA Receives European Commitment to Continue Space Station).

The answer to one of these questions is that NASA will rely on the Russian Federal Space Agency’s (Roscosmos) Soyuz spacecraft through 2013 for transportation of US astronauts to and from the ISS. By the middle of the decade, NASA plans to use SpaceX commercial crew vehicles to replace the use of Soyuz spacecraft for transporting US astronauts to and from the ISS (NASA Commercial Crew and Cargo – C3PO).

Future Research and Exploration: Expectations for the ISS

View of Cupola “Window on the World” Recently Added to the International Space Station. Photo Courtesy of NASA.

The key to defining the United States’ future role in space exploration is in the details of the NASA Authorization Acts of 2005 and 2010. Among the many directives for NASA in these Acts, is the dictate designating the United States’ portion of the ISS as a National Laboratory.

What does the National Laboratory designation mean to the US space program? NASA will expand its collaboration with other US federal agencies, academia, and the private sector beyond current missions. The overall national goal is to press forward in space exploration and research. Example activities to support these national objectives include (NASA Authorization Act of 2005 and 2010):

  • Human Research – continuing missions designed to support long-term space voyages in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
  • Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle Support – this research focuses on investigating the practicality of using the ISS as a staging platform for manned space exploration beyond low-earth orbit. For example voyages to Mars and Asteroids, along with the possibility of establishing a long-term manned station on the Moon’s surface.Climatology and Earth Science – observing and collecting data in collaboration with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the United Stated Geological Survey (USGS).
  • Technology Research – supporting a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) program. The program is designed to use scientific research and technology development projects designed by students and educators as prospective investigators.
  • Micro-Gravity Research – continuing this program which focuses on combustion, fluid flow, and heat transfer to support private sector collaborative research.
  • Medicines and Food Research – continuing this program to determine the processes needed to sustain the development or manufacture of new medicines and food products. A primary focus is the growth and sustainment of food for long-duration space voyages.

Canadian “Handyman” Research Robotics System Attached to the International Space Station. Photo Courtesy of NASA

Science and Technology: Current Research and Exploration

A sampling of current research and exploration missions for the International Space Station include:

  • Galactic Cosmic Rays Exploration – this astrophysics research uses an Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer instrument to collect observations of galactic cosmic rays, with more than two billion observations collected to date. This data is used by scientists in 16 countries to determine the origin of cosmic rays and source of their energy.
  • Robotic Technology Research – is led by the CSA to develop micro-surgery techniques for robotic surgery for use by surgeons on earth. This also includes a collaborative research effort by NASA and General Motors into the viability of humanoid robots to support space exploration.
  • Human Research – focuses on human and plant adaptation to the space environment. This astrobiology research is led by Roscosmos with a specific focal point on how a weightless environment affects human body systems. Additional research concerns the growth of wheat and vegetables to sustain humans in long-duration voyages in space.
  • Earth Agricultural Exploration – involves the use of a Hyperspectral Imager for ocean research and an Agricultural Camera for assessing worldwide crop health and changes.

US Astronaut Space Walking Outside the International Space Station. Photo Courtesy of NASA.

Benefits of Research: Past and Present

The benefits of research performed by international astronauts manning this low-earth orbital platform have created or inspired new products and technology. The following are selected examples of the products or services developed based on their research (NASA Benefits of ISS Research).

  • Air Purification Systems – an air scrubber designed to support an onboard plant growth chamber was adapted for use in situations requiring clean air on earth. Applications include food preservation, home and business air purification systems, and doctor’s offices.
  • Ultrasound Diagnostics – resulted in development of ultrasound diagnostic procedures for teaching medical students and use by athletic trainers. This also includes the training of individuals in rural or remote regions around the world to provide images to doctors for analysis in distant locations.
  • Cancer Treatment Delivery Methods – development of new procedures for delivering cancer treatments.  One new technique is the delivery of a micro-capsule containing drugs directly into a tumor using an ultrasound enhanced needle or catheter.
  • Climatology – collected and observed data are used to obtain a global profile for determining the long term impact on earth’s climate by aerosols, water vapor, and oxides.
  • Protein Crystals – grow without imperfections and impurities in the weightless environment of the International Space Station. These almost perfect protein crystals are used in the development or manufacture of medicines, food, and insulin for diabetics.

The end of the space shuttle program , which was confined to a low-earth orbit, does not mark the end of space exploration and research by NASA. The vision of returning to exploration beyond low-earth orbit to other Mars, asteroids, and more has become part of the future of the ISS to the United States space program. The future for the International Space Station holds a promise for continued discovery of the universe in which we live.


National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Benefits of ISS Research. Accessed August 1, 2011.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Commercial Crew and Cargo Program. Accessed August 2, 2011.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Information for Prospective Investigators. Accessed August 2, 2011.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA Receives European Commitment to Continue Space Station. Accessed August 1, 2011.

The United States Senate. NASA Authorization Act of 2005. Accessed August 1, 2011.

The United States Senate. NASA Authorization Act of 2010. Accessed August 1, 2011.

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