Wednesday, June 27, 2012

That's No Moon. It's a Space Station.


Click the arrow to watch the National History Center's congressional briefing on the commercialization of space travel.

Promotion and understanding of the relationship between commercial space and space stations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) seems to be increasing in the wake of the historic SpaceX flight one month ago.

The National History Center held a Congressional briefing on June 15 titled, "Commercialization of Space Travel and Human Participation in Space Exploration". According to a June 26 release, the event was "especially designed to help Congressional staff" but was open to the public and had 75 people in attendance.

I posted on June 20 the video of the Senate space subcommittee hearing that day on the opportunities created in LEO by commercial space. It was attended by only three Senators, but we can take solace in knowing that commercial space probably wouldn't have been the subject of a hearing before the SpaceX flight to the ISS. It was the first time that Bigelow Aerospace was invited to a Congressional hearing, so awareness of commercial orbital habitats as a part of the "big picture" seems to be getting through to some people on the Hill.

NASA released over the weekend a new web site titled ISSLive!. It streams live video from the ISS, including the current activity by each crew member. In typical NASA fashion, it has a long URL (spacestationlive.nasa.gov) instead of something obvious (isslive.gov) and it's not on the NASA home page, so it's left up to we space geeks to spread the word.

U.S. News and World Report published a major article titled, "Space: The New Frontier For Medical Breakthroughs". It details for the lay person how LEO's microgravity has been used to develop vaccines against salmonella and MRSA, and other potential research.

The article quotes NASA executive William Gerstenmaier at last week's Senate hearing, noting that this unique technology creates the potential for a new economy:

Last week, William Gerstenmaier, NASA's head of human explorations and operations, told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation that medical discoveries and vaccines developed on the International Space Station could help the United States "create a new economy based on space-based research."

"It's like when we went to Africa to look for new plant species to use for drugs," he said. "We can create a new industry with this."

Aviation Week reports that ISS utilization is increasing after what some have perceived as a slow start.

Astronaut Don Pettit is a real Mr. Fixit, and that is just fine with the scientists who trust him to run their experiments on the International Space Station ...

That kind of close work with an astronaut in orbit is a dream come true for scientists who want to see what happens when the gravity factor is removed, and for many experiments there is no other way to remove it. Drop towers and parabolic aircraft flights just do not offer enough time in microgravity, and experiment lockers on the space shuttle did not provide the continuity for the long-term laboratory work many experiments require.

The space station can solve that problem, and scientists, engineers and managers are starting to realize just what that might mean in terms of discoveries, applications and return on investment. After 10 years and at least $100 billion, NASA and its international partners are beginning to move beyond the transition from station assembly to station utilization and starting to do real work in space.

The Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) issued yesterday a request for proposals "to facilitate and discover new life science breakthroughs and next generation research in the area of protein crystallization." CASIS manages the U.S. National Laboratory aboard the ISS. To quote their web site, "The mission of CASIS is to maximize use of this unparalleled platform for innovation, which can benefit all humankind and inspire a new generation to look to the stars."

There are those in the space advocacy community who still yearn for a rerun of Apollo. That will happen one day, but in my opinion humanity is best served now by exploiting LEO and learning how to establish a permanent human presence in space. Demonstrating the economic opportunities in LEO will create the economic and finally political incentive to expand humanity out into the solar system.

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