Research on Space Station is “excellent”, faces a backlog of requests

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While a great deal of attention was paid to ISS during its construction phase, the Station – a National Lab of the United States – has been entrenched in its all-important utilization phase for the last five years, hosting thousands of astronomy, astrobiology, and physical and medical sciences experiments.  Now, so great is the research demand on Station that the Program is facing a backlog of research and development requests as well as a shortage of crew time for those petitions.

Station utilization efforts – science payoffs in space:

As part of a standard review process multiple times per year, the International Space Station Program presented a status update to the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) earlier this month.

Screen Shot 2016-11-23 at 09.04.22During the review, the ISS Program specifically discussed aspects related to the utilization efforts of the Station’s resources for the numerous scientific experiments and investigations the orbiting lab was specifically designed and constructed to address and host.

In all, the utilization efforts and time aboard Station can be classified as “excellent.”

Sam Scimemi, ISS Director at NASA Headquarters, noted specifically that “To date, the estimated number of investigations through increment 50 is 2,276.  That’s an amazing amount of science being accomplished aboard Space Station.”

For increment 50 specifically, Mr. Scimemi noted that that there are 304 total investigations the Expedition 50 crew will participate in.

While that might seem like a significant number for the 6 person crew, Mr. Scimemi, along with NAC chair Wayne Hale, noted that Peggy Whitson’s presence on Station as Commander will be a boon to the management of the visiting vehicle cargo resupply schedule, the upcoming January EVAs, and the experiment/utilization schedule.

Dr. Whitson was specifically referenced because of her “exceptional management of the construction and utilization schedules” during the Expedition 16 increment, for which she was also Commander.

As Wayne Hill jokingly noted, “You just can never get Peggy to take time off.  She really has set the standard.”

screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-13-00-16Regardless, the management of increment 50’s utilization time with the daily activities on Station comes fresh off an exceptional increment 49 accomplishment, which saw a rise in utilization activities on Station due in large part to a lack of EVAs and only one visiting vehicle.

As Mr. Scimemi noted, “The last increment … really did a great job doing a lot of utilization.  And one of the main reasons for that is there were no EVAs and we only had one cargo vehicle come to the Station.  

“So that crew [was] really able to focus on utilization during [that] increment.”

In fact, increment 49 was able to average 42 hours of crew time for utilization per week with an increment that largely only consisted of three crew members instead of six and also performed well above the planned crew utilization time every single week of the increment.

screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-13-00-41Mr. Scimemi not only attributed that to the lack of EVAs and visiting vehicles but also to planning.

“We’ve learned over the last several years now how to better schedule the crew on the things that are required for them to do.  We’ve gotten better at jumping between what’s required for maintenance and the other daily crew activities with utilization.

“And we’ve been a lot better about scheduling the loading and unloading of cargo modules that have come to Station.”

This overperformance of utilization time in increment 49 continues a longer-term trend to continuously outperform scheduled utilization time.

“We’re consistently above our targets.  We’re supposed to do about 35 hours per week; we’re doing well above that.  Sometimes as much as 45.  But most times it’s just around 40 hours,” noted Mr. Scimemi.

screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-13-01-01And all of this utilization time serves the primary roll the ISS was constructed to fulfill – an orbital platform for science investigation.

Continuing a trend to highlight for the NAC an on-going research initiative on the Station, Mr. Scimemi noted the soon-to-be-concluded Functional Immune Research investigation.

“This is an investigation that’s been going on for 13 years, … and we’re nearing the end of it.”

The final element of the investigation began in March 2014 with Expedition 39 and is set to conclude next year with Expedition 52.

“There are changes to the immune system in space,” noted Mr. Scimemi.  These changes have “some negative implications in the physiological stresses, latent viral reactions, reactions to the immune cellular response and the like.

screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-13-01-12“So this is a big investigation with a big impact on exploration going to Mars and knowing what happens to the immune system and how we develop countermeasures to the immune system for long-duration spaceflight.”

Importantly, the research has implications on the ground for people who have immune issues, i.e.: cancer, persistent viral reactivation, chronic allergy/hypersensitivity, infectious diseases, and autoimmunity.

The research specifically focuses on changes to the immune system brought on by one of or a combination of isolation, psychological stress, altered nutrition, stress, microgravity, radiation, altered microbial virulence, altered microbiome, and circadian misalignment.

Importantly for Earth-bound humans, the Functional Immune Research investigation onboard Station “provides a unique view of the subtle changes in the immune system that may occur before symptoms present, which may help scientists pinpoint the onset of illness, and suggest monitoring strategies, or treatments, that can boost the immune system and prevent full-blown infections and diseases.”

screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-13-12-28Impressively, above and beyond the already on-Station investigations, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) has recently signed agreements with both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) for multimillion-dollar agreements to do Research and Development (R&D) onboard Space Station.

According to Mr. Scimemi, “NASA has had agreements with these organizations for some time, but they’ve been more or less dormant.  And CASIS [has taken] those initial agreements and put some meat behind it and horsepower behind it and gotten agreements signed with both of these organizations.”

The newly signed CASIS agreements work on a scientist to scientist and project to project basis with the NIH and NSF – two immensely important research organizations in the U.S.  

screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-13-08-28Through CASIS, Mr. Scimemi noted, NIH and NSF R&D has increased on orbit with 58 research investigations delivered to Station in Fiscal Year 2016 (1 October 2015 – 30 September 2016) alone.

Moreover, “They continue to request and are requesting more than their share of Station resources, like crew time and upmass.  So they’re getting more requirements than we’re having resources available, which is a very good sign that they’re being successful.”

Also of important note is the backlog of research requests from commercial and government agencies CASIS has lined up for ISS.

According to Mr. Scimemi, CASIS’s “investor Network has increased to 33 investors, and many of these are investors who typically help out smaller companies, startups.  

screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-13-14-16“It is very encouraging to see these investors actually taking chances with small amounts of money across a broad range of R&D topics onboard Space Station.”

Moreover, according to the ISS Program presentation to the NAC, the “ISS – National Lab (ISS-NL) CASIS project pipelines continues to attract and enable non-traditional space customers.

“Of the 34 projects selected for ISS-NL during FY16, almost half are new to space customers; more than 50% of FY16-selected projects are from commercial users; and the number of new commercial service providers for the ISS-NL continues to grow – up from 1 in 2012; 4 now on Station; 8 expected by FY18.”

All of this is to say that while the Station’s structure and systems continue to outperform their lifetime expectancies, the main reason the Station exists is thriving as Expedition after Expedition produces meaningful, groundbreaking investigations thousands of times over to aid not just humanity’s quest to travel farther away from our home planet, but people around the world in their everyday lives and health.

(Images: NASA; ISS-CASIS.org)

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