Thursday , May 26 2022

To Be bold, We must Grow Bold


Past as a Prologue – When asked what the future holds for humans in space, it’s tempting to recall the plots of favorite science fiction films. Often, they include astronauts, rockets, and intergalactic conflicts – they rarely explore the essential “behind-the-scenes” science that enables space exploration.

This is why I am grateful for this opportunity to acknowledge the pioneering efforts of many unsung heroes who, through research conducted on the International Space Station (ISS), have paved the way for generations ahead.

First, I would like to congratulate my colleagues with the US ISS National Laboratory for their many contributions to advancing scientific discovery in low Earth orbit. They have brought a level of access and affordability to space research that was unprecedented when the first crew boarded the space station 20 years ago.

Once, all the roads into space led through NASA; today, government agencies, academic institutions, and private industry alike can conduct work on the ISS directly through the ISS National Laboratory. In fact, for less than the cost of high school football teams uniforms, a school could afford to run an unmanned experiment on the International Space Station.

While reading other guest blogs featured in this 20-year series, ongoing themes have emerged: the commercialization and democratization of space and the scientific advances made on a station that would not have been possible on Earth. It is through this lens that I look forward to the future of R&D in space.

Why Space Experiments Are Important

Before I look into my crystal ball to see what the next twenty years could hold for humans in space, I think it is important to address two key questions: Why invest in research in the space? And why on Earth can’t we do this research?

To answer the first: Experiments conducted on the International Space Station have led to insights into natural phenomena and to technological innovations that have not only laid the foundation for the continuous exploration of space but have also yielded benefits here on the Earth. One example: learning how to grow plants in space sparked technological advances like LED “grow lights” that later benefited indoor vertical farming on Earth. Another example: the creation of a fifth state of matter at ultrasound temperature, Bose-Einstein Condensation, in space enables the study of unique geometries as “bubbles” and could support the development of quantum physics applications such as ultrasound sensing and timekeeping.

Another example: the study of flames in space has led to the discovery of “cool flames” that are invisible to the naked eye and whose study helps to promote combustion technology back on Earth. And: studying microbes in extreme environments enables researchers to understand viruses and bacteria in the hopes that they can develop treatments in the future.

To address the second question, why can’t we do this research on Earth: In short, the unique conditions of the space lighting environment – including altered gravity and space radiation, among others – presents unique opportunities for researchers to study biological and physical. systems in ways that are not possible on our planet. Researchers can use microgravity to study systems in the absence of buoyancy-driven convection, sedimentation and hydrostatic pressure.

Going back to the analogy of the sci-fi film, the lack of sedimentation and convection establishes situations similar to scenes where the hero avoids missiles in ultra-slow motion, treating their trajectories as if they were stand still. So too is it similar for scientists using microgravity properties to study non-static systems on the ground. Studies of colloidal suspensions supported by NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences Division and the ISS National Lab at the space station have provided scientific insights and led improvements to consumer products such as shampoo and fabric softener.

BPS has developed a critical infrastructure for such experiments conducted on the space station. Our division, often in partnership with industry partners, has developed new hardware, techniques and experimental processes for its grant-based research – and made these accessible to the ISS National Laboratory.

Thus, NASA is helping to develop the capabilities that commercial industry and academia can use to innovate scientific advances and innovations.

With this history of openness and collaboration in mind I envisage a future where new generations of scientists and entrepreneurs will work together to take human and technology further than we could possibly imagine.

The Decade Forward

As we seek to establish a continuous presence on the Moon, and ultimately Mars, we must deepen our scientific understanding of the systems required to do so.

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the International Space Station is a timely one. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) has begun its process for developing the Decadal Survey on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space 2023-2032.

The Decadal Survey will seek input from the research community and space lighting service providers to identify priorities for the next decade and inform NASA’s research mission. Scientists and engineers from around the world, representing a range of disciplines and engineering, are invited to share research concepts and capabilities that will help us answer the most important science questions facing us in the next decade.

And it will influence the resulting research that will eventually need to be conducted in space.

National Enforcement

The space station has been a critical experimental platform and a testing ground. The International Space Station partners are all committed to supporting operations at least through 2024 and there is active debate about extending its operational life to 2028 or 2030. At some point, the ISS as we know it will “retire,” and have given the long lead that lines of research can demand, we look to who will develop his successor (s). Quite likely, commercial companies will seize the opportunity to create laboratories for hire in low Earth orbit. I expect this to include a future where NASA will literally and figuratively rent space. Indeed, NASA is currently working to enable this future through its commercial low Earth orbit development activities that include a habitable module to be added to the space station and a future missile for a free-missile.

Seamless transfer between stations will be essential for many long-standing studies that have been underway. Today, almost every minute of the crew members’ time at the station is choreographed. While some experiments do not require human interaction, many others do. In order for us to continue the pace of scientific discovery and understand and plan for the long-term effects of long spaceflight, it will be essential that ISS National Laboratory, NASA, industry, and others have uninterrupted access to a space research platform.

Therefore, as we consider the future of humans – in space and on this planet – it is essential that we continue to support the research that will enable us to thrive. There is so much more to learn about how basic systems work, and the information we gain in space could one day be used for back-to-back improvements on our planet.

For Earth, space-based research might seem like better vertical farming techniques, longer shelf-life for consumer products, medical advances, and power plant innovations. For the long-term exploration of human space, this research is essential for crew health and performance.

To maintain human presence in space, we must ensure that the structures we build can withstand the extreme conditions found on other planets. We must find ways to use the materials available to us on the planets in which we live. We must ensure that humans living and working in space have access to food rich in nutrients and drinking water. And we must ensure that these pioneers are able to safely return to Earth.

To Grow Bold

I would like to conclude with another analogy. I would like the International Space Station for a garden – one where fruit, vegetables and plants are not only grown, but one that also nurtures ideas and harvests scientific results.

So, to get bold where no one has gone before, we have to grow the science and technology that will enable us to do so. I look forward to the innovative ideas that the Decadal Survey will generate to serve this mission.

Thanks again to the many scientists, engineers, program managers, astronauts, and others whose contributions on station over the past 20 years have created a lasting legacy.

– Craig Kundrot is the Director of NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences (BPS) Division. The mission of BPS is twofold: to innovate scientific discovery and enable spaceflight exploration.

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