This is a guest post by Paul O. Wieland.
“What have we learned from the research performed on the International Space Station?” “Why don’t we hear about the ISS research and other space missions in the news?” These are among the questions that I’m asked when I give talks around the country on the current status of space activities and how space development could more directly address the challenges we’re facing today. People want to know what we’re doing in space, and considering that we are in the midst of what has been called The Year of the Solar System – the period from October 2010 through August 2012 (that’s a Martian year, in case you are wondering) – when more missions will be launched or will reach their destinations than during any previous comparable period, the scarcity of news coverage is frustrating, especially for space enthusiasts.
Occasionally there are news items about SpaceX or Virgin Galactic or the final Space Shuttle mission or the discovery of possible Earth-like planets around other stars, but, in general, space activities receive little notice by the media, unless there is a failure, such as the recent launch of the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission. Part of the explanation is that there are other newsworthy events such as the recession, congressional deadlocks, and the Occupy movement. Another part of the explanation, particularly regarding ISS research, is that it is difficult to find current information on the results of the research being performed, which leaves the impression that not much scientific research is actually occurring on-board the ISS. This situation needs to change, and there is hope that it soon will.
I believe there are two primary, and related, reasons why ISS research hasn’t been clearly reported, and recognizing these factors can lead to improved reporting. Following completion of the Apollo, Skylab, and Spacelab missions, comprehensive mission reports were released [such as the Spacelab 3 Mission Science Review]. The limited durations of these missions provided clear end-points conducive to such reports. In comparison, the ISS mission and research is ongoing, with no clearly defined end-point for the mission. While allowing for more in-depth research, this is not conducive to comprehensive reports.
In addition to not having a clear end-point, the ongoing operation of the ISS also allows for long-term and more complex experiments, phased experiments, and the opportunity to make adjustments while performing an experiment, possibly extending its duration. This leads to experiments being completed at different times. So, experiments are typically reported on individually (or the results may not even be publicly available), but those reports just don’t have the weight of a comprehensive report and don’t receive as much attention. How can this situation be addressed so that the results of the ISS research are clearly reported and widely available?
The ISS has similarities with established research labs that previous space research missions did not have and, in 2005, the U.S. segment of the ISS was designated as a National Laboratory, similar to Argonne, Oak Ridge, Lawrence Livermore, Pacific Northwest, and all the others. These labs perform a variety of on-going research activities and most of them also publicize their research in a number of ways, including through journals, annual comprehensive reports, and conferences. The methods used by these labs could serve as models for reporting ISS research.
Research on-board the ISS has been managed by NASA as part of overall ISS management, but, in July 2011, a new non-profit organization, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), was awarded the responsibility of managing the ISS U.S National Laboratory. Since then, CASIS has set up a website and is co-sponsoring, with the American Astronautical Society, the 1st Annual International Space Station Research and Development Conference, set for June 26-28, 2012 in Denver, CO. They are seeking presentations on topics related to science and technology activities (past, present, planned, and proposed) performed on the ISS. Topics of interest include Biology and Biotechnology, Earth and Space Science, Educational Activities, Human Research, Physical Sciences, and Technology. (If you are interested in presenting, the deadline for abstracts is January 15, 2012. See http://astronautical.org/node/96.)
This conference will, hopefully, jump-start a more robust effort to disseminate the results of ISS research, including publishing the conference proceedings and initiating a periodical journal of the ISS research activities. The reports should include status updates of research in progress as well as the results of completed research experiments.
As CASIS takes on more of the responsibility from NASA of operating the ISS National Lab, I’m also hoping that CASIS will post on their website up-to-date information on research results and other activities being performed on-board the ISS. The public needs to know what is being done in order to make informed decisions and having one primary website with that information would help. Also, it would sure make it easier for me to answer those questions that I’m asked about the ISS. And maybe those questions wouldn’t even need to be asked, because the answers would already be in the news.
Paul O. Wieland is a professional engineer who worked for NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center for over 20 years, on programs including SpaceLab3, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Space Shuttle Challenger accident investigation, and, primarily, on developing the life support system for the International Space Station. He was also the fire protection engineer for several ISS payloads including the Materials Science Research Rack (MSRR-1). He authored Designing For Human Presence in Space: An Introduction to Environmental Control and Life Support Systems, published in 1994 as NASA Reference Publication RP-1324. Since retiring from NASA in 2005 he wrote Crossing the Threshold: Advancing into Space to Benefit the Earth, which was awarded a gold medal in May 2011 by the Independent Publisher Book Awards. See www.threshold2020.com for more information and join the facebook page.