Space Station Gets New Life as International Collaboration Grows

By Charlene Porter, Staff Writer

The Obama administration announced January 8 that it will support a four-year extension of operations at the International Space Station (ISS) and urged its international partners in the enterprise to do likewise.

In their joint announcement of the extension, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology John Holdren and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said continued ISS operations are necessary to sustain the pursuit of important goals in human space exploration.

“NASA has determined that research on ISS is necessary to mitigate fully 21 of the 32 human-health risks anticipated on long-duration missions,” according to a statement jointly issued by Holdren and Bolden. “A related critical function of ISS is testing the technologies and spacecraft systems necessary for humans to safely and productively operate in deep space.”

The statement also emphasized the important contributions ISS scientific collaboration has made to breakthroughs that are already improving life on Earth. Research on board the orbiting space lab has contributed to improvements in vaccines, delivery methods for cancer drugs and robotic surgical techniques, for example.

Elaborating on the decision in an appearance at an international meeting on space activity January 9 at the State Department in Washington, Holdren said the ISS provided fundamental research in development of a water-purification technique that is being used to address water shortages in disaster areas.

Another policy goal for the Obama administration is the development of a commercial space industry. The 13-year-old ISS serves as a first hop for companies developing the capability to launch space payloads. Two private U.S. companies so far have staged successful missions to the station.

With complex observational and data-collection instruments on board, the ISS is also providing important data to improve scientific understanding of the Earth, its atmosphere and changing climate, the U.S. officials say.

With the involvement of scientific agencies from 15 nations, “this unique orbiting laboratory is a clear demonstration of the benefits to humankind that can be achieved through peaceful global cooperation,” the Holdren-Bolden statement said.

The White House announcement in favor of extending the space station’s lifetime came just as the International Space Exploration Forum (ISEF) convened in Washington January 9. With representation from 35 space-faring nations, the meeting is dedicated to building political support for global cooperation in space exploration.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns welcomed the international assembly and underscored how the ISS — “the most complex cooperative scientific and engineering project in history” — has demonstrated that nations can cooperate in pursuit of shared goals. The ISEF must increase that cooperation, Burns said.

“If we choose to put our collective strength behind cooperative efforts rather than competing efforts, the opportunities are as vast as the solar system itself,” Burns said.

As he encouraged more nations to join the ISS partnership, he said the ISS serves as the stepping-off point for human exploration to Mars and beyond. Burns echoed the White House priority for the ISS role in developing a private space sector. Further, the space station can serve as the planet’s first line of defense against collision with near-Earth objects and space debris.

Representing President Obama at the ISEF meeting, Holdren said the ISS experience will further contribute to NASA’s design of an asteroid mission. Envisioned as a journey to identify, capture and redirect an asteroid into an orbit just beyond the moon, this initiative “will raise the bar on what humans can do,” Holdren said, and provide a “practice platform” where astronauts will be able to develop and refine techniques and skills that will enable further exploration into the outer reaches of the solar system.

Other opening speakers at the ISEF meeting included representatives of space agencies in Italy, the European Union and Japan. All affirmed the assertions by U.S. officials that space exploration is part of human destiny, an incubator for innovation and technologies that can have great benefit on Earth.

Leaders of 30 space agencies from around the world including those from China, Germany and Russia are attending the ISEF meeting.

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