Skip to Main Content

Space Stationto Resemble Earthbound Labs

Pin it

Space Station to Resemble Earthbound Labs

September 26, 1997

space station modules, Marshall Space Flight Center and BoeingOpportunities to conduct science experiments aboard the International Space Station will be limited during its assembly period, but the wait should be worth it, a top NASA scientist said Thursday.

"What we are about to build is a laboratory, a fully operational platform that is going to let us do things we never thought of before at scales we never considered before," said Dr. Ray Askew, space station senior scientist at NASA Headquarters. He spoke Thursday at the Defense and Space Programs and Conference of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics held here September 23-25. At left: The laboratory and habitat modules shells are finished by Boeing Co. in Huntsville. The modules next will be outfitted with equipment so astronauts can continue research started on Spacelab.

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center is responsible for a large portion of the science experiments that will be carried out on board the station.

During the buildup, though, science opportunities will be limited because even when the Space Shuttle has room to carry research gear, the crews will be largely dedicated to working on station assembly. "The challenge for the next three years is to have the user community work closely with the builder community," Askew said. "We are negotiating with the program office for dedicated locker space on assembly missions."

Askew likened the problem to when he got a new research building at Auburn University where he directed space power research. As the building neared completion, Askew was eager to get into one of the labs and start work, but the contractor kept him out, citing legal liability and other problems.

"Finally he told me, you're going to get in my way," Askew said. "It's the same problem on space station. We're having the builder also conduct the science."

ISS Node 1 unloaded at Kennedy Space CenterMeanwhile, work aboard Russia's Mir space has been beneficial to the International Space Station program.(At right, Node 1 of ISS is unloaded from an Air Force Cargo Transport Plane at Kennedy Space Center.)

"For all the problems of the Mir, it's still provided an environment never before available to us," Askew said. "We have carried out a lot of microgravity activities and we have gotten some good science results. Excellent science results? No. Good science results because the circumstances and conditions on Mir don't match what we're driving for with International Space Station."

Mir has carried a number of Marshall-sponsored microgravity experiments in protein crystal growth, and a glovebox to support hands-on experiments. An innovative apparatus was launched Thursday night aboard the Space Shuttle mission to resupply Mir. The Interferometry Protein Crystal Growth Apparatus (IPCG) will be operated in the glovebox in an effort to understand how crystals grow in space. "What the Mir provided by being there was a real laboratory in which problems and difficulties arise and have been solved across cultural lines," Askew said. NASA and Russia have learned things that could not be learned from simulations.

"The Mir program plays into the research programs of the future," he said.

That future starts next summer with the launches of a Russian-built control module and an American-built connecting node for International Space Station. By late 1999, the station will include a large solar array, an attitude control module, and the U.S. Laboratory module. By 2002, it will have lab modules from Europe, Japan, and Russia, and a crew of six persons.

"We are building a platform that will allow us to do research the way research has classically been done," Askew said. "A research problem does not have a predetermined answer."

That means that scientists will be able to walk way from an experiment that gives unexpected results and puzzle over what happened, then go back a few days or weeks later and try something different. (The station crew will be busy with other experiments at the same time.)

That has not always been possible with Spacelab missions carried by the Space Shuttle, Askew said, because of the limited duration of the flights and their long preparation times.

the new glovebox for ISS
The glovebox facility aboard Space Station will be an advanced descendant of the Middeck Glovebox being used on board shuttle mission. The new facility will occupy a full rack (left) and will offer a more generous operating volume (right) for experimenters .

drawing of a flame in space by Voss

Major science facilities planned for ISS will include a furnace facility, a large microgravity glovebox, a fluids and combustion facility, a biotechnology rack for protein crystal growth, and life science research facilities.

"I am not telling you what science is going to be done because that is not determined yet," Askew said. The nature of research is that questions change as lessons are learned, so results from experiments today may alter experiments planned tomorrow.

flash!Join our growing list of subscribers - sign up for our express news delivery and you will receive a mail message every time we post a new story!!!

Author: Dave Dooling
Curator: Bryan Walls
NASA Official: John M. Horack