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Microgravitytakes a quantum leap -- Space StationResearch may shape society in 21st Century

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Microgravity takes a quantum leap

Space Station research may shape society in 21st Century

15 July 1998: Materials research aboard the International Space Station will help shape society in the 21st century, attendees at a major science conference here were told Tuesday morning.

"You are ready to take the quantum leap into the future," said Carolyn Griner, the acting director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. With the International Space Station, "You have the real potential to make a difference. ... You have a responsibility to do the best possible research because I believe the future of materials is vested in this discipline."

The U.S. Lab module where many low gravity experiments will be performed will be located at the center of the ISS. The image above links to a 900x600-pixel, 267KB publication quality JPG. Credits: NASA.


Griner spoke at the opening session of the 1998 Microgravity Materials Science Conference sponsored by NASA's Microgravity Research Division. Griner is closely familiar with the field since her career started in developing materials science experiments for what became Skylab, the forerunner of the ISS that will start assembly late this year.

More than 300 scientists are attending the conference, a number that exceeds the flight opportunities NASA will have.

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Microgravity Materials Conference 98 -- Held July 14-16 in Hunstville Alabama

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"It's a very steep pyramid that you have to climb" to reach a flight investigation at the top, said Robert Rhome, the director of microgravity research at NASA headquarters, "The incline is intentional. I think it drives the quality of the product" by making the scientists compete for flight assignments. It also provides a large fundamental science base that helps expand and mature the field.

Rhome also said that NASA is shifting its stance on research to incorporate applications and applied research in addition to the fundamental physics focus that has been central to the program in recent years. It is also adding planetary exploration, both to develop improved radiation shielding for astronauts when they are away from Earth, and to find ways of using local materials to house crews and perhaps provide part of the ticket home.



"We can't take it all with us," Rhome said. "It's exhorbitantly expensive" to haul propellant and other materials that will not be used until the return trip. In situ (on site) resource utilization holds the promise of letting spacecraft and crews "mine" the soils and rocks of the Moon or Mars to produce oxygen and rocket propellant.

"You have to have a great deal of confidence that you can shovel material into one end and get propellant out the other end," he added.

There's not much gold in those hills, but what can be found - aluminum, silica, oxygen, and perhaps even water (at the poles) - will be far more valuable if we can learn how to extract and use it.


For the near future, though, space station will remain the tip of the pyramid that Rhome described. Joel Kearns, manager of the NASA Microgravity Research Program, described the Research & Analysis base of the pyramid as the "intellectual foundation and incubator for new ideas." It and flight definition and flight experiment activities comprise the bulk of the pyramid.

Two expanding opportunities are the Advanced Technology Development program and the Glovebox Investigations program. The first, once confined to NASA scientists, is being opened to more of the academic and research communities, Kearns said. And the glovebox program provides opportunities for scientists who have already been selected to fly and test important elements of their experiments before they and NASA commit to full-scale flight hardware.

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.

Kearns also encouraged scientists to make the best possible use of existing NASA facilities, such as the Drop Tube at NASA/Marshall.

What will soon become the largest of those existing facilities is the International Space Station. Ned Penley of the ISS Program Office at Johnson Space Center described how the ISS will be available to microgravity scientists for at least a half of each year.

"Each vehicle [like the Space Shuttle] that arrives is a traffic problem," he said, so it will be impossible to have the ISS available 365 days a year. Penley said that managers are committing to have the station provide a high-quality microgravity environment for at least 180 days a year in minimum blocks of 30 days. That ranges up to 266 days a year with blocks as long as 55 days in some plans.

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Microgravity Research Division | NASA Research Announcements| Microgravity Research Program