The World’s Highest Laboratory

The space station’s finished. Now what?

On the space station, U.S. astronauts will soon conduct experiments, selected by a new space science center, aimed at making life better on Earth. (NASA)
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Now, though, “there’s a commitment to actually implement the National Lab,” says Hoffman. Even so, he cautions, “the challenge of turning the space station into a working, efficient laboratory is going to be every bit as difficult as building it in the first place. There are a lot of people running the space station who want to maximize the return. Inherent in the NASA system are a huge number of impediments thrown in the way, and when you add it all together, it’s a lot harder to use the space station than it probably needs to be.”

NASA and other agencies, he says, will have to find the money to fund the research, and astronauts who in the past spent much of their time on maintenance will have to make time to work on science—whether for NASA or CASIS. Scientists on the ground will have to be able to communicate more easily with astronauts aloft instead of funneling every word through NASA interlocutors. “There is a lot of bureaucracy,” Hoffman says.

For one thing, the selection process is rigorous—some would say too much so. “You can’t just show up at NASA headquarters and say ‘Here’s a gizmo. I want to stick this on the station,’ ” says Scott Dulchavsky, chairman of surgery at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Michigan. “There has to be an avenue of cooperation.” His NASA-sponsored experiment on telemedicine—using the only medical imaging device aboard the station, an ultrasound machine—has flown twice and is scheduled to fly again this year or in 2014. Using software Dulchavsky’s team developed, crew members use the station’s laptop to quickly learn how to use the ultrasound to diagnose such ailments as a collapsed lung or a broken bone. (Normally, it takes 200 hours to learn how to use an ultrasound; Dulchavsky compressed that to two hours on the ground with 30-minute refresher training in space on the laptop.)

The results—the crew could quickly and efficiently learn to operate the ultrasound—encouraged Dulchavsky to work with the United Nations and the Web site to make the software and ultrasound available around the world. “We’re now in 45 countries,” he says, and used by everyone from Olympic trainers to remote villagers in Africa, along with most trauma centers in the United States.

One of the biggest challenges for scientists in using the station is learning how to coordinate with NASA hierarchy. “People don’t realize how damn tough it is to get something certified” for space, says Dulchavsky. “You have to go through a number of safety checks and modifications so it’ll actually work in microgravity. It’s a different language that you have to speak.” NASA, he adds, is looking at ways to help smooth the process. “It’s on their radar screen, but it’s not solved yet. The brilliant scientists that we want to use this facility, it’s not their sweet spot to think about what’s an integration partner. It should not be their worry to have to figure out how to fly something. It ought to be us, whether it’s NASA or Wyle Labs [his co-investigator on the ultrasound experiment] or some other entity.”

The process should be less daunting now that CASIS is getting involved, says Becker, who points out that, in years past, station science had to be worked around construction. “I wouldn’t say that NASA was not encouraging scientists,” she says. “It was just that the allowable mass and volume constraints were dictated by what kinds of pieces were needed for the station’s construction. Now that we have the opportunity to have robust science performed on the station, it’s time to use it.”

Whether the experiment is overseen by NASA or CASIS, scientists now have more time to prepare their research proposals. The Obama administration, betting that the station can fulfill its scientific promise, has extended its mission from 2016 to at least 2020.

Guy Gugliotta is a science writer in Pelham, New York.

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