2015 marks 15 years of science and exploration on board the International Space Station (ISS), and thus 15 years of experimentation and research that has led to major advancements in numerous fields. The most obvious being the effect of microgravity on muscle and tissue health. With the near absence of gravity, muscles begin to atrophy without proper exercise and nutrition. Bones suffer as well, losing density and strength. Studying the body’s deterioration has helped researchers better understand and treat conditions with similar side effects, like osteoporosis. It will also help on the mission to Mars, where astronauts will go long periods of time without gravity.
Another great benefit of microgravity is how it can stabilize certain delicate materials. Merck studies a protein called monoclonal antibodies (MAB), an engineered antibody that binds itself to materials that cause disease so the medicine can be transferred to the affected area. Gravity disturbs these fine particles and makes them difficult to study, so on the ISS, larger protein crystals are produced and studied to develop more effective prescription drugs. These are just a few of the many advancements made possible by the ISS, you can read about more of these breakthroughs in NASA’s Benefits for Humanity publication.
It may not be common knowledge but the International Space Station is open for business, not just for government and space science researchers, but for a wide array of commercial and educational users. In 2005, the ISS opened its doors to a broader community, however getting there was still very difficult and expensive. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) works as a liaison between the national lab on the ISS and the general public to facilitate spaced-based research. A hefty barrier to microgravity research is the cost, just getting to space is an expensive endeavor. CASIS works with around $3 million in seed money to assist promising projects as well as connecting interested investors with research teams and companies. Another hurdle is figuring out how to perform research in close quarters and a micro-gravity environment with vastly different conditions, so CASIS uses their years of experience to help integrate projects into the ISS. Being the sole manager of the national laboratory, CASIS helps expedite the process and paperwork necessary to get research into orbit. Many projects can benefit from the microgravity environment and CASIS makes the process possible.
GM has partnered with the ISS to host Robonaut 2, R2 for short and for fun, since 2011. This humanoid robot has a head, arms and hands and is being tested alongside the ISS’ human inhabitants. Recently, NASA has awarded grants for robot prototypes to two universities for research and development upgrades. Set up as a competition, both teams are challenged to make advancements in the robot’s software, affording it more autonomy and to increase its dexterity. Repairs and missions in space can be dangerous and time consuming for astronauts to perform. Using a robot for these tasks will save a lot of time and money as well as keep the astronauts safe. The ISS has seen a decade and a half of great advancements and we hope that we will see even more in the years ahead.