The International Space Station (ISS) is built, stocked with scientific gear, and fully staffed with crew trained to use it. Now, as Earthbound researchers prove slow to realize the orbital capabilities available to them, top managers are beginning to worry that support for human spaceflight could wane unless the station produces some significant results—and fairly soon.

There is a growing realization at NASA that the success of the ISS as a research tool might determine whether the agency takes its planned next steps into the Solar System or into a backseat on future human exploration—and not just because some of the research will be needed to go to Mars.

”We have to go advance the ball and move forward, or we're about ready to retreat from space,” says William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

Over a three-day conference here sponsored by the American Astronautical Society, NASA representatives and others pointed out that the $100 billion-plus that went into assembling the station in orbit has been spent, and now it is time to collect the return on that investment.

“It was a huge challenge to build the ISS, but now we have a challenge in front of us that's more important, and that is to utilize what we've been given and were allowed to build,” says Mike Suffredini, NASA's ISS program manager. “We need to do it in a way that benefits humanity.”

To promote that goal, Suffredini, other managers responsible for station utilization and scientists who have conducted space research outlined the value of using the station for all kinds of research, and they described the support that is available for them in the U.S.-controlled spaces on orbit and on the ground. That includes crew time and the promise of more of it.

Since station assembly was completed last summer, the U.S. controls the time of three of the six crewmembers onboard. That includes astronauts from NASA's international partners in Canada, Europe and Japan. They have been averaging a collective 35 hr. of hands-on research a week, the planned amount, given the time they must spend maintaining the station and exercising to stay healthy in space.

Gerstenmaier has told Congress that once NASA has access to commercial crew vehicles that can carry more seats than the three-person Russian Soyuz, the agency plans to add a fourth crewmember to help with U.S. research.

Suffredini led a NASA delegation to a station-partnership meeting on utilization in Moscow in June. During those sessions, NASA scientists raised the possibility with their Russian counterparts of bartering for help with U.S.-side research from the three Russian crewmembers, who are sometimes underemployed for lack of research to do and equipment with which to do it. Those talks will continue in an effort to stretch U.S.-side crew time as funding cuts threaten to delay U.S. commercial crew capability (AW&ST June 25, p. 35). NASA already has equipped the space station with a host of specially designed research racks. The agency also has plans to upgrade its facilities in the months ahead to make it more efficient as a research laboratory. Efforts are underway to improve communications links that scientists on the ground can use to help astronauts run their experiments, add more internal and external research equipment, and take advantage of planned commercial cargo deliveries to the orbital laboratory.

“We don't believe we should be spending any time and money trying to make space station any bigger,” says Suffredini. “What we think we should be spending our resources on is making it able to produce more research.”

Among improvements underway are high-definition video to further fluids and combustion research by sharpening the view of how flame and various liquids perform in microgravity, and new instruments to allow more kinds of sample analysis in orbit instead of requiring the return of samples to ground labs in scarce “down-mass” capacity.

Today, down-mass is limited to a small amount that can be carried with returning crews on Russian Soyuz capsules. But the rendezvous and berthing of the first SpaceX Dragon cargo carrier at the station May 25 clears the way to transport more samples to and from the station. That Dragon returned a load of cargo to a parachute splashdown in the Pacific. Beginning on the third Dragon mission to the ISS, NASA will fly six powered middeck lockers to and from the ISS in a new deal with SpaceX, Suffredini says. The agency also has approved a redesigned middeck freezer called Polar that will double the capacity of existing freezers of that size originally built to fly on the space shuttle.

The added down-mass also will permit NASA to maintain 40 mice on the station for experiments, he says, including provisions for freezing killed mice after the experiments, returning them to Earth for analysis and delivering more to habitats in the station. If necessary, the number of mice might grow beyond 40, Suffredini says.

Veteran ISS astronaut Mike Fincke calls crew in space the “hands, eyes, ears and noses” of scientists. To improve links between scientists and crew, NASA will begin installing communications upgrades this summer to double down-link bandwidth to 300 mbps and increase uplink to 25 mbps. The Improved Communication Unit, which will take the place of seven Orbital Replacement Units on the station, also will allow ground commanding via Ku-band links as well as through S-band. And it will add two more channels to the air-to-ground voice links.

“Today we have two com channels to talk to the crew,” Suffredini says. “That is always busy. When we're trying to talk multiple research things, . . . it always gets clogged. So we're adding two additional com channels in order to increase our capability to have multiple payload-specific conversations with multiple crews at one time.”

For external payloads, NASA plans to upgrade the external Wi-Fi system so experiments can be installed anywhere there is structure to mount them and a power source nearby. Command and data handling will go wireless. Inside the station, NASA plans to install 110-volt alternating current outlets so “if you can plug it into the wall over here, you can plug it into space station,” Suffredini says. “You can just imagine the applications that has.”

As the conference opened, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (Casis) issued its first request for proposals as the independent non-profit organization selected to run the U.S. National Laboratory on the station. Congress established the National Lab as a microgravity-research resource available to U.S. scientific and commercial interests, essentially for the cost of any equipment they want to send to the ISS.

Based on the recommendation of a “collegium” of scientific advisers, Casis is seeking proposals for “advancing protein crystallization using microgravity.” Scientists have long X-rayed protein crystals to learn the structure of the protein molecules, which allows them to design drugs to inhibit diseases associated with a particular molecule. But, because of the effects of gravity, protein crystals produced on the ground are often of such poor quality that they are essentially useless for the research, according to Larry DeLucas of the University of Alabama in Birmingham. DeLucas flew protein-crystal growth experiments on the space shuttle as a payload specialist, and continues the search for new drugs using protein crystals at a specialized laboratory in Birmingham.

Because of the relatively short flight time on the shuttle and other factors, even the crystals produced there were frequently unusable. But “the ISS offers a unique opportunity,” DeLucas says. “We have time for these crystals to grow.”

To illustrate the commercial potential of the ISS as a protein-crystal growth platform, DeLucas notes that of the more than 21,000 protein crystals produced under a $350 million long-term National Institutes of Health (NIH) initiative, less than 27% were of a quality high enough to determine their structures.

“That leaves over 15,000 proteins that NIH investigators know how to crystallize, but can't figure out how to get good enough crystals to determine the structure,” he says. DeLucas notes that among the medicines developed using protein crystallography is the “cocktail” of drugs that has dramatically increased survival rates among AIDS patients.

Results like that from ISS research will help recover the investment in the space station, NASA managers say. But for now, ISS research remains at a “tipping point,” says Gerstenmaier, and could go either way.

“We don't have a lot of time,” he says. “Ten years is not a long time to really get some breakthroughs and push some things. We have to take maximum advantage of that . . . . That's your challenge; be creative and push. Make me uncomfortable and make me nervous. Ask for new things, and then we'll see what we can really go do with this wonderful space station.”

Editor's note: This text has been modified to correct the name of the organization sponsoring the ISS users conference.