The International Space Station is coming into its own—finally. After a shaky start, the transition from building the thing to using it for science and engineering is starting to happen. It is almost as if the community of engineers and researchers who can see the value in a fully equipped laboratory operating off the planet had to take a deep breath after assembly completion before moving on to the utilization phase.

At the American Astronautical Society's second annual ISS Research and Development Conference in Denver this month, presentations suggest the station is starting to repay the massive investment that went into building it, beyond the engineering lessons and diplomatic benefits already realized. Astronaut Don Pettit—who wowed schoolkids with his impromptu “Saturday Morning Science” demonstrations from the ISS—points out that space station utilization is largely directed toward improving life on Earth, unlike the scientific goals of Apollo and today's deep-space exploration work.

One of the stars of the Denver conference was Garnette Sutherland, a Canadian surgeon. He fascinated his audience with an extremely graphic presentation on using space-robotic techniques to perform intricate surgery on living human brains. Some of the same MDA US Systems' robotics engineers who programmed the huge Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM) for station work have set up ultra-precise surgical robots that can surpass even the most skilled surgeon.

“We want to have a workstation where the surgeon at that workstation has to recreate sight, sound and touch of surgery, and bring all the information of surgery to the workstation,” says Sutherland, who brought 12 robotics experts into his Calgary, Alberta, operating room to observe how he and his surgical team do business.

Brain surgeons operating to remove tumors must exercise great care to cut out only the tumor without damaging vital tissue around it. On the ISS, Dextre—the SPDM's nickname—is programmed with “keep-out zones” to prevent its manipulators from damaging critical hardware. The MDA group was able to translate that approach to the surgical robot, along with force scaling and other capabilities.

“A light object can become heavy; a heavy object can become light,” Sutherland says. “And it is a wonderful thing if you're joining very small vessels together in the brain, because they are very light, and you can't feel them normally.”

Seated next to Sutherland was Hubertus Thomas of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany. He described how basic plasma physics research on the ISS has fed discoveries for hospitals and nursing homes. It turns out the cold atmospheric plasma (CAP) gear installed on the station to study crystallization and other physical processes can be used to kill germs, and “can be applied to temperature-sensitive surfaces like skin.”

Clinical trials with a CAP system the size of a refrigerator have produced dramatic improvement in wound healing, a boon to elderly patients with bedsores and other skin ulcers and burn victims receiving skin transplants. A battery-powered CAP device that looks like a flashlight may someday turn up in home medical kits to sterilize cuts and scrapes, Thomas says. And in the serendipity that professional conferences sometimes generate, it turns out the CAP system might help Sutherland sterilize his surgical robots.

While there has been progress in U.S. efforts to promote the station's commercial potential (AW&ST July 22, p. 28), most of NASA's work on the ISS to date has been aimed at developing the hardware it will need for deep-space exploration. Agency presentations at the utilization conference included descriptions of work on the station environmental control and life-support system (Eclss), which is both a critical function today and a testbed for the Eclss that will be needed for missions to Mars; the Space Communications and Navigation Testbed, which gives communications engineers a way to evaluate software-configurable radios, and the Robotic Refueling Mission that uses Dextre to simulate satellite servicing (see p. 38).

Also presenting was Samuel Ting, the Nobel laureate heading up the international team using the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) on the ISS (photo) for a particle-physics survey of the heavens that may produce new discoveries about the Big Bang and the distribution of anti-matter in the Universe. Particle physics is a statistical game, Ting says, and the longer AMS can operate, the better its data will be. “There is nothing you can do but wait,” he says.

Funding for the ISS is fairly solid through 2020, and the structure can probably last another eight years after that. Speaker after speaker at the Denver conference emphasized the importance of using the station while it is there to use.

“We won't have anything this capable in orbit, probably for 100 years,” says Julie Robinson, NASA's ISS program scientist.