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15 Years of International Space Station Research Illumination

The first two modules of the space station - the Russian-built Zarya, "sunrise" in Russian, and Unity - were named for their place in history. The mating of these above the planet 15 years ago heralded the dawn of a new age in space.
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  • <strong>Expedition 28 Flight Engineer Satoshi Furukawa of the Japan Aerospace Explorations Agency (JAXA) shows the JAXA PCG payload. Image Credit: NASA</strong>
  • <strong>Hurricane Katrina damage in Biloxi, Miss., taken by the crew of Expedition 11 from the International Space Station as part of the Crew Earth Observations investigation. Image Credit: NASA</strong>
  • <strong>Westbrook Middle School students use EarthKam with the help of teachers and volunteers from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Image Credit: NASA</strong>
    HOUSTON, TX, December 05, 2013 /24-7PressRelease/ -- The first two modules of the International Space Station -- the Russian-built Zarya, meaning "sunrise" in Russian, and Unity -- were named to recognize their place in history. The mating of these two modules in orbit above the planet 15 years ago today heralded not only the dawn of a new age in space, but also an international collaboration that built the space station. This same partnership is conducting research in microgravity, testing new technologies that are helping us explore deeper into the universe than ever before and is improving life on Earth. Looking back, there is much to acknowledge and plenty to look forward to as the space station continues operations to 2020, and perhaps beyond.

Even during construction, the space station served as a functioning laboratory. This international collaborative atmosphere to advance the sciences included five space agencies representing 15 countries. Working together, they supplied components and modules constructed on three continents to develop this unique orbiting outpost. That joint effort reflects in the microgravity research, as well.

"International cooperation is one of the great values that has come from the space station," said Camille Alleyne, Ed.D., assistant program scientist for education and communications at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "Researchers across 68 countries have collaborated on different investigations, and that is a very important aspect of advancing microgravity research."

During its 10-year assembly phase, the space station has been a platform for more than 1,500 investigations, providing a home for scientific discovery. Research aboard the orbiting laboratory has included work in various disciplines, including biology, biotechnology, Earth science, space science, human research, physical science and technology development. Education also has played a significant role during its 15-year life.

"Research is very rarely conducted in a lab while it's under construction, but we were doing it," Alleyne said. "Even during those early years of assembly, we still saw benefits coming out of this unfinished space-based laboratory."

International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph. D., highlighted some of the most significant investigation results from station research thus far at the International Astronautical Congress in Beijing.

The first and longest-running investigation aboard the space station is the Sally Ride EarthKam, which began on Expedition 1. EarthKam is a NASA-funded educational outreach program in collaboration with the University of California at San Diego.

This investigation has reached more than 165,000 students from 41 countries and countless users online during the 15 years of space station operations, giving students a hands-on approach to learning.

EarthKam allows students to view Earth from the perspective of an astronaut aboard the space station and capture images from the U.S. Destiny Laboratory window. This program enhances students' learning experiences and is designed to inspire a new generation to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Another early investigation that has developed throughout its 15 years aboard the space station is Crew Earth Observations. It also is one of the longest, continuous studies aboard the space station. Since Expedition 1 began in November 2000, crew members have taken hundreds of thousands of images of Earth's land surfaces, oceans and atmospheric phenomena.

The space station passes the same location at varying times of day, so it provides opportunities for astronauts to photograph the same spot under different weather and lighting conditions. Also, because it orbits Earth every 90 minutes, the space station passes over the same areas more frequently than many other satellites. This frequency may provide the opportunity to help monitor,natural hazard events such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis.

"Space station crew images have become part of the network being used for disaster response, assisting first responders on the ground in planning for disaster relief," Alleyne said.

Yet another long-running investigation performed aboard the space station is protein crystal growth (PCG) in the field of human health. PCG studies in microgravity actually began during the space shuttle era. The Russian, European and Japanese space agencies continued to conduct PCG investigations on the space station. A number of publications on crystallization mechanisms and structures of proteins have been published from this research. In 2013, U.S. researchers restarted work on protein crystal growth in space.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency - Granada Crystallization Facility High Quality Protein Crystallization Project (JAXA-GCF) provided input that helped advance treatments for an inherited muscle disorder known as Duchenne's muscular dystrophy. Using the microgravity environment on the space station, researchers crystallized a protein known to play a critical role in the onset of Duchenne's muscular dystrophy. The resulting structure revealed a previously hidden water molecule.

During Expedition 38, researchers will conduct several new PCG studies. The Center for Advancement of Science in Space Protein Crystal Growth High Density Protein Crystal Growth-1 (CASIS PCG HDPCG-1) will study the protein associated with Huntington's disease. The CASIS PCG HDPCG-2 investigation will look at the protein associated with cystic fibrosis. Another high density protein crystal growth investigation will study a human monoclonal antibody developed by Merck Research Laboratories in Rahway, N.J. This antibody is undergoing trials to treat immunological disease.

After Zarya was attached to Unity, Harmony and Tranquility followed. Other key components came together to build the largest, most sophisticated satellite in Earth's orbit. After 15 years, the space station continues to bring to light research findings that build on knowledge from yesterday and today, promising a tomorrow full of discovery.

Sean Wesley
International Space Station Program Science Office
NASA, Johnson Space Center

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