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Crewmembers usually spend about six months aboard the ISS before coming back down to Earth. But that’s far shorter than a Mars mission would be; the trip to the Red Planet takes eight to nine months one way with current propulsion technology. So, NASA wants more data about the effects of long-duration spaceflight on the physiological and psychological health of astronauts. (The ISS isn’t a perfect Mars analog in this respect, of course; it resides within Earth’s protective magnetosphere and is therefore exposed to less-damaging radiation than a Mars-bound craft would be.)
To date, the agency has launched just one yearlong ISS mission, sending Scott Kelly to live on the orbiting lab from March 2015 to March 2016. Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko took part in this flight as well, spending 342 days in space, just like Kelly. NASA has also extended two other astronauts’ ISS stays into the “Mars transit” range: Peggy Whitson racked up 289 days of continuous flight in 2016 and 2017, and Christina Koch, who arrived on the orbiting lab in March, is now scheduled to come down in February 2020.
But these three data points aren’t enough, said [Julie Robinson, NASA’s chief scientist for the ISS Program],. “What we’re saying now is we want to really bump that up a notch and add 10 more subjects to that U.S. database,” she said.
The ISS Program has approved that plan, which NASA can start implementing once a private astronaut taxi is up and running, Robinson added.
NASA should have been doing this from the beginning, The Russians have always wanted to do longer missions, and have been frustrated by NASA’s resistance. That the agency is now pushing to focus ISS research on learning how to do interplanetary travel is wonderful news. It means that we will finally be using ISS properly.