NASA to fly more year-plus missions to ISS


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Leaving Earth: In an effort to shift the research focus on ISS toward learning how to do interplanetary missions, NASA wants to fly more year-plus missions to the station.

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.

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3 comments

  • wodun

    It would be trivial to add on extra living and working space to the ISS. They could be doing a lot more work in addition to just leaving people up there longer.

  • mike shupp

    Well yeah, if NASA is serious about sending people to Mars and further destinations, it ought to get some experience with keeping people alive in space for more than a few months. Which has been obvious for sixty years, and the fact that NASA has been dragging its feet on this since roughly 1975 says a whole lot about how serous all the “On To Mars!” rhetoric has been. Now, if only they started building nuclear propulsion systems rather than just talking about them ….

    Something else not happening. I grew up in the 50s and 60s reading Heinlein novels and Arthur C. Clarke and other SF and I’d always assumed that sooner or later humanity would move beyond toys like the ISS to those great spinning bicycle wheel-like space stations crewed by hundreds or even thousands of astronauts viewing the earth, monitoring communications, maybe doing some light manufacturing, shifting goods and passengers from interplanetary freighters to earthly shuttles or a space elevator … It’s absurdly disconcerting to realize it’ll never happen.

    Comsats don’t rely on humans rushing back and forth to change out defective vacuum tubes; the human “controllers” can work from offices in New Jersey and drive home at the end of workdays. Robot machinery can handle any manufacturing that seems to make sense in a zero-gee setting. Freight and passengers are still years distant, and “space commerce” is probably going to be dominated by earth-to-colony exporting rather than bi-directional transport for generations to come.

    So those big spinning wheels will never come, and I wonder if people born later than me – “Millenials” say or “Generation X” or people born today will even learn people once wished to build them. I suspect the very notion will seem risible, like proposing log canoes with hundreds of rowers for moving cargo across the oceans today. The SF novels I once read will seem as quaint and even silly as Jules Verne or the elder Tom Swift books that my father devoured as a youngster.

    So … incredible change in our notions of what “spaceflight” entails, and we still haven’t picked a site for our first lunar colony. Can I say “I miss the old days”?

  • Dick Eagleson

    Big wheels in space are far from dead. SpaceX’s SHS will enable them. Point your search engine at Gateway Foundation.

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