Space Station Might Open to Government, Commercial Clients

By Cheryl Pellerin
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington – NASA has formulated a plan to open part of the U.S. segment of the International Space Station to U.S. government and commercial clients for their own research projects beginning in 2011.

Critical to the plan, described in a May report to Congress, is a six-member station crew and the availability of commercial orbital transportation services that can provide travel to the space station.

The open part of the U.S. station segment will be called a national laboratory, allowing U.S. public and private organizations to use station facilities to pursue basic and applied research and applications unrelated to NASA’s mission.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has 10 national laboratories that are part of a system created more than 50 years ago. These laboratories support DOE missions and allow other federal agencies and private companies to use its research facilities and expertise.

“We’ve talked to a couple of government agencies,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations, during a June 25 press briefing, “and at this point there is general interest [in using the space station for research], which is encouraging to us.”

Several private companies also are discussing potential space station projects. Such projects would have to be as automated as possible, requiring only minimal help from the six-member space station crew.

NASA plans to share its space station facilities because an agency restructuring that President Bush announced in 2004 directs NASA to focus its human space exploration activities on a return to the moon and future human missions to Mars and beyond. (See related article.)

As a result, said Mark Uhran, assistant associate administrator for the International Space Station, “We believe that about half of the on-orbit U.S. payload capacity of the space station will be available for non-NASA uses.”


Space shuttle Atlantis descended to a smooth landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California June 22, ending a successful assembly mission to the International Space Station and traveling more than 9.3 million kilometers in space. (See related article.)

Challenges posed during STS-117, NASA's designation for the mission, are invaluable learning experiences that will help the agency prepare for future exploration, said Gerstenmaier at a post-landing press conference.

The astronauts returned to their home base, Johnson Space Center in Texas, June 23. When Atlantis returns to Kennedy Space Center in Florida over the next several days, it will begin processing for the STS-122 mission, set to launch late in 2007.

The most recent mission began June 8. After its June 10 arrival at the station, the crew began installation of a truss structure and retracted a set of solar arrays on another truss.

Mission specialists Patrick Forrester, John “Danny” Olivas, Jim Reilly and Steven Swanson conducted four spacewalks to activate the truss and retract the arrays. The work increased the station’s power capability, preparing for the future delivery of European and Japanese laboratories.

During the third spacewalk, Olivas repaired an out-of-position thermal blanket on the shuttle that lifted during the spacecraft’s ascent to orbit.

While the crew worked in space, ground teams were seeking to correct a problem with Russian computers that help control the station's positioning in space. Russian specialists worked closely with U.S. teams to recover the computer capabilities.


The next phase of station assembly is scheduled to begin August 9, the target date for Endeavour's launch to deliver another critical starboard truss segment, install a new gyroscope and add a spare-parts platform.

STS-118, Endeavour’s first flight since November 2002, will have at least three spacewalks and debut a new system that lets docked shuttles draw electrical power from the station to extend visits to the outpost.

Veteran astronaut Scott Kelly will command the seven-person crew, which will include pilot Charles Hobaugh and mission specialists Tracy Caldwell, Richard Mastracchio, Alvin Drew, Canadian Space Agency astronaut Dave Williams and Barbara Morgan, the first educator chosen as a mission-specialist astronaut.

Twenty-two years after being named Christa McAuliffe’s backup in the Teacher in Space Project, Barbara Morgan will strap into Endeavour as a fully trained astronaut.

Morgan trained side by side with McAuliffe and watched the 1986 Challenger accident that killed McAuliffe and six fellow crew members.

The Teacher in Space Project was suspended following that accident, but Morgan went on the visits McAuliffe would have made, talking to children and teachers all over the United States.

In 1998, Morgan was chosen to become a full-fledged astronaut. In 2002 she was chosen as the first educator to become a mission specialist astronaut as part of the Educator Astronaut Project that evolved from the Teacher in Space Project.

More information about Atlantis and the upcoming STS-118 mission is available on the NASA Web site.

The full text of the space station report is available at the NASA Web site.