The International Space Station is a science facility, so it’s no surprise that experiments occasionally fail.
Most of the time, however, they don’t involve weird robots – like Robonaut, the robotic astronaut NASA sent up with the STS-133 mission in 2011.
The golden-helmeted figure has been out of action since 2015 after its hardware went awry. And now, finally, it’s being sent back to Earth for repairs.
A project NASA has worked on since 1996, Robonaut – developed with General Motors – is quite a marvel.
Originally, it consisted of a humanoid torso (and wears an astronaut-style helmet, neatly eliminating the uncanny valley), with five jointed fingers on each hand so that it can complete tasks like humans do.
But NASA never planned that Robonaut would remain still, and in 2014 the robot was fitted with a pair of new, wiggly climbing legs designed to let it move around the space station – which somehow made it look very disconcerting.
The problems started because Robonaut wasn’t designed for easy modularity; putting the legs on required significant core hardware upgrades and a new wiring interface – work the astronauts weren’t trained to do.
It was expect that the operation would take them 20 hours, all up. It ended up taking them 40, and almost immediately things started going wrong.
First, when Robonaut was rebooted, Johnson Space Center couldn’t see its live feed.
A loose wire was fixed and everything seemed OK, but then the legs stopped working.
Then, the robot’s sensors started failing, or its communications systems, or its processors. In a fictional scenario, this would be the point at which you’re screaming at the crew to jettison the failing creation to prevent a horrific mass space robomurder.
Robonaut 2 being upgraded. (NASA)
“We would start losing power to our computers within our operational window, and it got more and more severe as time went on,” Robonaut project manager Julia Badger told IEEE Spectrum.
“A power cycle would in general bring it back, just for a little while. The problem was that since it was intermittent, sometimes we’d be able to turn it on and sometimes it would just fail right away as it degraded, we weren’t necessarily able to trust the data – it was very confusing.”
To further complicate matters, the five robonaut copies kept on Earth are a slightly different model, which made coordinating troubleshooting tricky.
Eventually the team figured out that Robonaut was missing a ground cable, which meant electrical currents were finding other routes through its body – providing too much power to some parts and not enough to others. This was slowly degrading the machine.
Although the robot has been booted up a few times since it went down in 2015, it’s become clear that the problem will not be fixed in space.
NASA astronauts Joseph Acaba and Mark Vande Hei have now packaged the robot up in anticipation of its return to Earth. It will be sent back in the space freed up after an upcoming resupply mission.
Once it gets back to Earth, NASA roboticists will have to figure out whether Robonaut can be repaired, or whether it will need to be replaced by one of the newer models currently here on Earth.
The International Space Station is one of the few nonstellar things up there that we can see from down here without instruments. It’s a prefab home the size of a football field, 462 tons and more than $100 billion worth of pressurized roomlike modules and gleaming solar arrays, orbiting 250 miles above the surface of the Earth. Its flight path is available online, and you can find out when it will make a nighttime pass over your backyard. Right on schedule, you’ll spot an unblinking white light that’s moving at 17,500 miles an hour. It will cross your field of view, on a line straight enough to have been drawn with a ruler, in only a few seconds. A few minutes more and the men and women inside that light will be over Greece. A few minutes more, Mongolia.
There have been 53 expeditions to the ISS; 53 long-duration crews have called it home since Expedition 1 floated aboard in 2000. They’ve been mostly from America and Russia, the two principal and unlikely partners in one of the most expensive and challenging construction projects ever completed. (The ISS rose out of the ashes of two previous space stations: Russia’s Mir, last occupied in 1999 before it fell out of the sky in 2001, and Ronald Reagan’s proposed Freedom, which never got past the blueprints.) Its first few residents came and went largely without incident, conducting scientific experiments in everything from fluid dynamics to zero-G botany while studying what month after weightless month can do to the human body.
In November 2002, Expedition 6 arrived on the station’s doorstep. They were two Americans, Ken Bowersox and Don Pettit, and a Russian, Nikolai Budarin. They were supposed to complete a four-month tour in orbit. Then the shuttle Columbia dissolved into a finger of smoke somewhere beneath them in February 2003. The remaining shuttles were grounded, and the men of Expedition 6 were asked to extend their stay. They were told that they might come home in a few months. They might come home in a year. Maybe longer.
Bowersox has three children. Living in space is dangerous and dirty—so much can go wrong, and everything floats—but that time away is a different kind of hard for the families left behind. Bowersox’s children would bundle up time and again that winter and head outside to wait for him to appear in the sky. He would rocket over their heads. One of his children, his then 5-year-old son, didn’t quite understand the nature of orbital velocity, and he would sprint down the street, chasing his dad, trying to keep him in sight.
In the end, Expedition 6 came home in a Russian Soyuz capsule, only a couple of months after their original return date. Their dramatic descent didn’t make many headlines, and, except for Scott Kelly’s recent year-long stint in space, none of the subsequent 47 expeditions have garnered much attention either. Few of us give a thought to the International Space Station, even though, when the future measures our collective contribution to humanity, the ISS will prove the single best thing we did. Less than a century after the Model T was state of the art, we manufactured a kind of galleon in space and have sent men and women from 10 countries to live in it, along with a host of short-term visitors, without recess or mutiny or fatality, for nearly 20 years. By the time the ISS makes its fiery return to Earth, possibly in the late 2020s, it will have become a stepping stone to lunar colonies and the first human mission to Mars. It will have taught us so much about our ability to adapt to the most hostile of environments. The most beautiful too.
Tonight there are a half-dozen brave people, including three Americans, wrapped up in sleeping bags strapped to the cluttered walls there, dreaming of their families and gravity and everything else they’re missing. They are heroes, but the chances are slim that you could recall any of their names. Maybe it will make you feel better to remember instead, if only for the time it takes for the station to cross your night sky, that while everything can seem so awful and cynical here at home, we are still capable of distant miracles. Right now the International Space Station is hurtling through space, and so is its crew, which means so are we, living in its constant light.
An illustration of the missions leading up to a manned mission to Mars. NASA.
NASA’s been in a slump lately. The International Space Station (ISS) is going to be retired somewhere in 2024-2028. It doesn’t even have a rocket right now to send anything up there, anyway. Not after retiring the space shuttle. The agency has been concentrating for six years on developing its new Space Launch System (SLS), to run missions to other parts of our solar system. You can argue that the SLS will be worth the wait. These will be the most powerful, heavy rockets NASA’s ever built.
Of course, there is a planned mission to land humans on Mars by 2033. But that’s far off, and the details have been fuzzy. That’s why space heads stood up and took notice recently, when NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, Bill Gerstenmaier, gave a presentation. Gerstenmaier revealed to the agency’s advisory council tentative plans for a lunar space station.
As part of its NextSTEP program, NASA has employed six companies to help it design the next generation of stations and vehicles. Boeing just announced its contribution—the Deep Space Gateway lunar station. Now NASA’s vision is starting to become clearer.
At the agency’s presentation, Gerstenmaier outlined plans to build and launch the station, which will allow Deep Space Transport (DST) craft to dock, aiding them in longer range missions, including to Mars. NASA’s press release called the station a place that “offers a true deep space environment,” for humans to get acclimated.
Deep Space Gateway will allow for more lunar missions as well, including robotic ones. The advantage is, if something goes wrong, crew members can try and make it back home again, a luxury not afforded to those headed for Mars.
Boeing Deep Space Gateway. Boeing.
Though there aren’t any hard dates yet, NASA plans to stagger missions, sending off one each year. It wants to work out how to coordinate the SLS, Orion, and the International Space Station (ISS), to support missions farther afield. Later on, they plan to set up a permanent installation in cislunar orbit (or near the moon).
The lunar station will be much smaller than the ISS, consisting of a power bus, a small habitat for the crew, a docking station, airlock, one research module, and one logistics one. For propulsion, they plan to use high power electric engines, a technology NASA itself has developed. This way, the station can position itself in one of a number of different orbits around the moon.
NASA is currently creating SLS and Orion spacecraft for the first two missions. Exploration Mission 1 (EM–1) should take place sometime next year. This will be a crewless journey. On other fronts, propulsion and habitation for the lunar station are in development. On board the ISS, life support systems and “related technologies,” are being tested.
From 2023 to 2026, NASA plans to send up pieces of and assemble the gateway. These missions will include four astronauts and should last between eight and 21 days. By the end of the 2020s, a one year mission will commence, to test systems required to travel to Mars, and elsewhere.
They’ll run experiments in the vicinity of the moon, in order to “build confidence that long-duration, distant human missions can be safely conducted with independence from Earth.” That’s according to a statement on NASA’s website. Not only is the agency starting to build up infrastructure, they foresee challenges both technical and human. This space station will help develop strategies to overcome them.
How well can humans live in deep space? That isn’t really something that’s ever been tested. Astronauts and later colonists will need to endure long journeys aboard a Deep Space Transport (DST) craft, also being developed by Boeing. Somewhere around 2029, NASA plans to send astronauts aboard one of these, for a total of 300-400 days, somewhere near our moon.
Boeing Deep Space Transit (DST) Vehicle. Boeing.
The long-term goal is reusable craft that can ferry people to places such as Mars, return to the gateway, refuel, get serviced, and go back out again. SpaceX recently proved it possible to reuse rockets, in yet another successful landing, this time including a redeployment. Reusability will soon become the mainstay of space exploration, which brings the cost down exponentially.
This isn’t only a US mission. Besides private companies, other countries can lend a hand. Partners may offer hardware or “supplemental resources.” We’ve just dipped our toes in outer space’s vast waters, as a species, and had a few jaunts into the shallow end. Spreading out and really exploring the solar system is a feat beyond anything humanity has ever done.
A-level student Miles Soloman found that radiation sensors on the International Space Station (ISS) were recording false data.
The 17-year-old from Tapton school in Sheffield said it was “pretty cool” to email the space agency.
The correction was said to be “appreciated” by Nasa, which invited him to help analyse the problem.
“What we got given was a lot of spreadsheets, which is a lot more interesting than it sounds,” Miles told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme.
The research was part of the TimPix project from the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS), which gives students across the UK the chance to work on data from the space station, looking for anomalies and patterns that might lead to further discoveries.
During UK astronaut Tim Peake’s stay on the station, detectors began recording the radiation levels on the ISS.
“I went straight to the bottom of the list and I went for the lowest bits of energy there were,” Miles explained.
Miles’s teacher and head of physics, James O’Neill, said: “We were all discussing the data but he just suddenly perked up in one of the sessions and went ‘why does it say there’s -1 energy here?'”
What Miles had noticed was that when nothing hit the detector, a negative reading was being recorded.
But you cannot get negative energy. So Miles and Mr O’Neill contacted Nasa.
“It’s pretty cool”, Miles said. “You can tell your friends, I just emailed Nasa and they’re looking at the graphs that I’ve made.”
It turned out that Miles had noticed something no-one else had – including the Nasa experts.
Nasa said it was aware of the error, but believed it was only happening once or twice a year.
Miles had found it was actually happening multiple times a day.
Prof Larry Pinksy, from the University of Houston, told Radio 4: “My colleagues at Nasa thought they had cleaned that up.
“This underscores – I think – one of the values of the IRIS projects in all fields with big data. I’m sure there are interesting things the students can find that professionals don’t have time to do.”
The professor – who works with Nasa on radiation monitors – said the correction was “appreciated more so than it being embarrassing”.
What do Miles’ friends think of his discovery?
“They obviously think I’m a nerd,” the sixth-former said. “It’s really a mixture of jealousy and boredom when I tell them all the details.”
He added: “I’m not trying to prove Nasa wrong. I want to work with them and learn from them.”
The director of IRIS, Prof Becky Parker, said this sort of “expansion of real science in the classroom” could attract more young people to STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).
She added: “IRIS brings real scientific research into the hands of students no matter their background or the context of the school. The experience inspires them to become the next generation of scientists.”
In March 2018, Jeanette Epps will join Expedition 56 as a flight engineer, making her the first African-American crew member aboard the International Space Station.
The result of more than a dozen countries collaborating, the ISS is arguably the best example of what can be achieved when nations work together.
THE REMARKABLE ISS
The International Space Station (ISS) may be an impressive technological marvel, but it’s also tangible proof of what humans can accomplish when we set aside political, religious, gender, or racial differences and focus on science. Built by Russia and funded by the United States, the $100 billion space station is the result of more than a dozen countries working together.
A remarkable amount of effort went into the successful creation of the ISS, which has now been in operation for more than 16 years. It currently orbits Earth at an altitude of 354 kilometers (220 miles), traveling at 28,163 kilometers per hour (17,500 miles per hour). The space station orbits our planet every 90 minutes, and an acre of solar panels keep the outpost running.
Right now, the ISS is home to several crew members from various nations, all of whom are focused on learning about how humans can live and work in space. It is arguably the most visible example of international cooperation and everything that can be achieved when nations collaborate.
Soon, a new addition to an ISS expedition crew will make history aboard the space station. When Jeanette Epps joins Expedition 56 in March 2018 as a flight engineer, she will become the first African-American to join the ISS as a crew member.
Epps holds a doctorate in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland and served as a fellow in NASA’s Graduate Student Researchers Project, an initiative that hopes to increase engagement amongst students who want to pursue advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
There have been three African-Americans who have visited ISS, but they haven’t done the long-duration mission that I am undertaking. I’ll be the one spending the longest time on the ISS. As a steward, I want to do well with this honor. I want to make sure that young people know that this didn’t happen overnight. There was a lot of work involved, and a lot of commitment and consistency. It is a daunting task to take on.
While Epps will be the first African-American to board the ISS for a long-term expedition, numerous African-American women have lent their expertise to the success of NASA. As far back as the 1950s, African-American women were contributing to humanity’s mission to explore the unknown, and soon, Epps will be able to add her name to the list of people breaking new ground in space exploration.
Algae has proven to be quite the formidable organism by being able to survive 16 months in space outside of the International Space Station.
The samples will now be sent back to Earth to test if there were any genetic changes in the specimens.
ALGAE IN SPACE
Fraunhofer scientists aboard the International Space Station (ISS) recently ran an experiment where they let algae loose into the vacuum of space for a full 16 months. And, surprisingly enough, the simple plants survived the harrowing journey. Despite extreme temperature variations, UV radiation, cosmic radiation, and incredible length of time, the algae were brought back aboard still alive.
These researchers aboard the ISS are currently running experiments as part of the Biology and Mars Experiment (BIOMEX) project. Within this experimental algae portion of the project, they tested the durability of algae species that are known to love freezing temperatures. Since the mixture of extreme conditions found in space is impossible to replicate in a laboratory environment exactly, the crew on the ISS used their location to put these cold-loving species to the test. However, despite knowing what these plants will endure on Earth, the scientists were astonished at how much they can really take.
COLD LOVING ALIENS
Post-experiment, the researchers aboard the ISS will send these algae samples back to Earth. There, they will be rigorously tested to see the actual extent that the temperatures and combined radiation impacted them. This information could be crucial to future human missions to Mars. It could help to ensure the safety of humans and any plant-based food to be consumed.
However, beyond the positive benefits that this research could have on future missions of humans in space, it could also potentially tell us a little bit more about alien life. According to many, including famed astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, thinking that we are somehow the only living creatures in the universe would be “inexcusably egocentric.” And, while previously, few would have thought that any plants could survive such an extended stay in space, we now know better. And so, while certain environments in space may seem inhospitable, we now know that life could exist in places we never before would have suspected.
“We cannot simulate the same physical and environmental conditions to reconstruct the Martian environment, I mean such traits like Martian microgravitation or radiation exposure,” Szocik told Elizabeth Howell at Seeker.
“Consequently, we cannot predict [the] physical and biological effects of humans living on Mars.”
In a recent article, Szocik and his co-authors discussed some of the political, cultural, and personal challenges Mars colonists would face, and in a nutshell, the team doesn’t think human beings could cut it on the Red Planet – not without making changes to our bodies to help us more easily adapt to the Martian environment.
“My idea is that [the] human body and mind is adapted to live in the terrestrial environment,” Szocik told Rae Paoletta at Gizmodo.
“Consequently, some particular physiological and psychological challenges during [the] journey and then during living on Mars probably will be too difficult for human beings to survive.”
But those hardships would be much less than what travellers to Mars would experience, who would be making much longer journeys – and not knowing when or if they could ever return to Earth.
“These first astronauts will be aware that after the almost one-year journey, they will have to live on Mars for at least several years or probably their entire lives due to the fact that their return will most likely be technologically impossible,” the authors explain.
“Perhaps these first colonisers will know that their mission is a ‘one way ticket’.”
Until that happens, the researchers think that humanity’s best prospects for living on Mars would involve some kind of body or genetic altering that might give us a fighting chance of survival on a planet we’ve never had to evolve on.
“We claim that human beings are not evolutionally adapted to colonise cosmic environments,” the authors explain.
“We suggest that the best solution could be the artificial acceleration of the biological evolution of the astronauts before they start their space deep mission.”
While the team doesn’t provide details of what that would entail in their paper, Szocik told Gizmodo that “permanent solutions like genetical and/or surgical modifications” could make colonists capable of surviving on Mars in ways that unaltered humans can’t.
According to NASA’s former chief scientist for human research, Mark J. Shelhamer, while these ideas may be interesting and help further the discussion about what it will take for humans to adapt to Mars’ environment, once talk turns to genetics, you run into a minefield of other potential issues.
“Already, people have suggested selecting astronauts for genetic predisposition for such things as radiation resistance,” says Shelhamer.
“Of course, this idea is fraught with problems. For one, it’s illegal to make employment decisions based on genetic information. For another, there are usually unintended consequences when making manipulations like this, and who knows what might get worse if we pick and choose what we think needs to be made better.”
Those sound like pretty fair points – especially considering Szocik goes as far as to suggest that “human cloning or other similar methods” might ultimately be necessary to sustain colony populations over generations without running the risk of in-breeding between too few colonists.
Clearly, there’s a lot to work out here, and while some of the researchers’ ideas are definitely a bit out there, we’re going to need to think outside the box if we want to inhabit a planet that at its closest is about 56 million km (33.9 million miles) away.
For his part, Shelhamer is confident that the right kind of training will equip human travellers for the ordeals of their Mars journey – and if current estimateson when we can expect to see this happen are correct, we won’t have too long to wait to see if he’s right.
“I think we can give astronauts the tools – physical, mental, operational – so that they are, individually and as a group, resilient in the face of the unknown,” he told Gizmodo.
“What kind of person thrives in an extreme environment? What types of mission structures are in place to help that person? This needs to be examined systematically.”
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins floats in the International Space Station in September 2016, wearing a spacesuit decorated by patients recovering at the MD Anderson Cancer Center.
A few months ago, at her office in Houston, Kate Rubins was feeling weird.
She was dizzy, she says — “staggering around like a 2-year-old who had just learned to walk.” She was constantly looking at her desk to make sure the objects on top weren’t floating away.
Rubins wasn’t going nuts. She was just readjusting to Earth after living without gravity for four months, hundreds of miles above the planet’s surface.
Floating around up there, with blood rushing to her head like she was hanging upside-down on monkey bars, had been disorienting at first, though she eventually learned to move around using all four limbs.
Rubins donned a spacesuit to install equipment on the outside of the International Space Station.
Coming back to Earth’s gravity at the end of October was even more disorienting.
But Rubins is used to drastic transitions. Oddly enough, her journey to space had started years before, in central Africa.
“If you put your finger on a map in the middle of Africa, that’s about where our field site was located,” says Rubins, a microbiologist as well as an astronaut.
It was 2007, and an airplane touching down on a grass runway in the Democratic Republic of the Congo had brought Rubins and her colleagues to study a nasty outbreak of monkey pox in a remote village. She’d already spent time studying HIV, Ebola and smallpox in the lab.
This time the airplane wouldn’t be back for six weeks.
Rubins didn’t know it at the time, but that remote expedition gave her experience she’d eventually draw on during a much bigger journey — to outer space.
All that paperwork was “mind-numbing,” Rubins says. Just to get a break, a colleague suggested they try filling out a different sort of application — to become NASA astronauts.
“So, I found the application online,” Rubins says, and filled it out on a lark. “I’ll take this chance,” she figured, “and maybe it’ll be a good story someday of how I applied to be an astronaut.”
A few months later, she got a call from Houston asking her to come down for an interview.
Rubins doesn’t fit the normal astronaut profile. Many start out as military pilots, engineers or doctors — not microbiologists studying viruses. But she got the job.
“There’s been a lot of growth in people’s interest in doing biological research on the space station,” explains Julie Robinson, NASA’s chief scientist for the International Space Station program.
Rubins works on an experiment inside the station’s glovebox. Prior research has suggested that the microgravity of space can change gene expression in certain bacteria and make them more virulent.
Before the shuttle program ended in 2011, Robinson says, “our commanders and our pilots had to be ready to land the shuttle, so that implied a really strong piloting [and] aerospace background, and that isn’t as important now.”
But once NASA’s shuttle program ended and U.S. astronauts started hitching rides to space on Russian rockets, the focus for the American personnel shifted away from piloting skills — they no longer have to be counted on to land the shuttle.
“What’s more important now is the time they spend in orbit, when they’re carrying out a variety of experiments,” says Robinson. “We can take what we learn in space to help us understand aging, disease processes, and even the basic biology of cells.”
There’s another reason it’s useful to have molecular biologists and microbiologists in space: While there aren’t viruses like Ebola or monkeypox on the space station (astronauts get quarantined before liftoff to make sure of that), space travel has never been sterile.
Take this moment from the Apollo 10 mission in 1969, for example, when three astronauts on board notice a loose turd floating through their spacecraft.
Back then, a few astronauts were sealed in a small capsule for a few days. But now there’s the space station — a habitat the size of a six-bedroom house that circles the Earth, about 200 miles above our heads.
The station may have started out pristine, but its astronaut crews didn’t.
“We cannot send up a sterile crew,” says Sarah Castro-Wallace, a microbiologist at NASA Johnson Space Center. Astronauts need their gut bacteria and other friendly microbes to help keep them healthy.
And for 16 years straight, crew after crew has been sweating, pooping and puking inside the space station. The microbes they release tend to stick around, because the station is essentially sealed — like an airplane that never gets opened.
“Staphylococcus aureus we’ll find once in a while; Staphylococcus epidermidis all the time,” says Castro-Wallace, running down a list of resident space station microorganisms. There’s also Staphylococcus hominis (usually harmless), Micrococcus luteus (lives in the mouth and throat), Burkholderia (common in soil; some types can cause lung infection), Sphingomonas (common in water, and rarely harmful), Penicillium (the fungus we find in bread mold) and Aspergillus (more mold), just to name a few.
Recently, an entire wall panel of the station turned green with mold.
“Imagine your shower curtain at its worst,” says Castro-Wallace, pointing out that the wall of mold happened on the Russian side of the space station.
She’s particularly interested in Staph. aureus; a strain of the bacterium that’s resistant to multiple drugs is a particular problem in hospitals, and can turn something as simple as a paper cut dangerous.
“If it got into a cut, it could be life threatening,” Castro-Wallace says.
It’s become clear that scientists need to know what else is living up there, she says — particularly because research suggests that microgravity can change gene expression in certain bacteria and make them more virulent. (Castro-Wallace has found that Staph. aureus changes color in simulated microgravity, an indicator that the bacterium might act differently in space than on Earth.)
Right now, astronauts swab surfaces of the station and send samples back to Houston for identification. But that can take weeks or months.
It’s a big reason why NASA hired Kate Rubins — and shot her into the sky.
Last July, after seven years of training at NASA — working at Mission Control, doing mock space expeditions underwater and flying supersonic fighter jets to keep her reflexes sharp — Rubins blasted off from Kazakhstan aboard a Russian rocket.
She had 115 days to help set up a microbiology lab on the station. She drew on her earlier experience studying viruses — working quickly in a remote place, with minimal equipment.
“There’s actually an incredible amount of parallels between working in central Congo in a remote, isolated village and doing research aboard the space station,” Rubins says.
When I called her in space, while she was on the station last fall, Rubins had just gotten the lab up and running and was really excited about it.
In July 2016, Rubins (left) and Jeff Williams (right), inside the International Space Station, maneuvered a supply spacecraft for docking.
“It’s absolutely a working laboratory,” she told me, as she floated around, describing the scene. “We have experiments all over the place.”
Just weeks before, Rubins had sequenced DNA in space — the first time anyone had ever done that. The fact that the technology worked in microgravity showed that, in the near future, it should be possible to swab a moldy wall, for example, and immediately determine the type of mold.
She’d also grown stem cells into heart cells without gravity, and — peering through a microscope that she’d set up — watched them beat in unison.
Rubins has proved that it’s possible to do molecular biology at least 200 miles beyond Earth — and maybe 200 million miles away, too.
“The world of sequencing and molecular biology has opened up to us on the space station,” she says.
She and NASA’s Julie Robinson are the kind of people who start sentences with the words “When we go to Mars,” as if the journey to that planet is as inevitable as their next trip to the grocery store.
“It’s the plan,” says Robinson. “Absolutely,” says Rubins, who is now Deputy Director of Human Health and Performance at Johnson Space Center.
When — or if — that expedition happens, Mars-based biology labs will be crucial resources for astronauts there. They’ll need the tools of molecular biology to identify non-human life, so these emissaries from Earth can make sure that they aren’t contaminating Mars with their own microbes, and to be able to detect any new life forms they might encounter. They’ll also need the labs to diagnose sick space travelers, so they don’t waste precious antibiotics or antivirals.
And, of course, they’ll need the technology to figure out what’s growing on their walls. Because one thing is for sure: Any human-built Mars habitat will soon become at least as gross as the International Space Station.
Members of the main crew of the expedition to the International Space Station, Russia’s cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky (L) and US astronaut Peggy Whitson wave as they walk to board the rocket at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Baikonur
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What do humans do on the International Space Station that could not be done by machines?
Serve as Experiment Subjects
The crew are poked, prodded, drained, biopsied and observed every day. They provide biomedical data and samples that are of great use to researchers.
If we are going to one day venture farther out into the solar system, we need to better understand what happens to people that are in space for a long time. What happens to their bones and muscles? Are they psychologically altered? Does their ability to perform a task diminish with time? Through observing the crew over the last 16 years, we’ve learned a lot about long duration spaceflight. We’ve made exercise and dietary changes that have reduced the bone and muscle loss. We’ve observed changes that weren’t predicted, such as changes in eyeglass prescription as the shape of the eye changes during long duration spaceflight.
The crew also serves as analogues for experiments focused more upon people on the ground. For example, studying the rapid bone loss experienced by astronauts while in microgravity and studying the effects of protocols used to affect that bone loss can tell us more about the bone loss experienced by older people on the ground.
Perform Experiments that Require Dexterity
We can certainly design robots on the ground that can do very fine tasks, but those robots are highly specialized and large. Getting robots for each necessary task into space would be prohibitive. We are testing a robot named Robonaut onboard the ISS. It’s not particularly adept yet.
Some experiments require the flexibility and dexterity of human hands. For example, dissecting a fish and preparing slides with thin slices of the anatomy.
Replace and Repair Broken Equipment
Equipment breaks in space. That equipment needs to be serviced, repaired, or replaced.
After the loss of Columbia, the government was planning on canceling the last Hubble servicing mission. A team was put together to design a robotic servicing mission. They concluded that some of the tasks simply could not yet be done via robotics.
About 12 years ago, the central computers on the Russian Segment failed because of interior corrosion. The cosmonauts had to perform visual troubleshooting and then repair of those computers. If they had not been repaired, the ISS thrusters would have remained unavailable and prevented the necessary periodic burns that keep the ISS in orbit.
And last but not least—humans can tell us how small and vulnerable Earth looks from space.
The Shenzhou 11 mission took off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert in northern China at 7:30 a.m. (2330 GMT) aboard a Long March-2F carrier rocket.
It will dock with the Tiangong 2 space station precursor facility within two days, conduct experiments in medicine and various space-related technologies, and test systems and processes in preparation for the launching of the station’s core module in 2018.
Space program commander-in-chief Gen. Zhang Youxia declared the launch a success at 7:46 a.m. (2346 GMT). Defense Minister Fan Changlong then read a congratulatory message from President Xi Jinping calling for China’s astronauts to explore space “more deeply and more broadly.”
Premier Li Keqiang and propaganda chief Liu Yunshan visited the Beijing control centre to congratulate staff. It is the sixth time China has launched astronauts into space and the duration will be the longest by far.
Following the attachment of two experiment modules, the completed station is set to begin full operations in 2022 and will run for at least a decade.
An earlier Tiangong 1 experimental space station launched in 2011 went out of service in March after docking with three visiting spacecraft and extending its mission for two years. The Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace,” stations are considered stepping stones to a mission to Mars by the end of the decade.
The Shenzhou 11 astronauts are Jing Haipeng, who is flying his third mission, and 37-year-old Chen Dong.
“It is any astronaut’s dream and pursuit to be able to perform many space missions,” Jing, who turns 50 during his time in space, told a briefing Sunday.
China conducted its first crewed space mission in 2003, becoming only the third country after Russia and the U.S. to do so, and has since staged a spacewalk and landed its Yutu rover on the moon. Administrators suggest a crewed landing on the moon may also be in the program’s future.
China was prevented from participating in the International Space Station, mainly due to U.S. concerns over the Chinese space program’s strongly military character. Chinese officials are now looking to internationalise their own program by offering to help finance other countries’ missions to Tiangong 2.