Next week, I will be getting the pleasure of exploring the Johnson Space Center in Houston, thanks to a really cool program called Speed2Design put on by Littelfuse. In this program, 10 lucky engineers get to go behind the scenes and see how things really work, and I get to follow them around. In preparation for the event, I had a chance to talk with a couple of really interesting people from NASA-JSC to get a better feel for what is going on.
Today, I spoke with Dan Harman, deputy program manager for the ISS. During his time with NASA, he has had many job titles with the ISS program, and he can easily explain pretty much any area. We had only a few minutes, but I gained some great insight into the current state of the International Space Station.
Caleb Kraft : How are the budget cuts to the space program affecting the ISS?
Dan Hartman : For the most part, we're trying to streamline things here. We've finished physical assembly as of May 2011, so now we're trying to get the maximum amount of research out of the facility possible. ISS performance has been optimized, so we need fewer spares, and we've pushed as many hours of research as possible on board. We were at maybe 10-15 hours of research per week during assembly, and now we're easily over three times that. As far as our current goals, we're just trying to make as much use of the lab as possible. Were looking to get the word out that we're open for business, and we're trying to attract commercial entities, as well as research institutions.
Caleb Kraft : You are working with several other space agencies, correct?
Dan Hartman : Yes, we're working closely with Russia, Japan, and Canada, as well as several European agencies. NASA has the lead flight directorate of the station, but they are linked at all times with individual control centers in other countries. We are very tightly knit with our international partners. That has been one of the biggest benefits I've seen — the cultural benefits like sharing engineering knowledge. They all talk a common language somehow. It is truly amazing. In a small way, we're bringing nations together, I'd say. Over 65 nations have been involved in some way, either with gear or support.
Caleb Kraft : What kind of research is currently happening in the ISS?
Dan Hartman : We're going to be conducting over 50 hours of research this week. We're working with students in classrooms on science, engineering, math, and other things. We do that through conferences just with astronauts or even through ham radio. We try to take care of the students. We're doing a lot of robotic missions right now, like robotic refueling. We're also working on refining regenerative and recycling systems, like recycling waste into drinkable water. This has helped in research of portable purification devices that could help in crisis situations.
We're doing research all the time, not just in the lab. We've done a lot of research into bone loss and exercise, and some of our astronauts have actually come home stronger than they were when they left. Recently, we've seen increased blood pressure in the eyeball, and we're trying to tackle that. Obviously, if you're going to be planning a long trip — say, to Mars or something — this is an issue that will need to be addressed. We're even looking outward from the ISS back at Earth. From there, we can study weather patterns, rainfall, crop growth, and all kinds of other things. We can help out farmers and those planning for disasters.
Caleb Kraft : What are you excited about when you think of the future of the ISS?
Dan Hartman : You can always dream big and hope for some kind of major breakthrough in research. We can remove one of the biggest factors on Earth, which is gravity, and allow us to find completely different insights into how things shape, flow, and generally behave in microgravity. Then, we can apply that information back to what we know about here on Earth.
I'd love to say that we could solve cancer or something on the station. We haven't had that big eureka moment yet, but if we don't try to take advantage of what we have up there, we're really losing out. We just celebrated our 15th year. Our crew has grown and changed, and the engineering improvement has been phenomenal. We've got some interesting new things happening like commercial space systems joining up, like SpaceX. We would love to see a time in the near future where we aren't reliant on the other space agencies for getting people and items to and from the station.
Hopefully, we'll get another chance to see some of the stuff that Dan is talking about during next week's visit to NASA-JSC. It is going to be exciting, so keep your eyes peeled. Let me know if there are any questions you might have for me to relay, should I get a chance.
This article originally appeared in EBN's sister publication EETimes.