Turning our back on the International Space Station

Turning our back on the International Space Station
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The International Space Station (ISS) is one of humanity’s most phenomenal scientific and technical accomplishments. In addition to its role as a laboratory to study the effects of space on humans, it is a proving ground for revolutionary new industries such as space manufacturing and robotics.

The ISS is also a symbol of our thirst for exploration, and it has inspired millions of students to pursue STEM careers. As just one example, NASA received over 18,000 applications for its next class of astronauts.  

So it was with puzzlement and almost tearful sadness that I read President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades MORE’s proposed budget, which includes the termination ISS funding by 2025. The rationale that low Earth orbit exploration is no longer part of NASA’s domain and can be turned over to commercial endeavors may seem to make sense at first blush, but it completely misses a central aspect of exploration. Exploration means more than just going somewhere new, it means understanding that environment, how it can impact humans, and how we can leverage what we learn to further exploration.

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Space medicine is just one example. We have barely scratched the surface in understanding how space microgravity and its enhanced radiation environment impacts health. A few astronauts have spent long periods of time in space, such as Scott Kelly and Peggy Whitson. Overall, though, we have just a handful of examples to study how space affects our bodies and minds.

 

Imagine if doctors on Earth had only a dozen people to represent the entirety of human health. It would be almost impossible to know what bodily changes would have a minor impact on health versus what could potentially be lethal. Thousands of disorders would be missed. Space medicine needs many more human examples. That is critical as we voyage further from Earth and spend more time in space.

Fundamental medical techniques to be used in space also need to be developed and refined. How does one perform CPR in space? It may seem you simply do compressions while holding the patient against a hard surface. But it’s not that simple. Blood flow is much different in zero gravity. How does a physician do simple surgery in space? Bleed out is different and organs react differently in space. 

The ISS was very expensive to build and maintain, but it is America’s only platform where we can develop space medicine. Throwing that laboratory away and hoping that commercial organizations build suitable habitats that can be used for such studies is misguided.

The ISS is also where we can develop entirely new industries, such as those based upon microgravity manufacturing, space construction with AI-enabled robotics, and study self-contained human space habitats.

We also are falling behind in encouraging youth to pursue careers in science and technology. NASA has been an incredible success inspiring and educating. Now, though, it appears we are turning away from the ISS, a centerpiece of that inspiration. Even more depressing is that the president’s budget eliminates NASA’s Office of Education just when we need it the most. 

It appears we have not learned the lesson from retiring the space shuttle fleet. We now must hitch rides for our astronauts on the Russian Soyuz rocket because we did not better prepare for a new astronaut launch capability. Will we next need to rent space on a Chinese space laboratory to do space manufacturing experiments? Will we need to learn about space medicine from the Russian space program? 

The final frontier is going to be difficult and expensive. We need to utilize our resources wisely. We need to use the ISS for research that will be the foundation for our next steppingstone outward, whether that is to Mars, the asteroids or the Moon. We simply don’t know enough to throw away the ISS. 

I am still in numbed sadness from learning of our country’s intention to abandon the ISS. I truly hope those in Congress who appreciate NASA’s importance will resist the president’s intention to defund the ISS.

Michael E. Summers is a planetary scientist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., specializing in the study of structure and evolution of planetary atmospheres. He also is co-investigator on NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto.