On July 12, two sets of all-stars converged on San Diego. A downtown stadium hosted Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, the annual exhibition of the league’s best players. Several kilometers away, a hotel played host to the annual International Space Station Research and Development Conference, bringing together leading scientists, business people and bureaucrats to discuss current and future plans to use the ISS.
That coincidence of events was irresistible to some conference attendees, who tried to make connections, however contrived, between the national pastime and an international station. “Baseball and space go hand in hand,” said John Olson, vice president of Sierra Nevada Corporation. “They’re both U.S.-led activities, but they’re global passions as well.
The conference certainly had its share of stars. Scott Kelly, just a few months removed from his nearly year-long stay on the ISS, was a keynote speaker, appearing on stage with his twin brother Mark to talk about their spaceflight experiences. Peter Diamandis, of X Prize fame, also spoke at the conference about exponential growth and disruption — although it wasn’t clear whether he thought space station research would disrupt terrestrial fields, or be disrupted by some other innovation.
Space station research, though, is not yet a star. Rather, it’s a prospect with potential that is still yet to be fully tapped. Speakers discussed some of their uses of the station, from protein crystal growth experiments to using it as a platform for launching satellites. However, the big breakthrough, one that would on its own justify all space station research, remains elusive.
Interest remains strong in doing research on the station, and NASA is trying to make it easier to use. “In the past, you would be working to our requirements,” said Joel Montalbano, deputy manager of ISS utilization at NASA. “What we’re trying to do now is to work to your requirements.”
That is helping attract more users with some intriguing applications. Made in Space, a company that has flown two 3-D printers to the ISS, announced at the conference it plans to fly another payload next year with a specialized application: making a type of fiber optic cable that, when manufactured in microgravity, promises to have better properties than fiber produced on the ground.
If successful, it could open the market for space-based manufacturing, something sought by space entrepreneurs and advocates for decades. “We are making things on orbit and utilizing them here on Earth,” said Andrew Rush, president and chief executive of Made in Space. “We hope this is the first of many experiments like this.”
Those planning commercial facilities that might succeed the ISS like the idea of many experiments. The user base today isn’t large enough to convince investors to fund commercial stations, argued Michael Suffredini, the former NASA ISS program manager who is now leading one such commercial space station effort, Axiom Space.
“I think we need to think about doubling or tripling the amount of new researchers and users that come to the International Space Station each year,” he said. He encouraged current ISS users to help recruit new ones. “We ought to start leveraging the growth of the user base to go find other users and help them understand how ISS can help.”
With the ISS set to end as soon as 2024, the next several years will be critical to demonstrate the effectiveness of research there, both for researchers and companies planning future commercial space stations. After all, even all-stars have to retire some day.