Space station retains vital role as research tool, astronaut says

6:10 PM, Jul 25, 2012   |    comments
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WASHINGTON -- The most exciting part of conducting research at the International Space Station is not knowing what's going to be exciting, astronaut Donald Pettit testified at a Senate hearing Wednesday.

"One of the most exciting parts of going into a frontier are the pages of the book that don't have any writing on them yet, because you don't even know enough to know 'Should this be the exciting part, should this be the significant part?'" Pettit said. He donned a space-themed tie to address the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee about his work and why it's important.

Committee members called the hearing to discuss the space station's future through 2020 and beyond, now that its assembly is complete and it is focusing on research. The station will get funding until 2020, but Congress hasn't decided whether it will survive beyond that.

The station is in good physical shape and could continue operating until at least 2028, said William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator of human exploration and operations. "(We) wanted to have this hearing today so that the American people know what's going on in space -- that there is this extraordinary contraption that is about 240 miles above the Earth," said Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Science and Space.

Pettit, 57, referred to space as his "home," and peppered his testimony with metaphors to highlight the importance of the space station. He compared maintaining the station to surviving in Antarctica, and learning about bone loss in space to the accidental cure for scurvy centuries ago.

Pettit recently returned from a six-month voyage aboard the station, where he worked 14-hour days to keep the station running and conduct experiments that took advantage of zero gravity and other conditions unique to space. One issue clouding the space station's future is the troubled start to the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS).

NASA established the Florida-based nonprofit center last year to manage and promote the part of the space station known as the U.S. National Laboratory, which functions as a research facility for U.S. companies. The center's CEO stepped down in February, and a final board of directors has yet to be approved.

A new board of directors "that includes some of America's brightest minds from business and science" will be announced soon, CASIS interim executive director James Royston said during Wednesday's hearing. "We are anxiously awaiting the appointment of the board so that we can see ... CASIS get up and go and really start showing results," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the committee's top-ranking Republican.

Pettit said the space station's greatest need is more researchers to conduct experiments in the national lab. During his time on the station, he was one of three crew members conducting research at the lab for about six hours a day.

Witnesses at Wednesday's hearing cited ongoing research and their own personal experiences to promote the space station's importance as a research tool, since the station has produced few definitive results so far. ^"@We cannot predict what results will come from the ISS in long-duration space-based research," Gerstenmaier said.

"True advances come from discovery, and ISS is a platform for discovery." Researchers' goal is to begin 259 investigations between last October and September. Topics range from the search for dark matter to examining the nature of flames and developing more effective vaccines, Gerstenmaier said.

Space station crewmembers can use their own experiences in space to conduct research, Pettit said. For example, crewmembers observed their own bone density loss, a space-related condition that on Earth is associated with old age, he said.

Pettit was joined by astronaut Thomas Reiter with the European Space Agency, who focused on continuing collaboration between the five countries that teamed up to build the space station. One of the space station's most important roles is to foster interest in science, math and space research among students, witnesses at Wednesday's hearing agreed.

When Gerstenmeier mentioned a student-proposed investigation into how jumping spiders adjust to a zero-gravity environment, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said he's anxious to know the results. "Let us know about the spider when that happens," he told Gerstenmaier.

"Now we need to know." Pettit said it would break his heart to tell students they can't conduct the same space-based research he does. "I think you could say that there are more students that want to become an astronaut and fly in space than want to become President of the United States," Pettit said. "And I think that's a good thing."

By SONALI KOHLI, Gannett Washington Bureau

USA TODAY

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