Human Quest: The International Space Station and Mars Exploration

Article excerpt

DANIEL S. GOLDIN is Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

This year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) celebrates 40 years of scientific exploration. NASA's mission, to discover the unknown in an effort to enrich life on Earth, represents a journey to unite the human spirit in an international quest for knowledge. The next chapter in the history of space exploration will be written 250 miles above Earth at a construction site orbiting the planet at over 17,500 miles per hour. The International Space Station, which unifies the resources and scientific expertise of 16 nations, is the most ambitious scientific and technical project in history. The work has just begun; astronauts recently connected the first US component of the station, Unity, to the Zarya (Russian for "sunrise") propulsion module. Zarya and Unity, which together weigh 35 tons, are by far the largest and heaviest payload elements to be assembled in a Shuttle bay. But they are also only the first of 45 building blocks that will be assembled before the completion of the station.

On January 29, 1998, the International Space Station was officially launched. Senior government officials from 15 countries met in Washington to sign the Inter-Governmental Agreement on Space Station Cooperation, which established a framework for cooperation on the station's design, development, operation, and utilization. In solidifying the international network for the program, the US Secretary of State joined with signatories from Russia, Japan, Canada, and participating countries of the European Space Agency (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom). Later, Brazil entered into an agreement with the United States to join this cooperative effort.

Coordinating the efforts of 16 countries has not been an easy task. Inevitably, difficulties have arisen regarding financing and scheduling conflicts. The project, moreover, is one of unprecedented difficulty, risk, and danger--the task of connecting the individual components of the station will require more nail-biting space walks than have been conducted in the entire history of human space exploration.

Yet, the outcome from taking such risks will be an unprecedented reward. As a global scientific community pushing the boundaries of science and technology, the International Space Station will also open new frontiers of international partnership and cooperation. The United States is leading the way in this collaborative pursuit.

ISS as a Starting Point

To some, this promise of international collaboration may be justification enough for the tasks ahead. From the standpoint of space exploration, however, the International Space Station is a crucial step in allowing research to move beyond low-Earth orbit and onto other planets. Before humanity can move beyond the moon and low-Earth orbit, we must understand the effects of extended life in space on the human body and psyche. Scientists must investigate the reaction of the human immune system to long-term space flight and develop countermeasures to offset bone loss, muscle atrophy, and other debilitating effects of low-gravity environments. The successful diagnosis and treatment of sick or injured astronauts while they are in space requires more advanced medical care and screening capability. Moreover, in order to allow astronauts to live on Mars, the international community will have to assemble one to two million pounds of hardware in orbit. Individual astronauts must learn to work with robotic nauts must learn to work with robotic arms and eyes to perform the many intricate tasks required to explore and inhabit another planet. The United States cannot take on all these projects alone. International cooperation is the only means to understanding the environment beyond Earth.

Life on Mars

The magnitude of the endeavor to adapt space for human life may throw into question the necessity of exploring Mars at all. …