20 Years on Station
Nearly 20 years after humans established a permanent
residence in space aboard the International Space Station (ISS), NASA is leveraging
the orbiting laboratory to revolutionize the world, foster a burgeoning space
economy and prepare humans to explore destinations previously beyond our reach.
“It’s changed the way we view our purpose as a species,”
said ISS Program Manager Kirk Shireman. “There are people alive that knew a time
when humans had never flown in space, and yet the thinking has become, ‘Of course
humans live in space and are going to go deeper into space, because that’s what
we are meant to do.’”
While the cultural impact having humans living on the space
station for 20 years cannot be overstated, the orbiting laboratory is far more
than a symbol of human innovation. It has become a proving ground for
breakthrough science, international cooperation, cutting-edge technologies and
business models that are preparing us for future missions to the Moon with the
Artemis Program and, eventually, Mars.
With all of the daily activities on station, including
scientific participation from more than 107 countries ranging from long-term
human missions focused on learning about the effects of spaceflight on the human
body to studying how to develop technologies in microgravity, the most daring
just may be the program’s approach to commercialization.
Though the station was built and originally supplied using
the space shuttle, in 2006 the ISS program began exploring a new approach to
sending cargo to space that would forever change the landscape of spaceflight.
They put out a contract for Commercial Resupply-1 (CRS-1), purchasing a
commercial service to launch supplies to the space station—essentially bulk
shipping for low-Earth orbit.
“When we were originally standing up the CRS-1 program, I
don’t think we fully recognized the success it would lead to,” Shireman said. “That
one thing that we did, CRS-1, changed the cost of sending cargo to space not just
for us, but for everybody on the planet.”
The success of CRS-1 was the driving force behind establishing
the Commercial Crew Program, which is on the cusp of launching astronauts from American
soil in the next year, as well as other commercial services and customers that
are using the space station to conduct crucial research and investigate business
opportunities in space.
In 2005, the ISS was recognized as a U.S. National
Laboratory. Later, in 2013, the first ISS National Lab research flight launched,
carrying experiments to study how protein crystals grow in space, which has led
to the development of improved pharmaceutical drugs. Today, more than 50
companies are conducting experiments aboard the space station. While this is a
major success, it has also challenged the program to explore new ways of
working with industry partners.
“We realized that if we are going to use more commercial
services, we have to behave more and more like a commercial entity ourselves,”
Shireman said. “That means that we have to move at the pace of our customers.
If our customers need to build, design and fly something within a year, then we
have to be able to do that.”
This transition to commercial partnerships and integrating
industry techniques has led to huge cost savings, as flights that would normally
have taken years earlier in the program’s history can now be accomplished in a
matter of months.
This is a point of pride not only for space station, but for
the entire agency, as the program can be as agile as the mission operations and
mission-support directorates that support it.
“When I talk about the ISS program, I don’t think of it as one
directorate or one center—this is an agency team,” Shireman said. “From the
engineers and the scientists to the procurement and legal officers and the rest
of the NASA team, everyone contributes to this effort, and their evolution is
just as critical as ours. If they don’t evolve at the same pace that we want
to, then we can’t evolve. Those teams are lock step with us.”
Station also illuminates how commercial space is a proving
ground for more than just science, as this familiar business model carries over
to Artemis. With the agency’s goal to land the first woman and next man on the
Moon in 2024, rapid production and expansion—this time beyond low-Earth
orbit—will be more feasibly and quickly accomplished when collaborating with
“I would say the strategy for Artemis is kind of duplicative
of what was done for commercial cargo,” Shireman said.
The similarities are striking, as solicitations for
commercial bids have already been released for activities critical to Artemis’
success, including Commercial Lunar Payload Services, a lunar cargo delivery service
with many parallels to CRS-1. Also in the mix is a lunar lander than will ferry
astronauts from the Gateway to the lunar surface.
The fact that these contract models are being implemented
for Artemis shows that they have been very successful for the agency. However,
Shireman understands that the program and agency cannot simply rest on its past
successes. Instead, NASA must continue to make daring and innovative decisions
to position the agency as a leader in exploration.
“We understand that we may not get it right every time, but
it’s important to be daring enough to try,” Shireman said. “And, if we don’t
get it right the first time, we will evolve. It’s this notion of evolving, and
evolving quickly that has made us so successful.”
As this evolution takes shape both on station and with the
agency’s mission architecture for the Moon and Mars, Shireman reflects on the
approaching milestone of two decades of continuous human habitation in space and
NASA’s role in preparing the world for the 20 years following that.
“I expect that there will be multiple companies that are
doing business in space every day, growing things, building things and doing
things that we haven’t even conceived of yet,” Shireman said. “Our job is
preparing the foundation for that. Not deciding what these companies should be
doing … but making it possible for people to achieve their dreams in space.”
Regardless of what else has changed by 2040, it is likely is
that humans will have been living in space for another 20 years, exploring far-off destinations and continuing
to change the way we view our purpose as a species.
Noah J. Michelsohn, Johnson Space Center
Kirk Shireman is manager of the International Space Station Program managed at NASA's Johnson Space Center . This story is part 16 of The Directors Series, highlighting Johnson’s mission of Dare. Unite. Explore. Stay tuned for stories from each directorate and find previous stories on the directors website.
Kirk Shireman, program manager for the International Space Station Program, managed at NASA's Johnson Space Center.