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Roundup Presents: The Directors Series (OA)

Noah J. Michelsohn |
November 4, 2019

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 industry partners.

“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.
Kirk Shireman, program manager for the International Space Station Program, managed at NASA's Johnson Space Center.