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Part 2

The Science of the International Space Station

The International Space Station  
This is Part 2 in a five-part series exploring themes from the classic science fiction film "2001: A Space Odyssey." The Headline News companion series airs December 26-30. Episode guide
Sir Arthur C. Clarke talks about how present reality measures up to his vision of the future (Web cam interview)

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(CNN) -- Sometimes, less is more. Just ask NASA.

The movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" gave audiences an unforgettable image of what a space station might look like. It was a giant spinning wheel with artificial gravity. The concept had been around since the 1950s.

Reality has turned out quite differently. The two current space stations, Mir and the International Space Station, don't have artifical gravity and look like anything but giant spinning wheels. Is there something missing here?

Ask NASA that question and you'll hear an emphatic, "No." The space agency designed the ISS with the idea of creating an environment where scientists could study long-term effects of microgravity on humans, animals, plants, tissue, materials and more.

John Uri is a scientist working with the International Space Station. He says the research that will be done on the ISS can't be done anywhere else. "You need that microgravity environment," he says. "You need it for a long duration of time."

One of the priorities for NASA is to use the ISS to study what microgravity does to people. Four decades of human space travel show that it weakens the bones, the muscles and even the cardiovascular system. Some astronauts experience nausea or have trouble sleeping. Uri says the goal of this new research is to find ways to make space a friendlier place to live.

John Uri of NASA comments on experimentation aboard the International Space Station

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"Some of the earlier things we're going to be studying is understanding the mechanisms of how those changes actually occur," he says. "So far we've observed what the changes are and now we need to know what the mechanisms are so we can develop counter measures to prevent those changes."

Another key area of research is biotechnology. One of the experiments scheduled over the next few months will examine the growth of protein crystals. NASA says when these crystals are grown in microgravity, they're larger and it's easier for scientists to understand how they are structured.

Teresa Vanhooser of the Marshall Space Flight Center says that has implications for the health of humans here on Earth.

"The protein crystal growth is a breakthrough they've had in finding cures for diseases and coming up with medicines based on how a crystal develops or how proteins from a body or from a disease develop," she says.

Other projects planned for the ISS include:

  • A search for better ways to protect people in space from harmful radiation.
  • Studying the growth of tumors in microgravity, which may lead to better treatments for cancer, diabetes and AIDS.
  • Pointing some the station's monitoring devices back toward Earth to learn more about long-range trends in weather, climate change, land use, and the health of the oceans.
  • Giving astronomers a better platform to study the heavens to gain more knowledge about the Sun, cosmic rays and the existence of dark matter.

The International Space Station is not without its critics. They point out that with an estimated price tag of $100 billion, the ISS is far more expensive than originally planned. Construction has fallen way behind schedule. They charge that the Russian-built sections have not matched NASA's standards for quality. Many scientists question the need for keeping humans in space, saying unmanned spacecraft can produce better science at a fraction of the cost.

Vanhooser believes someday the critics will be proved wrong.

"I think the space program already has lots of spin-offs because of the research it's done up till now," she says. "The space station is another step in the direction of learning more. We need to make sure we continue to learn and that we continue to do the research and development. I think that's where NASA's strong points are."

The ISS is a work in progress. Construction of the space station is expected to last until 2006. But it won't take that long to start conducting the science. Some experiments are already under way, but the pace really begins to pick up in 2001.

The U.S. laboratory module "Destiny" is scheduled to launch in January aboard space shuttle Atlantis  

"We'll start the year off by launching the U.S. laboratory," says Uri, "which will be our first facility to conduct large-scale research. And throughout that year, we're going to be adding research facilities, adding large numbers of experiments and that will just continue to grow over the next five or six years."

For now, the International Space Station is in the hands of the Expedition One Crew. This joint U.S.-Russian astronaut team took occupancy November 3, marking what's hoped to be the beginning of a permanent human presence in space.

"I think it's a wonderful step," Uri says. "It's one of those subtle kind of events. It's not like when we landed on the moon and everybody was watching."

"When we look back 100 years from now, historically it will be a very significant event. It's really the day humans became a space-faring species."

 Chat schedule:
The following online chats are scheduled in conjunction with the "2001: A Space Prophecy" series (all times Eastern):

   Wednesday, December 27, 2 p.m.: Dr. Ashwin Ram, president and CEO of Enkia Corp., will discuss artificial intelligence and its possible commercial applications.
   Thursday, December 28, 2 p.m.: Gene Meyers, president of Space Island Group, will discuss his company's plans for a private space station.
   Friday, December 29, 2 p.m.: Andrew LePage, physicist and senior scientist of Visidyne Inc., will discuss the search for extraterrestrial life.

Space station crew fields questions from readers
December 15, 2000
Astronauts enter space station
December 8, 2000
Astronauts successfully repair space station wing
December 7, 2000
Miles O'Brien: ISS is an engineering, geopolitical marvel
December 7, 2000

International Space Station
Office of Space Flight - Mir
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

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