CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- If the American public can't get excited over research breakthroughs in salmonella vaccines, how microgravity affects the human immune system and cosmic-particles analysis, this could be a difficult decade for supporters of NASA's manned spaceflight program.
Once space shuttle Atlantis delivers a pod of equipment and supplies to the International Space Station and returns to Earth later this month, the 13-year construction phase of the station -- like the shuttle program that made it possible -- will be over. The station, longer than a football field and costing an estimated $100 billion, is the shuttle program's ultimate legacy.
Now it's time to see what the station can do.
"We believe this next 10 years it's important to do meaningful science," said Frank DiBello, president of Space Florida, the public-private agency designed to promote space-related economic development. "That's a 10-year period in which the nation is going to look at what kind of return on investment can be achieved for the $100 billion."
The challenge for NASA and its international, corporate and scientific partners in coming years: Can meaningful science be carried out more than 200 miles above Earth's surface?
"It has a tremendous amount of potential," said Alan Stern, a former NASA science administrator who now is a private space science consultant. "We have spent a long time designing and assembling a very large, very capable laboratory in space."
The first parts of the station were put into orbit in 1998, and research has been under way since the first residents -- initially, only three members -- arrived in 2000. But it wasn't until this year that the crew -- now up to six, thanks to expanded living quarters -- began focusing on what NASA calls its "utilization phase."
The station is set to last at least another 10 years, relying on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for supplies and crew transport until private U.S. firms can take over. Meanwhile, NASA will refocus its manned spaceflight program on more distant destinations such as Mars, asteroids or the moon.
About 120 science projects are under way on the station now, involving more than 600 scientists on Earth. That does not include the 500 scientists worldwide engaged in its biggest project -- the alpha magnetic spectrometer, essentially a powerful $2 billion magnet attached to the station in May to capture and analyze cosmic rays and particles that may help scientists determine the origins of the universe.
Among other projects:
A company called Astrogenetix is studying salmonella bacteria in space, seeking to develop a vaccine for the often-fatal infection. Researchers hope the methods can be applied to vaccines for other diseases, including cancers.
Two crew members are having their blood, urine and saliva tested regularly to track how micro-gravity affects human immune systems. The research, like previous microgravity experiments on astronauts, could help NASA prepare for long spaceflights, and also help doctors on Earth.
Tests are being run on how fluids move through capillary tubes in microgravity, a project that can help with manufacturing processes on Earth.
Crystals developed in microgravity help companies develop "nanomaterials," the tiny components that lead to smaller and smaller electronic devices.
"If you look at the amount of research we were able to accomplish in the first 11 years, that's only about 20 percent of what we'll be able to do in the next decade," said Julie Robinson, a NASA space station program scientist.
Robinson and others say additional research is possible because of the six-member crew. During the previous three-person configuration, routine daily maintenance took up almost all their time. Now, NASA officials say, crew members can devote a collective 40 hours a week to experiments, with the rest of their time spent on operation and maintenance.
Still, it remains to be seen if universities and private companies -- which up to now have sent few experiments into orbit -- will seek to take advantage of this expanded research capacity.
Stern, who says his clients include companies eager to get their research into space, said success will ultimately be judged by bottom-line results -- development of commercial or medical products that people want and can associate with space research, such as the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines and miniaturized microprocessors that trace their origins in part to previous NASA programs.
Meanwhile, he cautioned, failures must be expected.
"It will be a mixed bag, but it will naturally be more failure than success," Stern said. "If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be called research."
(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)
Whether the space station can succeed is an issue of some significance to the Space Coast, where thousands of shuttle jobs are going away even as NASA forecasts a gap of at least five years before it launches another government-owned rocket.
In hopes of generating more space-related jobs, DiBello's Space Florida has set up a new nonprofit called The Center for The Advancement of Science in Space that seeks to run part of the station's science program.
The station has four users. A partnership of the European Space Agency, Japan, Russia, Canada, Brazil and others, controlled by an international board, uses about a quarter of the station's resources and astronaut time. The rest is divided between NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense and a NASA-administered national laboratory open to private companies, universities and individual scientists.
DiBello has submitted a still-sealed bid to run the national laboratory. Cleveland-based Space Laboratory Associates, a partnership of Battelle Memorial Institute of Ohio and a consortium of research universities, has also bid, and there are reports that at least two other universities have as well. NASA must pick a manager by Oct. 1.
For DiBello, a successful bid would mean the chance to set up base camp for the national laboratory at Cape Canaveral, another cornerstone in what he hopes will become the Cape's new focus: supporting all types of space activities, including private research, and not just launching rockets.
The key to Florida's proposal, and perhaps the station's value, may lie in how quickly research can be turned into commercial enterprises and products, DiBello said.
"I think we have a sense for the marketplace, and what we understand 'return on investment' means," he said. "And that's usually determined in the marketplace and in the halls of the people who take science and infuse it into a product that betters mankind, or stops pandemics, or cures a disease, or makes life better."
(c) 2011, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
Visit the Sentinel on the World Wide Web at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.