Seattle event sets a course for research on International Space Station — and its heirs

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NASA astronaut Woody Hoburg monitors a cube-shaped Astrobee robotic free-flyer during an experiment on the International Space Station. (NASA Photo)

NASA astronaut Woody Hoburg monitors a cube-shaped Astrobee robotic free-flyer during an experiment on the International Space Station. (NASA Photo)

About 900 members of the space community — including astronauts, government officials, researchers and industry professionals — are converging on Seattle this week for the International Space Station Research and Development Conference.

But this week’s ISSRDC event is about more than just the ISS.

The 12th annual conference, which is being held in the Pacific Northwest for the first time, comes as NASA and its commercial partners are making plans for privately operated outposts that will take the place of the ISS when it’s brought down from orbit. That fiery retirement party is currently set for the 2030-2031 time frame..

“We’re at that critical juncture,” said Patrick O’Neill, marketing and communications manager for the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS. The center manages the activities that the ISS takes on in its role as a national laboratory, and is the organizer of the ISSRDC.

For now, the ISS is one of only two space stations in low Earth orbit, or LEO. (The other one is China’s Tiangong space station.) But the next seven years are likely to see the launch of multiple commercial LEO destinations, which have come to be known as CLDs in NASA’s three-letter-acronym parlance. One of those CLDs could well be Orbital Reef, which is currently under development by a consortium that includes Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

“This conference is a great opportunity for us to learn about future avenues of inquiry that could be advantageous for other government agencies, and ways for us to build on the science that’s been done previously, so that we can segue toward those CLDs,” O’Neill told GeekWire.

Blue Origin, Boeing and other Seattle-area aerospace companies will be well-represented at the event, and the list of speakers includes some of the up-and-coming executives in Washington state’s space industry — such as Colin Doughan, CEO of Marysville-based Gravitics, which is working on modules for future space stations; Kelly Hennig, chief operating officer of Kent-based Stoke Space, which is developing a fully reusable launch system; and Lisa Rich, chief operating officer of Redmond-based Xplore, which is pioneering a “Space as a Service” business model.

Space station research will be Topic A for this week’s conference — and O’Neill said the guiding principles for managing that research have evolved since the creation of CASIS in 2011.

“Back in the day when CASIS first assumed management of the national laboratory, the mission statement was to leverage the space-based environment for the benefit of life here on Earth,” he recalled. “Whereas now we’ve expanded that a little bit: It’s not just trying to benefit life on Earth, but also to enable a sustainable market in low Earth orbit.”

O’Neill said more and more companies are see. And some of those companies aren’t the sorts of ventures that you’d typically associate with outer space. For example, one space station research project involves Lamborghini, the Italian sports-car company, working in partnership with the Houston Methodist Research Institute.

“They’re coming together because Houston Medical Research Institute is looking to create an implantable device for therapeutics,” O’Neill said. “And Lamborghini was able to develop some carbon-fiber 3D-printed technologies and send those to the space station. Those [carbon-fiber materials] might end up being on the outside of that implantable chip.”

Medicine and the life sciences are high on the ISS’ research agenda, in part because minimizing the negative health effects of long-term weightlessness will be essential for future treks to Mars and other deep-space destinations.

One of the speakers at this week’s ISSRDC is Arun Sharma, a stem cell researcher at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. In May, Sharma and his team worked with Seattle’s Allen Institute for Cell Science on an space station experiment aimed at studying how zero-G conditions could facilitate the production of millions of stem cells for therapeutic applications. That particular experiment was flown as part of a privately funded Axiom Space mission.

O’Neill said Sharma has a unique perspective on space station research. “He has done things through the ‘traditional’ method of leveraging the space station, but now he’s doing it through private-astronaut options — which opens up new avenues, not only for people to access space quite literally, but also for them to be able to leverage the space station from an R&D perspective,” O’Neill said.

In O’Neill’s view, Seattle is the perfect place to highlight the blending of space-based research and down-to-Earth technologies — which is where the space station’s research program is heading.

“Seattle obviously has a very rich history in technology innovation. And there’s also a variety of partners that are already affixed to the space station program or are getting further involved in space, whether that’s Blue Origin, Boeing or Microsoft,” he said. “So it’s a very tech-laden community where those who are interested in becoming part of the space station research community can definitely come and check it out, and learn a little bit more about what’s happening on station and how it applies to their R&D.”

This week’s International Space Station Research and Development Conference will run from Monday through Thursday at the Hyatt Regency Seattle. Check the ISSRDC website for further information on registration and the agenda.

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