Volume 15 Issue 5 - October 1, 2010 PDF
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As Shuttle Program Winds Down, Space Station Science Takes Off - Two shuttle missions remain after Atlantis's perfect, final May 14 launch
Cheryl Pellerin
Science Writer
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Space shuttle Atlantis launches to the International Space Station May 14.
Washington — Hatches opened between space shuttle Atlantis and the International Space Station two days after the spacecraft's final launch May 14 from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The STS-132 mission, named “Finishing Touches,” will assist in the final assembly of the space station, which is designed as a platform for continuous scientific research through the end of the decade. The 12-day mission will deliver a Russian-built module to add storage space and a new docking port for Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft.

“Three, two, one and liftoff of space shuttle Atlantis, reaching the crest of its achievements in space,” NASA commentator George Diller announced over the roar of the engines and solid rocket boosters as the shuttle, which made its maiden voyage in October 1985, rode into the afternoon sky.

Only two more shuttle missions are scheduled for launch in 2010 ― Discovery on September 16 and Endeavour in November ― before the 29-year-old shuttle program shuts down to make way for public-private partnerships, as President Obama described April 27, in U.S. space exploration.

When completed this year, the orbital outpost will include contributions from the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia, Brazil, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

It will weigh more than 450,000 kilograms and measure 110 meters across and 88 meters long (120 yards by 96 yards), with almost half a hectare (1.2 acres) of solar panels to provide electrical power to six laboratories. The capabilities of its labs are expected to lead to discoveries that will benefit missions that venture farther into space and advance science related to medical, energy and environmental issues on Earth.

Thale cress plants grow in a European Laboratory experiment container on the space station.
FROM ASSEMBLY TO SCIENCE

The space station didn't support permanent human crews during the first two years of operations — November 1998 to November 2000 — but it hosted a few early science experiments months before the first international crew took up residence.

Since then, along with the complicated task of space station assembly and with the doubling of space station crew to six astronauts, science results from the space station have grown steadily. Engineers and scientists around the world are working together to ensure maximum use of the station's expanded capabilities.

According to a 2009 NASA report (PDF, 3.76MB), advances in the fight against food poisoning, new methods for delivering medicine to cancer cells, and better materials for future spacecraft are among the accomplishments made aboard the space station during its first eight years of operation.

Experiment results already have been used in applications as diverse as manufacturing solar cell and insulation materials for new spacecraft and verifying complex numerical models of how fluids behave in fuel tanks.

150 EXPERIMENTS

Like most missions before it, STS-132 is carrying short- and long-duration experiments to and from the space station. During the mission, nearly 150 experiments will be conducted aboard the station, including several investigations taking place as part of the station's new role as a U.S. National Laboratory.

Research continues into how long-duration stays in microgravity affect the human body. Among the experiments being delivered to the space station is the Nutritional Status Assessment, NASA's most comprehensive in-flight study of human physiologic changes during long-duration spaceflight.

Experiments that will return to Earth with Atlantis include:

  • By the Canadian Space Agency and NASA: An experiment called APEX-CSA2 is one of a pair of investigations that will compare the genes and tissue of white spruce grown in space with those grown on Earth to help researchers understand the influence of gravity on plant physiology, growth and wood formation.
  • By the Japan Aerospace and Exploration Agency: The experiment called NeuroRad examines the biological effects of space radiation and microgravity on nerve cells that contain tumors.
  • By the European Space Agency: The WAICO experiment studies the directions of growth of thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) plants to see how they thrive under different levels of gravity.

The latest mission will end on flight day 12 with a landing at Kennedy Space Center that is planned for early morning on May 26.

Design & Layout : Barry Wu, The Banyan Editorial Office
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