How Does The International Space Station Benefit Earth?

NASA/Crew of STS-132

This month we celebrated a tremendous achievement: 15 consecutive years (5,475 days) of humans living and working in space. Since the first astronauts took up residence on November 2, 2000, the International Space Station (ISS) has hosted 220 people from 17 different countries.

The massive orbiting outpost spans over 108 meters (357 feet), weighing in at 454,000 kilograms (1 million pounds) and relying on over an acre of solar panels to keep it running. Traveling approximately eight kilometers (five miles) per second, the ISS has completed over 87,600 orbits. Requiring 115 launches to transport all the components, the ISS is an international collaboration and a true testament to what we as humans can accomplish when we work together.  

During the last decade and a half, 26,500 meals have been served, 1,760 research investigations have been conducted, and 189 spacewalks have been performed to construct and maintain the orbiting outpost. Mastering living and working in low Earth orbit is a crucial step on our journey to Mars. Thanks to the ISS, we are firmly on the path that will take us to the Red Planet and beyond.

So, aside from the obvious reasons, what really is the point of the ISS? How do we benefit from it here on Earth? Some of the answers might surprise you.

Commercializing low-Earth orbit

An exciting new commercial pathway is revolutionizing how we access space. With the help of The Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and Nanoracks, commercial companies can pay to use the space station’s unique facilities to further research and development. Through the partnership with CASIS and Nanoracks, conducting research in microgravity is becoming faster and more affordable.

Special Nanoracks hardware accommodates smaller payloads such as Cubesats, which in turn allows for more universities and companies to conduct research. CASIS manages half of the crew’s designated research time through the ISS National Laboratory, and their partnership with NASA allows the agency to focus more on other projects, like exploring deep space. NASA has also turned over the transportation of cargo to commercial companies, and eventually will do so with people as well.

Supporting worldwide water purification efforts

Access to drinkable water is necessary for human survival; however, not everyone on Earth has access to this precious resource. Currently, the bulk of the space station's water supply has to be carried to orbit via resupply missions. Delivering water to the space station is not only expensive, but can also be inconvenient as proven by the unexpected series of recent cargo mishaps. To ensure the crew always has a clean air and water supply while minimizing reliance on resupply missions, engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Hunstville, Alabama, developed a special regenerative life-support system.  
 
Known as the Environmental and Life Control Support System (ECLSS), it helps convert most waste water – including even urine – into drinkable water as well as ensuring that the crew has breathable air in all areas of the space station. This same technology has been adapted for use on Earth, with world aid organizations teaming up with NASA to deploy it to remote villages and other areas affected by natural disasters, giving residents access to water purification and filtration systems.
 
Also, NASA satellites can help find sources of underground water to help regions devastated by drought, and track how affected areas recover following a natural disaster.  
 
Improving robotics on the ground

The ISS is not only occupied by a crew of six astronauts, but also one humanoid robot and two robotic arms. Astronauts do most of the work from the station, but sometimes they need help from crews on the ground or from their robotic companions to do the heavy lifting or to help berth vehicles. Don’t worry though, Robonaut is nothing like HAL.

During the construction phase of the ISS, crews relied on help from the station’s Canadarm2 and the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (Dextre) — both provided by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). This robotic technology inspired the neuroArm, a revolutionary surgical technology capable of performing surgery inside MRI machines. This allows for a level of accuracy and precision that rivals even the best surgeon. So far, neuroArm has been used on 35 patients who were previously deemed inoperable.  

Image credit: NASA

Developing eye surgery with space station hardware

Have you had Lasik or PRK? If so, be sure to thank NASA and its international partners. Corrective laser eye surgery such as Lasik is a common practice today, but did you know that the technology driving the precision laser scalpel is space station technology? The Eye Tracking Device experiment gave researchers valuable insight into how humans’ frames of reference, balance and the overall control of eye movement are affected by weightlessness.

Engineers soon realized it had terrestrial applications as well. The device allows surgeons to track the eye’s exact position without interfering with the actual surgery and is used in many eye surgeries all over the world.

Preventing bone loss and fighting osteoporosis

Thanks to the ISS, scientists here on Earth have an excellent recipe for fighting osteoporosis, or bone loss. Astronauts lose bone density throughout the course of their mission, just like those of us here on Earth lose bone density as we age. In the space station’s early days, astronauts were losing as much as 1.5 percent of their total bone density each month. Over the course of a six-month mission that really adds up. So how do we stop this? Through experiments conducted on the ISS, researchers have identified some of the mechanisms that control bones at the cellular level, and came up with a game plan for fighting bone loss.

With a daily regime of high-intensity resistive exercise coupled with a specific caloric intake and dietary vitamin D supplements, astronauts were able to prevent bone loss in space. This is crucial to future crews going to Mars as well as older adults here on Earth.

Monitoring natural disasters from space

Earth is monitored all day, every day, from space, as the space station passes over more than 90 percent of populated areas every 24 hours. There’s a special imaging system on the station called the ISS SERVIR Environmental Research and Visualization System (ISERV), which captures photographs of Earth from space for use in developing countries affected by natural disasters.
 
The system is a joint endeavor by NASA and the U.S. Agency for International Development, allowing countries around the world access to Earth-observing satellites in the event of natural disasters such as floods, fires, volcanic eruptions, and violent storms. NASA's family of Earth-observing satellites are taking daily images and collecting data as they orbit to help track and monitor how natural disasters like October's unprecedented Hurricane Patricia evolve. Access to these satellites help the affected nations better prepare and to make important decisions.
 

NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using VIIRS data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership.

As the world’s only microgravity laboratory, the ISS has the potential to improve lives on Earth with each investigation that takes place in orbit. The benefits we discussed above only scratch the surface. So, be sure to head over to NASA’s website to read more ways in which the ISS benefits us on Earth. We can anticipate continued space station spinoffs and benefits for humanity for many years to come.

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