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Imagine you own a small factory, and you learn that your main supplier is going out of business. What do you do? That's the question now facing managers of the International Space Station. NASA's space shuttle has provided the bulk of the equipment and supplies needed to build and operate the station.
But as NPR's Joe Palca reports, NASA will now have to rely on other countries and provide companies to do the job.
JOE PALCA: You want a positive view of the space station's future? Look no further than Julie Robinson. She's the station's program scientist for NASA.
JULIE ROBINSON: Because there's so much emphasis in eulogizing the shuttle, a lot of people are getting the misimpression that we're done with the space station.
PALCA: Perish the thought. Robinson says NASA spent the past decade building the station so it can fulfill its role as a unique laboratory for cutting-edge research.
ROBINSON: Now, the next decade and more is getting that research benefit, and getting the discoveries that we'll get from being in space.
PALCA: So the shuttle is wrapping up, and you're just getting going.
PALCA: But there's no getting around the fact that without the shuttle, operating the station will be trickier.
MARK UHRAN: Logistics is the most constraining resource. There's absolutely no doubt about that.
PALCA: Mark Uhran heads the space station office at NASA headquarters. Nothing can match the shuttle's ability to take stuff to and from orbit, but Uhran says Russia, Japan, the European Space Agency and private companies will be adequate to fill the shuttle's role. Uhran also believes science aboard the station is set to take off.
UHRAN: We've never really had a permanent continuous, ongoing laboratory operation, which is now going to be available to us.
PALCA: But many scientists are skeptical. Richard Muller is a physicist and author of "Physics for Future Presidents." He says NASA has had a decade to show how valuable the space station is for science.
RICHARD MULLER: The science simply has not been outstanding. Nobody can talk about an important discovery that came out of the billions of dollars that was spent on this program.
PALCA: And he doubts the future will be any different. Muller says the space station was never about science.
MULLER: People built the space station because they wanted to put man in space for the sheer adventure of it. That's the purpose of the space station.
PALCA: But Muller agrees one thing the space station is good for is understanding how humans function in space. That's what Corinna Lathan is interested in. She's an engineer, neuroscientist and entrepreneur who's been studying how weightlessness changes the way we perceive the world around us.
CORINNA LATHAN: Which is critically important for things like robot operations.
PALCA: In a conference room at her company AnthroTronix in Silver Spring, Maryland, she offers a simple example of what she's talking about.
LATHAN: If you put up your finger in front of me, and I close my eyes and I point to it, I'm very good at it. Here, let's try. Let's see if I'm actually good at that.
PALCA: Lathan closes her eyes, and I hold my finger up about two feet in front of her. She reaches out and points.
LATHAN: Yeah. Pretty good. So in space, if I did that, I would be off. I would not be pointing at your finger.
PALCA: On Earth, our arm movements adjust to the tug of gravity. In space, no gravity. The arm just floats there, and its sense of direction gets screwed up.
LATHAN: If you're trying to operate a robot and you have to estimate a distance, you have to use visual cues to guide yourself. You move your head and you get a different input than you're expecting, it could lead to critical mistakes.
PALCA: There are also scientists who think research in space may be helpful here on Earth. Declan McCole is a gastroenterologist at the University of California, San Diego. He studies the cells that line our intestines.
DECLAN MCCOLE: We know that cells are responsive to stretch, for example, a fundamental physical force.
PALCA: Gravity is another fundamental physical force. McCole says studying cells in weightlessness could provide some fundamental insights on how they work. He's also interested in what happens when he pours alcohol on them since alcohol damages these cells on Earth.
MCCOLE: So I've gotten quite a bit of teasing about that. That NASA are going to do a study on the effects of alcohol in space, and they're getting an Irishman to do it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MCCOLE: To which I always respond, well, they obviously want it done right.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PALCA: Joking aside, McCole thinks more scientists will become interested in doing experiments on the station. It's there. It's paid for. It might as well be used.
Joe Palca, NPR News.
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