WASHINGTON — Right before Christmas, a Russian rocket carrying three astronauts — one American, one Russian and one Canadian — launched from a chilly spaceport in Kazakhstan to begin a five-month mission to the International Space Station.
Unlike many of its predecessors, this crew's job is straightforward: Do science — from studying solar rays to investigating how microgravity affects fish and their bones, which could provide insight on why astronauts lose bone density while in space.
“2013 really promises to be a productive one,” said Chris Hadfield, a Canadian Space Agency astronaut, after arriving at the outpost.
If that's true, NASA will get one step closer toward finally fulfilling the promise of the $100 billion space station that was intended to be a groundbreaking laboratory circling about 220 miles above Earth.
Although critics have questioned why it has taken so long — work began on the station in 1998 — NASA said the new emphasis on science and the arrival of new equipment mean the future looks bright.
“As the coming year unfolds, NASA will continue to conduct important research on the International Space Station, which continues to yield scientific benefits and provide key information about how humans may live and thrive in the harsh environment of space,” NASA leaders wrote in a year-end status report.
Key is the addition of new equipment.
By next fall, NASA plans to send to the station an “Animal Enclosure Module” that will allow scientists to study the effects of weightlessness on rodents — which could help doctors develop better medicines for bone and muscle ailments. The 60-pound module had flown 23 times aboard the space shuttle.
Marybeth Edeen, NASA manager of the station's national laboratory, said the rodents could be used to test drugs intended to treat osteoporosis or illnesses that degrade the muscles, such as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Similarly, NASA plans to increase the number of plant test beds on the station and add a new “atom lab” in the next couple of years that will be cold enough to slow atomic particles — giving scientists a chance to better study their makeup.
Edeen said 2013 also promises to yield results from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a van-sized device that's essentially a tube wrapped in powerful magnets. Designed to study interstellar particles, it was flown to the station in 2011 and attached to the outside of the observatory. So far, it has tracked more than 27 billion cosmic rays.
Climate researcher Warren Washington, who recently served on a National Academies board that reviewed NASA's direction, said the station likely will be remembered more for its technological achievements than its scientific ones. In particular, he expected the station to teach NASA a great deal about keeping astronauts alive in space.
“As NASA gets ready to go to places like asteroids or Mars, the space-station experience will be very useful,” he said.
When's the last time you heard anything cool come out of the International Space Station? News in recent years has focused on maintenance issues, fix-it spacewalks and setbacks. The U.S. space agency promises that will change.
The International Space Station
The International Space Station marked its 12th anniversary of continuous human occupation in November. Since Expedition 1, which launched Oct. 31, 2000, and docked Nov. 2, the space station has been visited by more than 200 individuals. Following is the work they have done, in numbers:
125: The number of launches to the station, as of summer 2012: 37 space shuttles, 81 Russian vehicles, three European vehicles, three Japanese vehicles and one American commercial vehicle. The final space shuttle mission in July 2011, Atlantis, delivered 4.5 tons of supplies.
162: The total number of spacewalks to maintain the space station, totalling more than 1,021 hours.
3 hours: That's how long astronauts were averaging each week on laboratory work as late as 2008, though crews had staffed the station for eight years by then. After the station was finished, the crew expanded from three to six in 2009, and last year, astronauts spent about 50 hours a week on science, including research on how microgravity affects the human body and observations of Earth's environment.
$1.5 billion: The amount each year to operate the station — the reason there is such lingering criticism of why NASA didn't better prepare for the station's completion and whether scientific returns are worth the cost.
Sizing up the space station
It's a big one: The space station, including its large solar arrays, spans the area of a U.S. football field and weighs 861,804 pounds.
A mansion in the sky: The station now has more livable room than a conventional five-bedroom house, and has two bathrooms, a gymnasium and a 360-degree bay window.
Off-planet U.N.: In addition to NASA, Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan all have roles to play on the station.
Sources: Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel, nasa.gov. Illustration by The Associated Press