Q. And it's not just science, it's engineering too?
A. Right. If we want to expand human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit, we have to take all the global systems that work naturally on Earth and figure out how to design them mechanically to work on spacecraft.
If you are going out to the moon, or to Mars, or even farther someday, you need to have your own closed system for life support. That's what we're testing on the space station.
Q. Would the White House's proposal to stop directly funding the space station after 2024 hurt this type of research?
A. The question about the future of the Space Station is: How do we maintain a science research and technology development platform, but expand its capabilities so it is not just the government owning or 100 percent using that platform? In theory, the White House plan is not bad, but the execution is going to be critical.
Q. Are private companies working with the space station now?
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A. It's happening in a few different capacities. In general the kind of companies that use the station for research and development are biology companies, microbiology companies and drug companies. In part that's because these are systems that behave very differently in microgravity. Also, the experiments are easy to get up and down.
But we are still at the very beginning stage of developing a market of people who want to go to space if it's not subsidized by the government. Who is going to go up there to do research? How can we make it so that it is not just the government leasing a building, but the government leasing a building that other people are also leasing too?
Q. Do you know of any companies that are ready to take on management of the Space Station?
A. Even now, the Space Station is not operated just by NASA. There are other companies, like Boeing, that have contracts with NASA to help manage it. Two companies, Bigelow Aerospace and Axiom Space, are interested in attaching a commercial lab to the Space Station, but whether they are able to take over operational control of the whole thing, I don't know.