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After 20 years, life on space station is due for a change

Twenty years ago today, the first crew moved into the International Space Station, kicking off what’s turned out to be the longest continuous stretch of habitation in any spacecraft. Now the space station is gearing up for another change of life.

The station’s first occupants — NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd and Russian cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko — may not be as well known as, say, Neil Armstrong or John Glenn. But they did blaze a trail for the nearly 240 spacefliers from 19 countries who followed them to the orbital outpost.

Leading up to Nov. 2, 2000, the space station was envisioned as a steppingstone to the moon, Mars and beyond. Although the station never reached its potential as a literal way station for journeys beyond Earth orbit, NASA still talks up its value as a proving ground for future moon missions.

More than 3,000 science experiments have been conducted on the space station over the past 20 years, focusing on topics ranging from zero-G microbiology and plant growth to the ways in which long-duration spaceflight affects the human body and psyche. Perhaps the best-known experiment is the study that compared NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s in-flight health status with that of his earthbound twin brother, former astronaut (and current Senate candidate) Mark Kelly.

The study raised questions about the potential impact of weightlessness and space radiation on long-term spacefliers. Over the course of nearly a year in space, Scott Kelly was found to have developed a heightened immune response to his self-administered flu shot. His genes also recorded a higher level of DNA repair than his brother’s, and the patterns of gene expression changed (although he was still genetically identical to his twin brother, despite what you may have heard).

NASA ranks the experiment involving the Kelly twins among the top 20 breakthroughs in space station science and technology. But you could argue that the most significant space station experiments relate to commercialization on the final frontier.

Back in 2012, SpaceX’s robotic Dragon capsule became the first privately built, commercial spacecraft to rendezvous with and resupply the space station. This year, an upgraded SpaceX Dragon made history as the first private-sector spaceship to carry humans into orbit — with the space station as its destination.

So what’s next? Next year may well see the first filming of a big-budget Hollywood movie in orbit, starring Tom Cruise — courtesy of a startup called Axiom Space, acting in concert with NASA and SpaceX. Axiom aims to have its own habitation module affixed to the space station by as early as 2024, as a preparatory step for a standalone outpost in low Earth orbit.

Meanwhile, Texas-based Nanoracks is getting set to have its Bishop Airlock sent to the space station sometime in the next couple of  months, as part of a SpaceX Dragon shipment. Like Axiom’s habitation module, the commercial airlock is seen as an opening move that could eventually lead to free-flying orbital outposts.

Boeing, the prime commercial contractor for the space station, is part of the team for Axiom’s module as well as for Nanoracks’ airlock. (Seattle-based Olis Robotics and Stratolaunch have also been on Nanoracks’ outpost team.)

If commercial space ventures follow through on their ambitions, it may not be long before private-sector astronauts outnumber the space station’s government-supported crew, which has ranged between two and six over the past 20 years.

NASA’s current plan calls for commercial entities to take over management of the space station’s U.S. segment in the years ahead. Theoretically, that would free up government funding to focus on the next “steppingstone to the moon and Mars” — a moon-orbiting outpost known as the Gateway.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture may well play a part in building the Gateway, by virtue of its partnership with Maxar Technologies. Blue Origin has also floated its own proposal for an orbital outpost, and is leading a lunar lander consortium that includes Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. SpaceX and Boeing are sure to be in on the next steps in space exploration as well.

In the years ahead, will the International Space Station become a shopworn space arcade, replaying the latter days of Russia’s Mir space station? Will it be deorbited, following in Mir’s fiery footsteps? Or could the world’s first international outpost in space undergo the orbital equivalent of urban renewal, backed by private investment?

The space station’s status as a steppingstone to Mars may be fading fast. But its time as a steppingstone to commercial activities and a commercial workforce on the final frontier may be just starting.

Further reflections on 20 years of life on the space station:

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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