Space leaders meet to set a course for research in orbit

About 900 members of the space community — including astronauts, government officials, researchers and industry professionals — are converging on Seattle this week for the International Space Station Research and Development Conference.

But this week’s ISSRDC event is about more than just the ISS.

The 12th annual conference, which is being held in the Pacific Northwest for the first time, comes as NASA and its commercial partners are making plans for privately operated outposts that will take the place of the ISS when it’s brought down from orbit. That fiery retirement party is currently set for the 2030-2031 time frame..

“We’re at that critical juncture,” said Patrick O’Neill, marketing and communications manager for the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS. The center manages the activities that the ISS takes on in its role as a national laboratory, and is the organizer of the ISSRDC.

For now, the ISS is one of only two space stations in low Earth orbit, or LEO. (The other one is China’s Tiangong space station.) But the next seven years are likely to see the launch of multiple commercial LEO destinations, which have come to be known as CLDs in NASA’s three-letter-acronym parlance. One of those CLDs could well be Orbital Reef, which is currently under development by a consortium that includes Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

“This conference is a great opportunity for us to learn about future avenues of inquiry that could be advantageous for other government agencies, and ways for us to build on the science that’s been done previously, so that we can segue toward those CLDs,” O’Neill told me.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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