International Space Station as Enabler for Human Deep Space Exploration


The International Space Station (ISS) is the largest human-made object in space. It is operated with the support of Coalition for Deep Space Exploration (CDSE) member Boeing, which provides ongoing sustaining engineering and capability enhancements. The ISS is an orbiting facility that enables human health research needed for deep space exploration that cannot be simulated in terrestrial environments. This includes cognitive and behavioral conditions, sensorimotor alterations, altered immune response, bone fracture, reduced muscle mass and strength, and more.

The Space Station is also a platform for many of the technology demonstrations required for human missions to the Moon and to deep space beyond. Technologies that are being tested on the ISS include ECLSS – Environmental Control and Life Support System – some form of which will be required for all human space vehicles and habitats, either in low Earth orbit or in deep space. Additional technologies that can be tested on the ISS include water and microbial monitoring, robotic assistants, and advanced solar arrays. NASA has also recently announced it is preparing to build and certify Moon mission spacesuits and perform a demonstration in a spaceflight environment on the International Space Station in 2023.

International Space Station. Credit: NASA

The ISS has fostered the development of private sector technologies that will ultimately help with sustainable missions to the Moon and Mars. An example of this is in-space additive manufacturing (3D printing). CDSE member Made In Space is a pioneer of 3D printing aboard the ISS.

A printed product floats in front of the AMF on the ISS.

A printed product floats in front of the AMF on the ISS. Credit: NASA

The International Space Station has also enabled the expansion of private sector activities that will help advance the economic development of low Earth orbit. For example, the Station has enabled the deployment of SmallSats from space. This activity allows satellite designers to save on costs by lowering vibration test hurdles and by allowing the satellites to be checked for defects on the ISS before they are placed in orbit. CDSE member NanoRacks is at the forefront of commercial SmallSat deployment from the ISS. Since 2013, NanoRacks has deployed privately developed SmallSats from the Space Station’s Japanese module. Starting in 2020, the company will be using its own Bishop Airlock module for satellite deployment and other activities.

The ISS spurred the development and deployment of privately-owned space systems for the transportation of cargo and crew by providing companies with funding and opportunity to reach a nearby destination in low Earth orbit. CDSE member Northrop Grumman developed the Cygnus spacecraft to provide cargo delivery services under a NASA Space Act Agreement that also included SpaceX. Coalition member Boeing developed and is testing its spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, to send astronauts to the International Space Station. The capsule will launch on a CDSE member United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.

Also critical for deep space exploration and human space flight is the global cooperation fostered over the years through the International Space Station. For 20 years, the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and the participating countries of the European Space Agency (ESA) have lived and worked together in the ISS. Two hundred thirty-nine individuals from 19 countries have visited the facility. The plan for deep space exploration is to build on the years of space diplomacy exemplified by the ISS Program, leveraging current partnerships to lay the foundation for growth and discovery in lunar orbit, the surface of the Moon, and deep space.