NASA support of the International Space Station from Huntsville is going on “as normal” despite the escalating Russian invasion of Ukraine, the space agency says, and NASA leaders expect the two countries’ long history on the mission will keep the station running smoothly.
About 650 people at the Marshall Space Flight Center’s Payload Operations Integration Center regularly manage the science experiments done on the station. Another 400 government employees and contractors in Huntsville work on the station program.
“We have established protocols with international partners, including Russia, to ensure joint science operations are planned and conducted successfully,” Marshall Public Affairs Officer Lance D. Davis said today. “Our center’s support to space station operations continues as normal.”
Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for space operations, told reporters Monday that NASA is monitoring events with the U.S. State Department, “but has operated in these kinds of situations before, and both sides always operated very professionally and understand at our level the importance of this fantastic mission.”
If the tension between the countries remains in April, however, things could get trickier when NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei is scheduled to return to Earth with two Russian crewmates on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Soyuz landings are in Kazakhstan, a large country south of Russia, and NASA typically sends a delegation to each landing. Those delegations go through Russia to get to Kazakhstan, and Leuders said she expects that to proceed.
Back in Huntsville, the Human Exploration Development & Operations Office at Marshall works with and studies the astronauts on the station and their support systems. Marshall’s Joseph Pelfrey manages that office.
In a January interview, Pelfrey described the primary mission as understanding, “How do we mitigate the risk and the different changes the body goes through? That is critically important for us to go back to the moon and eventually the longer duration missions that we want to do to get to Mars.”
The station is a prime research lab. Late in 2021, NASA launched a carbon dioxide scrubber developed at Marshall to the station for study. “That’s a technology we developed to increase our ability to scrub off CO2,” Pelfrey said. “It’s working so well we’re relying on it as part of the main station system.”
The system or one like it will be expanded into a version that goes to the moon and on the ship that takes astronauts to Mars. Huntsville also has plans to test oxygen and water reclamation on the station for the long haul to the Red Planet. “We’re also doing new things like more 3-D printing in space,” Pelfrey said. “When we go to Mars, if we had to carry everything we would need for the trip with us, that’s a whole lot of mass and equipment.”
Other experiments involve growing food in space. “We are successfully growing food in different chambers of the station,” Pelfrey said. “Again, if we can perfect that technology, it’s another thing we can grow on our way to Mars versus having to carry it with us.”