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“ISS is an amazing accomplished engineering and social experiment” -Dr Kirt Costello, ISS Chief Scientist from NASA

In an exclusive interview on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the International Space Station (ISS), Dr Kirt Costello, ISS Chief Scientist from NASA speaks to Ayushee Chaudhary of SP’s Aviation about the space station’s journey, significance and plans ahead.

Issue: 12-2020Photo(s): By NASA

SP’s Aviation (SP’s): 20 years down the line, how (in your personal belief) has ISS become a window to the earth?

Dr Kirt Costello (Costello): ISS has this incredibly unique advantage because this programme as a whole is a really healthy reminder of what we can accomplish when we work together peacefully. It is just an amazing accomplishment and a successful engineering and social experiment firstly to form such an international partnership and then to assemble all of these modules in orbit, and get them to work.

Looking down on the earth we can really see the fragility of the earth and the dangers present outside of the platform itself. The space station reminds us how beautiful is our relationship with earth and how we need to take care of it. ISS provides an overview effect of seeing a bigger picture of what earth and humanity are.

SP’s: How crucial has been the role of ISS in escalating space developments?

Costello: We have seen a number of different eras so to say for the space station. First was an assembly era doing everything we could to assemble it all together and then in 2011 we transferred to the utilisation phase where we were focused on appropriately using this beautiful laboratory we had put together in space and return to more science then we ever had. Following the utilisation, we are now moving into commercialisation, getting commercial crew, commercial providers as well as developers while looking for new solutions to get us there. Bringing all of this together, we can create a lower earth orbit economy, the market place in lower earth orbit to explore the programme expansion possibility which is the future for us. We want to have a viable market place in the lower earth orbit so we never have to leave that space.

We learned a valuable lesson from the shuttle programme, which was to not end a programme before we understand what the next step is. With ISS, we’ve been given a clearly defined step to go on to the moon; yet we have to have that lower earth orbit capability in place so we don’t lose all of the microgravity research, the test bed for technologies, all those capabilities that we need to get ourselves further.

SP’s: How important has been the role of research?

Costello: Research is extremely essential, it was one of the primary goals for creating the space station. Over 20 years, we have had more than 3,000 investigations that have flown to the space station and over 4,200 researchers have been involved. We would not be flying today in ISS if we had not made that lab accessible and usable by those researchers who wanted to explore scienceand simultaneously we have made research beneficial for the people on earth which is further enhancing the interest in doing research on board ISS. Now we have this huge interest to move into exploration to the moon and the Mars and to do that we need ISS and that research capability to perform.

“ISS is, I believe, a stepping stone to rest of the exploration. When we step onto the moon or mars, I will feel completely happy that ISS played a huge role in both of those possibilities.”

One thing that ISS has taught us is that if you can make space accessible it is okay to put forward research on the very early stages and learn from the failures.

SP’s: How has ISS opened the door for the possibility of humans living in space especially with the recent SpaceX missions, do you think in some years we could actually have people taking trips to ISS and beyond?

Costello: Yes. While we all recognise earth as our home, with ISS research we have opened the possibility that we won’t always be hereand having something like ISS is a great way to test the technologies that we need for even farther exploration in space particularly Moon and Mars.

SP’s: How would privatisation aid ISS missions?

Costello: On the commercial side there are primarily two main benefits as I look at it:

The first is that the commercial industry in a capitalistic society that brings the price down which lowers the barrier of entering into space and that competition lets you enter more space further bringing the cost down.

Research was one of the primary goals for creating the space station

The other one is particularly tied to being able to provide a redundancy, a capability of multiple players in market to be able to offer similar service since throughout history it’s been large government agencies working on one transportation system and we have seen that interruptions in that scenario can impact largely. If you have multiple players because of commercialisation than you can spread the risk among all those players and still not lock yourself out of access to space, if something goes wrong. So lowering of price, ease of access, and capability for redundancy.

SP’s: What according to you is the highlight of ISS?

Costello: The benefits of the space station is that it has showed that we can exist off the planet and that there are discoveries to be made in the space environment, to observe our changing planet and the impact humans are having on the planet. ISS is, I believe, a stepping stone to rest of the exploration. When we step onto the Moon or Mars, I will feel completely happy that ISS played a huge role in both of those possibilities.

SP’s: There are many achievements to laurel upon but what according to you would be some of the major challenges that ISS stood through these years?

Costello: Some vehicle mishaps that we have dealt with over the years, the loss of discovery during assembly and then the programme having to recover from those and change in essence its entire safety culture to be able to confidently proceed with assembly again. Another significant challenge over the years has been in the time of crew duration and the effort it takes to maintain and operate space station. However, we have recently overcome that with the Commercial Crew Program, having more crew members now for a specific duration. We now have extra crew members onboard and that has enhanced the wealtah of research and in the next 4-10 years more extensive research is going to happen.

SP’s: Does ISS play an important role in aiding upcoming missions planned to Mars or Sun? If so how?

Costello: Absolutely, I’ll point to one instrument in particular. We have an investigation from the science mission directorate called NICER. [The Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) is an ISS payload, a NASA telescope devoted to the study of neutron stars through soft X-ray timing. Neutron stars are unique environments in which all four fundamental forces of nature are simultaneously important] We are learning so much about these compact objects like neutron stars from that one investigation as well as black holes and other high energy phenomenon far away from our solar system. It is an amazing accomplishment to be able to say that we were able to host that instrument on ISS and do such wonderful science.

SP’s: There are also talks about a Space station being planned for the moon. Could you share some details?

Costello: That’s the Gateway program which is looking at an orbital station around moon that will be smaller than ISS and the crew would visit, stay for shorter periods and then return. The Gateway station, which is a part of the Artemis program, does offer a lot of capabilities.

We have a lot of research going on including health related research, do we also having something to better understand the environmental aspect on earth?

We have four earth looking instruments on board, extra on the ISS right now funded by both JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) and NASA. Those instruments are sharing data and we are looking at the earth, the atmosphere and also at the vegetative state of the earth, grasslands, understanding carbon cycle and water cycle of earth is crucial research.

SP’s: What are your thoughts on the possibility of space colonies in the future?

Costello: Understanding of where life came from and how we extend life in the universe is one significant aim of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and colonisation is somewhere further in future but I do expect humanity to do that because we are all about exploring.

SP’s: Your thoughts on other countries also planning space stations?

Costello: It’s a fine idea for anyone who wants to go up and look into developing their own space station, that’s perfectly in their realm as there are some benefits to having multiple providers. It does make room for more competition as well in a way but also that’s a lot of potential within the field which can be utilised as I see it.


Dr Kirt Costello is the International Space Station Chief Scientist and the ISS Research Integration Office Deputy Manager. As the Chief Scientist within the ISS Program, he represents all NASA research on the ISS, and provides recommendations regarding research on the ISS.