Quora: Why Do People Live on the International Space Station?

International Space Station
Backdropped by Earth, the International Space Station is seen in an image taken by a crew member onboard the space shuttle Endeavour in this undated NASA handout photo. NASA/Handout via Reuters/REUTERS

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Answer from Clayton C. Anderson, NASA astronaut:

People don't "live" on the International Space Station. They live and work on the ISS. Today, the home in space I helped build in 2007 and 2010 has become an international laboratory, one whose discoveries may help to change the face of our planet Earth.

My time on the ISS was spent working on a multitude of tasks… maintenance, construction, science and otherwise. But at that time, science was not the highest priority. Today it is. Astronauts and cosmonauts from around the world (like how I slipped that reference in?) are working together with scientists on terra firma, hoping to answer a multitude of questions that could have bearing on how we live and work in the future.

For example, astronauts have recently sequenced DNA on ISS. We are also studying the effects of microgravity on the optic nerves in our eyes. We are growing better crystals and evaluating how fire behaves in a near-zero gravity environment. But we've yet to hit the "mother-lode;" that discovery helping us to turn a corner… solving an issue that pervades human physiology, or unlocks a secret of our universe. But we're working on it.

I am a huge supporter of NASA, yet I am also a taxpayer who wants to see real and measurable paybacks. I know it's cool that bowling ball-sized spheres can rendezvous and dock with each other inside the ISS. I know it's cool how surface tension allows astronauts to take their "coffee in a bag" and pour it into a cup, allowing them to smell its wonderful aroma and drink it as if they were back home. I know it's exciting for scientists to gather millions of data points while searching for the black matter believed to be a key to our universe.

I truly believe that if we could find a cure to something, or the answer to a burning question about the origins of our solar system or universe, anything of consequence, we might never have to worry about our NASA funding again. We were close once, nearly finding a vaccine/cure for salmonella, and we are working hard on perfecting the process of turning urine into fresh drinking water.

So when you ask why people are living on the space station, I challenge you to do it with your eyes toward the heavens, using an adaptable, inquiring mind. A mind that asks perhaps a different question. Ask how close are we, exactly, to telling the world of a truly magnificent discovery. I'm hoping NASA can respond quickly and clearly. But I'm guessing that, my friend, takes more time than I'd like.

Keep lookin' up!

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