The Next Era of Human
Space Flight


When Michael L. Coats was an astronaut, he flew on three missions of the Space Shuttle Discovery, including the STS-39, which completed 134 orbits of the Earth. Coats' missions stretched from 1984 to 1991, a time when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was employing human space flights aboard the shuttle to conduct science experiments, deploy and test communications systems, and study various phenomena in the Earth's atmosphere. Two decades later, with the space shuttle retired amid uncertainty about the future of human space flight in the U.S., Michael Coats is optimistic about a new and exciting era of space travel involving humans flying to faraway asteroids. (See the results of a related ASME survey at left.)

Director of the Johnson Space Center Michael L. Coats. Image: NASA

"Many believe human space voyage ended with the termination of the space shuttle program," says Coats, now the director of Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX, and speaker at the 2012 ASME Congress next month. "However, human space travel has received bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, and there are research programs underway that are dealing with the challenges of deep space exploration."

Deep space exploration, says Coats, will require a new generation of technologically advanced space vehicles and also in-depth studies on the adaptability of humans to long-duration flights. Johnson Space Center is leading the way in research on the latter; JSC is collaborating with the National Space Biomedical Research Institute at Baylor College of Medicine on a $120 million program to study the human health risks associated with prolonged stays in space.


"Even during the Apollo missions to the moon, humans were no more than two-and-a-half days away from home," said Coats. "Future missions to distant planets would require months, even a couple of years, in foreign environments."

Coats points to biomedical studies showing that human bodily functions do indeed change in geo-gravity, particularly over extended periods. "We know that the immune system is compromised, as well as alterations in vision, brain function, and internal fluid."

In an effort to further understand these changes in internal bodily fluids, Johnson and its collaborators developed Overset Grid-Flow, a software program that simulates fluid flow using advanced computational dynamics, one among several biomedical research initiatives in progress at JSC.

Next-Generation Space Vehicles

In addition to the biomedical studies, JSC is working with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and industrial partners on advanced vehicles that can operate in the extreme environments of deep space. Aerospace company Lockheed has begun development of Orion, one of the most ambitious space vehicles ever conceived for advanced space exploration.

"The technology challenges associated with Orion are significant," noted Coats. "The vehicle will require a robust heat shield to protect the astronauts from high-level radiation, in addition to advanced systems for fresh water recycling and propulsion — all in a lightweight package."

As the technical community works to meet the challenges of future space exploration, Johnson Space Center continues to train astronauts while directing operations at the International Space Station, where NASA and its global partners are engaged in groundbreaking research, particularly in the life sciences. In one research program on the space station, NASA in collaboration with the Bio-design Institute at Arizona State University have developed the Recombinant Attenuated Salmonella Vaccine, or RASV, an oral vaccine that holds much promise in the fight against pneumonia, meningitis, and other life-threatening diseases. During the experimentation on RASV, researchers observed that Salmonella cultured in the microgravity of space exhibits important biological characteristics to render the microbe more virulent in combating disease. RASV is currently in clinical trials.

Another research study has brought together NASA and the University of Texas Health Science Center and other collaborators on early-detection biomarkers for shingles, a painful malady that affects astronauts as well as tens of thousands of people on Earth. The researchers have developed novel technologies for early detection in saliva and other parts of the body, which allows for prompt administration of antiviral therapy, limiting potential nerve damage and other chronic conditions associated with the shingles virus.

A Proud History

Johnson Space Center today continues its legacy, steeped over nearly a half century, serving as NASA's center for human spaceflight, training astronauts from both the United States and international partners. The center educates astronauts in oceanography, orbital dynamics, physics, and flight control, among other disciplines. Opened in 1963, the center carried out astronaut operations for the Gemini, Apollo, Space Shuttle, and International Space Station programs. JSC is a huge complex of specialty laboratories, research offices, hangars, and various administrative buildings spread over 1,600 acres.

Coats has been serving as director of the center since November 2005. His presentation at the 2012 ASME Congress on November 15 is titled, "The State of the Johnson Space Center." He looks forward to addressing ASME.

"Large-scale technology development across multiple spectrums will be required to enable NASA and its commercial partners to get to the next level of advanced manned space exploration," says Coats. "Much of this work will ultimately be carried out by engineers."

Large-scale technology development across multiple spectrums will be required to enable NASA and its commercial partners to get to the next level of advanced manned space exploration.

Michael L. Coats, director, Johnson Space Center


October 2012

by John Varrasi, ASME Public Information