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Space station takes center stage

NASA file

A fish-eye view of the International Space Station, captured by NASA spacewalker Ron Garan, features the recently delivered Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer in the foreground. A Russian Progress cargo ship and a Soyuz crew capsule are docked on the left end of the station. The structure to the left of the AMS is a radiator. One of the station's gold-colored solar arrays is visible in the background. And off to the right, the shuttle Atlantis is docked to the station's Harmony node.

After the space shuttle Atlantis lands, the focus of the U.S. space program shifts to the International Space Station — so it’s fitting that NASA spacewalker Ron Garan took a moment to capture this eye-filling wide-angle view of the station at the end of this week’s final outing of the space shuttle era.

This wasn't the last spacewalk by any means. The 500-ton space station is as big as a football field and as roomy as a five-bedroom house, and it's going to need plenty of exterior upkeep over the next decade of operation. But it was the last opportunity for astronauts to take pictures of a space shuttle in outer space ... from outer space.

"Only one problem with this image — the tendency to make you stop whatever you're doing, stare at it, lose your concentration and drool uncontrollably," NBC News space analyst Jim Oberg says in an email. "At least that's how it affects me."

'Big deal' for space station science
It's also fitting that NASA has finally revealed how scientific experiments will be managed aboard the space station in the years ahead. Today the space agency announced it has selected a Florida-based nonprofit group known as the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, to take charge of research operations that use the U.S. portion of the space station as a national laboratory. The center will be located at the Space Life Sciences Laboratory, near NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

The U.S. segment of the space station was given national-lab status in 2005, and over the past few months, NASA has been evaluating potential partners for managing the lab operations. CASIS will be in charge of maximizing the station's research return for non-NASA applications — based on scientific peer review, analyses of the economic and technological value of potential projects, and the availability of funding. NASA said CASIS will also raise the station's profile as an educational platform.

The cooperative agreement initially will have a value of up to $15 million per year, NASA said in its news release.

"The space station is the centerpiece of NASA's human spaceflight activities, and it is truly an national asset," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was quoted as saying. "This agreement helps us ensure the station will be available for broad, meaningful and sustained use."

CASIS is a consortium of organizations spearheaded by Space Florida. "CASIS is a perfect fit with the state's strategy to support the space, science and technology industries through strategic collaboration and partnerships," Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, the chair of Space Florida's board of directors, said in a statement. "By making the space environment more widely accessible to industrial and academic research, the ISS National Lab will help strengthen and diversify the U.S. economy and inspire the next generation."

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who flew on the shuttle Columbia in 1986, said today's announcement was "a big deal."

"It's going to bring money, jobs and industry to diversify an area hard-hit by retirement of the shuttle program," Nelson said in a news release.

Breakthrough or multibillion-dollar bust?
The space station has long been criticized for providing less research value than scientists had hoped. We'll have to see if that criticism fades now that the station is out of its construction phase.

During a briefing conducted before Atlantis' launch, Mike Suffredini, NASA's space station program manager, said the initial goal was to devote 35 hours of the astronauts' time to research on a weekly basis, plus whatever they wanted to do during their off time. "We find that crews give quite a bit of their weekends to research," he said.

One of the space station's marquee science projects is a long-running investigation of how microgravity affects the virulence of pathogens such as the microbes that cause salmonella poisoning or MRSA. Scientists involved in the project, which could result in new vaccines, have an experiment aboard Atlantis for the last shuttle mission.

"We're close to some groundbreaking news here, so this could be a good one," Joe Delai, payload manager for Atlantis' STS-135 mission, told journalists.

It'd be nice if the post-shuttle era came to be remembered as a golden age for space station science — but what do you think? Is the station suited for science, or will it turn out to be a shiny $100 billion white elephant? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below. And while you're contemplating your comments, feast your eyes on these additional images from Tuesday's spacewalk:

NASA via Reuters

Spacewalker Ron Garan rides on the International Space Station's robotic arm as he transfers a failed pump module to the cargo bay of space shuttle Atlantis.

NASA via Getty Images

NASA spacewalker Mike Fossum takes a picture while attached to the International Space Station's robotic arm on Tuesday. California's Central Valley can be seen far below as a green swath running from left to right, with Mono Lake shining like a tiny blue jewel.

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