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Until 2011, astronauts flew on space shuttles to conduct research in space and travel to the International Space Station (ISS). The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is currently working with Lockheed Martin to develop a space shuttle replacement, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Astronauts will eventually use Orion to travel to the ISS, conduct research in space, and travel to the moon, Mars, asteroids, and other destinations. Until then, they are being ferried to the International Space Station by the Russian space program.
One of the major roles of astronauts at the ISS is carrying out research; they conduct engineering, medical, and scientific experiments in space. The research role of astronauts has expanded with the operation of the ISS. The station provides the only laboratory free of gravity where scientific research can be conducted. Such an environment unmasks the basic properties of materials, and astronauts conduct experiments that may lead to new manufacturing processes on earth. Scientists have high expectations for medical research that astronauts have conducted aboard the space station. It is hoped research will help fight diseases such as influenza, diabetes, and AIDS. In conducting such tests, astronauts operate a number of special cameras, sensors, meters, and other highly technical equipment.
There are several types of specialized astronauts on the ISS. Commanders are in charge of all activities on the ISS. They supervise other astronauts and make sure that space station systems are working correctly. Flight engineers help construct the ISS and perform spacewalks to install solar arrays and other parts and conduct robotics operations using the ISS’s remote manipulator system. Mission specialists work on specific experiments or tasks that are mandated as part of each mission.
Another important part of an astronaut's work is the deployment of satellites. Communications satellites transmit telephone calls, television programs, educational and medical information, and emergency instructions. Other satellites are used to observe and predict weather, to chart ocean currents and tides, to measure Earth's various surfaces and check its natural resources, and for defense-related purposes. While on their missions at the ISS, astronauts may deploy and retrieve satellites or service them. Between flights, as part of their general duties, astronauts may travel to companies that manufacture and test spacecraft components, where they talk about the spacecraft and its mission.