Early in this video tour of the space station shot during TED Global, astronaut Ron Garan says "What we do here will improve life on Earth."
It's true. During any six-month period, about 200 experiments of all kinds are being conducted on station. In fact, the use of micro-gravity for bio-medical research has become a hot topic.
One might fly, for example, glioblastoma cells, or experiment with how neuronal growth cones cope in space. Not only is there basic science to be done, but experiments at these heights might result in therapies that can be applied at the bottom of the gravity well.
At IdeaFestival 2011, Program Scientist for the International Space Station, Dr. Julie Robinson, will describe the science being done - much of it paid for by commercial interests - on humanity's orbiting laboratory now that it has been completed. The answers might indeed be out there.
Of equal interest to the casual observer, is the commercialization of access to orbit. The shuttle is a magnificent machine, and the ISS could not have been built without it. But Atlantis' landing Thursday, while sad, is certainly not the end of the "space program." Several private sector organizations are vying to deliver cargo and humans to the ISS - you might watch this video of one competitor's ride to orbit - which will let NASA set its sights, and use its increasingly scarce public resources, on destinations beyond low Earth orbit.