Texas Talks Space

In today’s A Lab Aloft, Jessica Nimon, research communications managing editor for NASA’s International Space Station Program Science Office, talks about the impact of interacting with the public during Space Week 2013 in Austin, Texas.

Texas hosts Space Day at the Capitol in Austin every other year as part of Space Week. This year’s theme was “Human Exploration: the Journey Continues.” This was my second time representing the International Space Station Program Science Office to the students, members of the public and legislative staff who attended. I enjoy participating in such events because not only I can share the latest space station research and technology news, but it also gives me a chance to gauge perceptions from the audience I communicate with in my role as a writer and editor at NASA.

Keeping the exploration theme in mind, NASA’s International Space Station Program research and technology display shared a space with the agency’s Commercial Crew Program and Orion vehicle displays. Joining these exhibits in the lower level of the Capitol building’s rotunda were representatives from various commercial space companies, including SpaceX and Blue Origin. The in-the-round exhibit placement seemed symbolic of the partnerships taking place with NASA to continue and expand human space exploration.

Chelsey Bussey, International Space Station Program Science Office research scientist, answers a student’s questions during Space Day at the Capitol 2013 in Austin, Texas. (NASA/James Blair)

My colleagues, Scientific Communications Analyst Amelia Rai and Research Scientist Chelsey Bussey, helped tell the story of the amazing research, technology and educational opportunities and developments from our orbiting laboratory. We shared how the space station is a resource that goes beyond space exploration goals, reaching out to cross boundaries in areas of healthcare, pharmaceutical advancements and industry spinoffs. Some of my personal favorites to highlight include NeuroArm, a lifesaving robotic instrument for brain surgery developed using technology from the space station’s Canadarm, and advances made in vaccine development.

The inspiration shared at such events has the potential to touch not only the 3rd to 8th grade students targeted by Space Day, but also to inspire the imagination of new users with research goals for microgravity research. While speaking with the people visiting our exhibit, at least one scientist expressed interest in how he could use the space station as a platform for his research.

Amelia Rai, NASA scientific communications analyst, shares International Space Station research and technology facts with a visitor to Space Day at the Capitol 2013 in Austin, Texas. (NASA/Jessica Nimon)

One of the more frequent questions we received during the event had to do with NASA’s collaborative efforts with private businesses. Having our industry partners right next to us in the rotunda provided a great opportunity to share the way NASA does business. Visitors were surprised and excited to hear that NASA is working together with private companies to provide avenues for future exploration, as well as resupply and experiment sample return from the International Space Station.

Space Day followed on the heels of South by Southwest (SXSW), a multiday conference and festival highlighting music, film and technology, which also had a space-themed focus this year. Excitement for exploration was still abuzz all over Austin. Although we didn’t attend SXSW, Amelia, Chelsey and I did have our own follow-up activity by attending an Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) event on March 20 at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin. These students, who were not able to visit the Capitol for Space Day, were excited to have a more up close, personal connection with the space station.

Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield conducts an Amateur Radio on the International Space Station session in the Zvezda Service Module. (NASA)

Using a ham radio contact, which lasts for about 10 minutes, the 540 middle and high school girls were able to listen as their peers asked space-related questions directly to space station Commander Chris Hadfield, who answered from aboard the orbiting laboratory. The audience was so attentive you could hear a pin drop while Hadfield spoke!

Ana H. from the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin, Texas, asks a question for Commander Chris Hadfield to answer during an Amateur Radio on the International Space Station connection.(Catherine Serra-Fuentes)

Project Specialist Monica Martinez organized the ARISS event for the school and commented on the impact such an opportunity has on these young women. “The ARISS contact was an experience that truly wowed our entire student body, faculty and administrative team. The girls thought it was one of the best events of this entire school year and loved talking to Commander Hadfield. They were also so ecstatic to see that he had tweeted about our school right after the contact. Our students were inspired by his words and the overall experience.”

Students at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin, Texas, pose with NASA International Space Station Program Science Office representatives Jessica Nimon (fourth from left, back row), Chelsey Bussey (fifth from left, back row) and Amelia Rai (sixth from left, back row). (Catherine Serra-Fuentes)

The event was followed by a short space station presentation by Amelia, who shared space station facts and talked about some of the benefits for humanity that have already derived from related research and technology. Amelia’s talk was followed by a short question and answer session where the students’ interest in space-related topics and careers was evident, showing a bright future for human endeavors with space research and exploration.

Jessica Nimon, International Space Station Program Science Office research communications managing editor. (NASA)

Jessica Nimon has a background in the aerospace industry as a technical writer and now works with the International Space Station Program Science Office as the Research Communications Managing Editor. Jessica coordinates and composes Web features, blog entries and manages the @ISS_Research Twitter feed to share space station research and technology news with the public. She has a master’s degree in English from the University of Dallas.


The International Space Station: Scientific Melting Pot

In today’s A Lab Aloft entry, guest blogger Assistant International Space Station Program Scientist Kirt Costello shares how the various science disciplines studied aboard the International Space Station can work in concert to enhance research goals.

By now, if you are a follower of this blog or just a follower of the International Space Station, you are familiar with the tremendous international effort it took to assemble this laboratory in orbit and bring its facilities up to their full potential. The contributions of 15 nations over the last decade have resulted in this unique resource with its access to the microgravity environment, stable viewpoints of Earth and space, as well as access to the orbital environment—namely radiation and the vacuum of space. But what does the cooperative environment that went into building the station mean for the long term science prospects that are now ramping up to their full potential?

The space station has become a scientific melting pot. Similar to the benefits that immigration brought to North America during the industrial revolution, the station is poised to provide benefits to the scientific community and any young pioneers willing to take up the challenge to use this outpost on the frontier of space. The station is also a U.S. National Laboratory, with research facilities that support human biomedical research, animal and plant physiology, materials science, fluid and combustion physics, remote Earth observations, and advanced engineering and technology demonstrations, side-by-side-by-side.

This multidisciplinary research facility presents a rare opportunity for researchers. The dedicated research facility is still much more common than the multidisciplinary facility, typically limiting researchers to just one field of scientific investigation.   Aboard station the experiments from these vastly different fields literally run right next to one another. The astronauts who make many of these investigations possible often have different scientific backgrounds from the principal investigators they are working with on the ground. This opens the potential for dialogue and insights as the studies progress.

The spirit of cooperation that was required in building the space station is still very much evident  today. Different investigations on board may cooperatively share equipment to accomplish their research objectives, minimizing the cost and mass to launch and maximizing the use of in-orbit resources.

One such example of resource sharing that is possible aboard station is in the sharing of camera equipment and software for the Binary Colloid Alloy Test (BCAT) and the Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle School Students (EarthKAM). BCAT is a set of fluid physics experiments to examine the traits of super-critical fluids and phase separation of fluids. Meanwhile, EarthKAM is an educational outreach study focusing on remote Earth observation and using the capabilities of the EarthKAM camera to engage students, teachers and researchers in collaborative investigations. These two studies may seem worlds apart, but it is because the BCAT investigation is able to use the automated EarthKAM camera and software that BCAT was able to run many samples without requiring an undue amount of crew time.

EarthKAM equipment set up for a view of the Earth from the orbital perspective of the International Space Station. (NASA)

Astronaut Cady Coleman uses EarthKAM equipment to document an experiment run of the Binary Colloid Alloy Test (BCAT) study aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

So why is multidisciplinary research a good thing to promote? For one thing, it often leads to innovation. The explanation for this is something we’ve all experienced from time to time. It’s much like when you get stuck on a problem. You can stare at it for hour upon hour and just not see the solution. Yet if the right friend happens along, they might see something you’ve been missing and the problem is solved in next to no time. Frustrating, sure, but sometimes a different perspective is all that is needed to reach a breakthrough.

Multidisciplinary science tries to capitalize on the benefits of having different scientific backgrounds engage and become part of the solution to a complex problem. Admittedly, a physicist and a biologist may look at a problem and see vastly different solutions, but when multiple disciplines and multiple participants work together to solve the same problem it opens the doorway to true innovation.

A great recent example is the interaction between the BCAT-6 principal investigator Matthew Lynch and Expedition 30 crew member Don Pettit. Lynch and Pettit worked together to achieve a more detailed image of the BCAT phase separation sample. Pettit suggested using a laser pointer source on orbit to attempt to reveal any diffraction—when light bends around an object—patterns that showed the structures and phase separation characteristics they were looking for. It worked! Innovation was born at the intersection of fluid physics, optical physics and chemical engineering.

Concept for how diffraction patterns can be detected from suspensions of colloidal particles. Irregular diffraction patterns result from irregular particle spacing, however, the presence of the pattern allows you to know when the colloidal particle groups are within the field of the camera. (Illustration by O.M. Yetfanov. Used with permission Journal of Biotechnology/A.P. Mancuso, O.M. Yetfanov, et. al.,)

Co-location is another obvious advantage of the station as a research platform. To date there have been several investigations directed at in-house resource production, such as Tomatosphere, which run in the LADA greenhouse and the Biomass Production System (BPS), to name a few. Additionally there have been multiple experiments designed to help better understand the burning of fuels in the Combustion Integrate Rack (CIR) and the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG), like the FLEX-2, SPICE and SLICE investigations. As a result of such studies, crew members may someday grow their own fruits and vegetables to eat or be able to fuel up the engines of the future.

NASA astronaut Mike Fossum, Expedition 28 flight engineer, inspects a new growth experiment on the BIO-5 Rasteniya-2 (Plants-2) payload with its LADA-01 greenhouse in the Zvezda service module of the International Space Station. (NASA)

When multidisciplinary science is brought into this picture, you can envision not only growing food aboard station, but processing those plants into biofuel and then testing its combustion capabilities. The context evolves into a larger study of in-orbit biofuel suitability. In fact, just because these resources are all available on station, researchers can propose new multidisciplinary studies to spur on scientific innovation.   

A burning heptane droplet during the FLEX investigation on the International Space Station. (NASA)

Another sign of the multidisciplinary research potential on station is the transformation of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology (ASGSB) into the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research (ASGSR). At the first ever ASGSR Annual meeting, held in December in New Orleans, researchers and students from a wide range of physical and biological sciences came together to discuss the possibilities and challenges of reduced gravity studies. The opportunity was an enlightening one for scientists in previously separated disciplines to come together and share information on their research programs, including many of the active areas of research done aboard station.

With collaborative efforts like these, the multidisciplinary research potential of the International Spaces Station is already being tapped. It will be exciting to see what discoveries will result from our orbiting, scientific melting pot in the years to come.

Kirt Costello completed a Ph.D. in Space Physics and Astronomy in 1998. While at Rice University, Costello worked on a magnetospheric forecast model used to predict the magnetic field response at the Earth’s surface based on upstream solar wind data. The model was used as a primary forecast model in this field at the Space Environment Center in Boulder, Colo., from 1997-2011. Since 2000, Costello has worked at NASA’s Johnson Space Center as a Thermal and Electrical Power Crew training instructor, as an International Space Station Training Lead, and as a group lead in the Mission Operations Directorate Operations Division. Kirt is now the Assistant International Space Station Program Scientist for National Research. In this position he works with the ISS Program Scientist to advise the ISS Program Manager on the objectives and priorities of science being prepared to fly to the space station.


The Tool to Fill the Gaps of our Senses: AMS

In today’s A lab Aloft blog entry, International Space Station Associate Program Scientist Tara Ruttley shares her point of view on the importance of asking the big questions via station research.

When I do public speaking events, people always ask me what’s my favorite investigation. For me it’s usually the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, or AMS investigation. This incredible instrument is a particle physics detector mounted to the outside of the International Space Station. The AMS was developed by Professor Samuel Ting, a Nobel Laureate in physics, along with an international collaboration of 16 countries organized by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Estimated distribution of dark matter making up 22 percent of the mass of the universe and dark energy making up 74 percent, with ‘normal’ matter making up only 0.4 percent of the mass of the universe. (NASA)

The goal of AMS is almost like sci-fi, involving the search for dark matter, dark energy, antimatter, and even something called strangelets. You hear about these things growing up and on TV and you wonder, is that real? If you go past the scientific jargon, the purpose of AMS is to answer a fundamental question in our nature. To ask, as we have from the beginning of time, how did the universe begin?

The answer to this question intrigues me, like everyone else, because it inevitably addresses “who are we and what are we doing here?” Everybody would love to know, so we seek the answers the best way that we humans can: pushing technology limits to find evidence in ways that our own human senses cannot.

The researchers behind AMS are trying to get solid data to support one of the more prevalent theories: the big bang. In a nutshell, this theory says that the universe came together, particles condensed, and boom! You got us. It’s a little more complicated than that, but the theory behind it is that for the big bang to even occur, you had to have equal parts matter and antimatter.

Matter is something we can see and feel, it’s all around us and makes up everything. It’s so very obvious! Antimatter is a little more tricky for us. It is the opposite of matter and we can theorize that it exists and even make small, fleeting samples in laboratories. And so we are using AMS to look for these things that we mere mortals aren’t capable of perceiving for ourselves.

AMS’s space shuttle-mounted predecessor actually found evidence of antimatter a few years ago, so we are only teased by this potential and are now prompted to capture the particles in greater, consistent amounts for study. Now we’re ready to collect lots of evidence for antimatter levels that will keep Nobel laureates, post-docs, and graduate students busy analyzing for years. Since its installation on station, which marked a one year anniversary on May 19, AMS has been collecting about a billion observations per month and even the smallest bits of data are going to lead to hundreds of publications. These will cite the importance of AMS findings with a relevance that likely only super smart astrophysicists will understand, and that the rest of us will see in headlines here and there as new evidence unfolds.

A close view of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2, or AMS, in the space shuttle Endeavour’s payload bay prior to being mounted to the International Space Station’s starboard truss. (NASA)

Using AMS, we record as much data as we can and analyze it here on Earth. This is where we try to tell an ultimate story with it. It’s what we do in science: chip away at a question until we can come to a conclusion that is always just beyond the next discovery. Yet, as exciting as the headlines will be, I actually tend to struggle with what’s next on these findings. I struggle because, since as we gain bits and pieces of knowledge, inevitably we learn not only what we didn’t know, but how much more there is to know.

Can you sense my impatience and excitement?

Observing antimatter is the first data goal that goes back to the big bang theory. The next data set AMS looks for is dark matter or dark energy, which is fun for me because it further proves that there’s more out there than meets the eye. We humans have senses for sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, but we are limited to the capability of our receptors as we constantly take in our environment. We miss things that could be right there in front of us.

One of the limits of our eyesight, for instance, is that we can only see a certain spectrum of light. We don’t see the ghastly amounts of waves that pass all around us as our wireless devices talk to each other, or our radios blare during our morning jog. Our eyes see only 5 percent of the universe! We can sense that the other 95 percent of the universe exists, however, because we have found tantalizing evidence through research. We are using AMS as an extension of ourselves to fill in the gaps of our senses and help us understand the unknown. This includes the parts that we don’t even know we don’t know yet.

The starboard truss of the International Space Station is featured in this image, including the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2, or AMS, at center left. (NASA)

AMS also is looking for evidence of a type of matter called strangelets. Yes, it does sound … well … strange. This would be a new form of matter that we have theorized existence of, but haven’t found in nature quite yet.

We’re taught in school that all matter is made of atoms, which we thought were the smallest form of matter. Now scientists are finding that atoms are made of even smaller quarks, and the prevailing theory regarding quarks is that there are six different types in the universe. We have classified all matter on Earth as being made up of only three types of quarks. So why does nature need the additional three? Some scientists theorize that there are other forms of matter out there that would be made up of a combination of these six quarks, and they’re calling them strangelets. It is a creative effort to try to answer what and where these strangelets are. Scientists have created such evidence as “strange” and “antistrange quarks” in heavy ion accelerators, which they theorize could lead to strangelet formation, but as of now, a strangelet is still a hypothetical particle. The prospects are endless.

Only the space station is capable of supporting the power and data transfer AMS requires to look for evidence of antimatter, dark matter, dark energy, and strangelets, and it will keep the scientific community busy for years. The human species develops tools like AMS to find the things we might otherwise miss, because we seek answers — lots of answers. It’s our nature.

AMS is an instrument that is taking it all in and ultimately it’s humans who will try to make sense of the information and apply it to what we know or think we know. We’ll learn what we didn’t know and try to tell our own local story. As we advance as a species, we build on that knowledge that may one day expand with the universe, beyond our little planet. It’s a good time to be a science geek.

Tara Ruttley, Ph.D.
(NASA Image)

Tara Ruttley, Ph.D., is Associate Program Scientist for the International Space Station for NASA at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Ruttley previously served as the lead flight hardware engineer for the ISS Health Maintenance System, and later for the ISS Human Research Facility. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology and a Master of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Colorado State University, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Neuroscience from the University of Texas Medical Branch. Ruttley has authored publications ranging from hardware design to neurological science, and holds a U.S. utility patent.

A Slice of Time Pie

As NASA astronaut Don Pettit readies to return home from his mission aboard the International Space Station, he shares with A Lab Aloft readers the art of time management aboard the orbiting laboratory. Pettit’s blog entry was originally published on his blog, Letters to Earth: Astronaut Don Pettit, on June 22, 2012.

If my day on space station were a pie, it would be sliced into many wedge-shaped slivers.

It begins with a small slice for waking up, hygiene, and a bag of coffee (even in space, it is comforting to have a morning routine). This is followed by a slice for reviewing and organizing the tasks that will make up my work day. I might make a list of tools so that when I float to the tool box, I can gather everything I need in one trip. Then we have a morning conference with mission control.

Our work day then begins, consuming a 12-hour slice of time pie. At the end of the workday, we have another conference with mission control, followed by about an hour of work tying up loose ends. Then there is a slice for crew dinner. It is not unusual to work the whole day without seeing your fellow crew members at all (space station is a big place), and it is important to gather over a meal to exchange stories. This fulfills a very human social requirement, probably done since the discovery of fire, when the tribe would gather around the burning embers after the hunt (we now gather around our electric food warmer).

(Credit: NASA)

This leaves about a nine-hour slice of off-duty time until the whole routine begins anew. Note well that this is not “free time” but “off duty time”—a significant distinction when living on a ship, be it on the ocean or in space. Sleep comes in your off-duty time, and depending on how much you need, determines the size of the leftover slice of personal pie. All of us have families and friends, and if we want to gracefully return to our places on Earth at some point in the future, they require sharing a significant piece of your personal pie. At the end of the day, I am lucky to have an hour slice of truly personal time, often spent in the cupola gazing at the cosmos (writing these essays comes from this slice and competes with window time, which accounts for some of the delays between postings).

By far the largest slice of time pie is the 13-hour on-duty workday. Of this wedge, about 6½ hours is working primary mission tasks. These include scientific and engineering research, operational tasks such as flying the robotic arm and spacewalks, and spacecraft system maintenance/repair. The balance of the workday is spent on the necessary upkeep and overhead to enable the 6½ hours of time on task. This includes our 2½ hours of physical training (maintains crew health), transfer and stowage of new supplies from visiting —Progress, European ATV, Japanese HVT and the commercial vehicles, Dragon and (soon) Cygnus)—inventory and audits of existing supplies, managing our trash, conferences with mission control (some days we will spend 15% of our time talking to them), lunch, toilet, unplanned repairs (e.g. network, laptops, toilet, drinking water problems, etc.), and simply searching for needed items (often times not found in their proper place).

While achieving only 6½ hours work out of every 24 hours on mission tasks may seem appalling, it is commensurate with Earthly efforts when working in harsh frontier environments. When I was deployed with the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) team on a remote glacier field about 200 kilometers from the South Pole, we toiled for about 14 hours a day to enable 6 hours of our mission’s work; hunting for meteorites. A good slice of this Antarctic time pie (obviously a frozen dessert) was taken for such supporting tasks as snowmobile maintenance, gasoline stove fuel management, shoveling snow to keep our Scott tents from becoming buried, latrine maintenance, cooking and food management, melting ice for drinking water (a big time sink), drying sweaty clothing, and simply trying to stay warm. Considering the harshness of the Antarctic interior, it was fortunate we could spend six hours a day on the mission task. The same sorts of numbers are seen in deep ocean efforts, particularly if the divers are living under high-pressure, saturated gas conditions (pressurized living quarters that are at the same pressure as the equivalent ocean work depth). When humans venture into a harsh wilderness, the fraction of time on task shrinks while the effort to simply be there grows. In any of these settings, you are lucky to log six hours of mission tasking and six hours of sleep. The rest of the time is spent simply trying to stay alive.

On weekends we have off-duty time, but never a free weekend. On Saturdays, we are scheduled for six hours of on-duty time, mostly housekeeping duties where we vacuum filters and swab the decks. On Sundays, our lightest workload, we have about 3½ hours of tasking (this includes our 2½ hours of exercise). To date, we have had four weekends in a row where something came up that trumped our off-duty time. One was for an electrical failure in the ATV cargo ship that if uncorrected, would have required an emergency undocking with possible loss of all our new supplies. One was for a possible near collision with a piece of space junk, where we had to close all the hatches to make station “watertight” and then hide in our Soyuz spacecraft. Another was to fix the toilet after it failed, and one was for our regenerative water processor (the coffee machine). During this period we worked over 30 days without a break. When you go to the frontier, you are there to do something productive, not to sip tea and eat bonbons.

Organization is the key to using personal time effectively. I have a 5-, 15-, and 30-minute plan in my pocket, so when there is a pause in the mission work, I know exactly how to use the moment productively. Then, when you truly have a significant span of off-duty time, perhaps on a Saturday night, there is nothing more awe inspiring than floating for an orbit in the cupola and observing the Earth. My personal slice of time pie may be only a sliver, but oh, how sweet it is!

Don’s blog also appears at airspacemag.com.

Putting on a Thinking Cap for Brain Research on the Space Station

In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger astronaut Bob Thirsk shares with readers his perspective as a test subject for International Space Station investigations.

I operated many different science payloads during my six-month International Space Station expedition in 2009. Some payloads only required me to power up and check out the hardware. Once activated, either automated software or the ground science team took control of payload operations and completed the rest of the experiment.

Neurospat, on the other hand, was a payload that fully engaged me in the science and data collection. A cognitive function experiment from Belgium and Hungary, it depended on astronauts to operate all aspects of the experiment from start to finish and even to serve as experiment test subjects. As a fundamental neuroscience research investigation, Neurospat may help researchers better understand the human brain and how it functions.

Frank De Winne, my European crewmate, and I were the very first subjects for Neurospat. When Frank served as a subject, I would help him set up the hardware. When I was a subject, Frank would help me in return. The biggest challenge of hardware setup was to place the cap on our crewmate’s head without laughing. It’s impossible to keep a straight face when your crewmate is wearing a scalp-hugging red or blue polka dot cap with an electrical pony-tail and wires dangling around the face. We looked like jesters! 

In reality, this odd-looking cap is a sophisticated electroencephalographic, or EEG, measurement device that incorporates 64 electrodes within the fabric to monitor our brain waves. A few other electrodes hanging from the cap are applied elsewhere on our skin to monitor eye movements, muscle activity and cardiac rhythm.

An important task of the assistant was to apply just the right amount of electro-conductive gel beneath each electrode using a syringe. The gel reduces the electrical impedance between the electrode and the subject’s scalp, improving the signal quality.

Bob Thirsk uses a syringe to inject a small amount of electro-conductive gel beneath each electrode of Frank De Winne’s EEG cap. Meanwhile, Frank initiates the Neurospat software for his upcoming experiment session. (NASA)

The pony-tail of the cap connects to the Multi-Electrode EEG Mapping Module—say that three times quickly!—which is a unit within a payload rack in ESA’s Columbus laboratory. This unit not only collected the data from the 64 electrodes, it also transmitted it to the ground. At the end of each Neurospat session, there was a lot of data that needed to be transmitted!

The fun began once the hardware was ready, the cables were connected and the data was flowing. For the next 70 minutes Frank and I repetitively performed four different experiment tasks while free-floating.

A computer screen, which we viewed through a tunnel adapter, presented specific tasks to us. Two of these tasks assessed our perception of visual orientation. Using buttons on a keypad, we evaluated the orientations of lines and estimated the locations of dots on the face of an imaginary clock face. This portion of the experiment was tedious. Frank and I joked to ourselves that while Neurospat claims to be a cognitive function experiment, this portion of the experiment was secretly a sleep induction investigation!

The other two Neurospat tasks were visuomotor “docking” tasks that kept us attentive and wide awake. The objectives were to alternately pilot a simulated Soyuz-like vehicle to a docking port on the space station, or to manually dock a Progress-like vehicle as if we were a cosmonaut working from a control station inside the station. This was similar to a video game requiring the use of a joystick. As we worked to complete each docking task quickly and accurately, the EEG cap monitored the functions of our cerebral cortex. I loved this portion of the experiment, since the tasks appealed to my competitive instincts.

After the Neurospat equipment has been set up, the free-floating test subject performs 70 minutes of cognitive function tasks. (NASA)

Researchers are already analyzing the data from Frank, myself, and all of the other astronauts who have participated in Neurospat to date. They compare our performance in space to our performance on the ground, both before and after flight. The scientists are particularly interested in our brain wave patterns, since these provide insight into our neural and cognitive processes while we performed the tasks.

Scientists hypothesize that long-duration spaceflight affects an astronaut’s sensorimotor system and cognitive abilities. Specifically, they think astronauts may have difficulty determining which way is up, and that our cognitive processes in space may be degraded by stress, fatigue and disrupted sleep.

Neurospat data collection is scheduled to continue on the station through September 2012. The research team expects to have enough astronaut subjects by the end of this year to complete their analysis and publish their results. I enjoyed Neurospat, as it was an experiment that fully engaged me in the science and data collection, putting my training and skills to the test. For an astronaut who is interested in payload operations, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Dr. Robert (Bob) Thirsk is an astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency. He holds degrees in mechanical engineering, an MBA, and is also a medical doctor. Dr. Thirsk has been involved in various Canadian Space Agency and NASA projects and is a veteran of two space flights: STS-78 in 1996 and Expedition 20-21 in 2009.

Inspiring a Generation

The International Space Station Program Science Office would like to dedicate this entry of A Lab Aloft to the life and work of astronaut Sally Ride, who passed away July 23, 2012. In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger Cindy Evans remembers working alongside Sally and the inspirational legacy she leaves behind.

I was just thinking about Sally Ride last week, while my family and I were on vacation in Russia. One afternoon we decided to visit the spectacular Monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow. The impressive park that surrounds a soaring rocket features statues of some of the Russian spaceflight pioneers, such as Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. Reflecting on Valentina’s face quickly led to a family discussion of American space pioneers, including the first U.S. woman in space: Sally Ride.

Sally Ride was in the first group of astronauts to include women. Here she looks out of the space shuttle window to gaze at Earth from orbit. (Credit: NASA)

Of course, Sally is remembered for lots of things in addition to her first spaceflight mission. She was also a scientist and a champion of teachers, students and parents around the world because of her passion for education. It was this love of learning and the desire to share it with others that led to me getting to know Sally.

I met Sally in 1995 when she invited me to be part of her team to plan her space shuttle educational payload: KidSat. This was the pilot program for what would evolve into today’s EarthKAM, one of the most prolific education investigations on the International Space Station.

Sally’s concept for KidSat was simple: put an Earth-viewing camera on the space shuttle and let middle school kids take photos. Their target could be their own town, a place they are studying in history class, the Amazon rainforest, or the location of an event in the daily news. By letting kids control a camera from space, Sally knew they would be inspired as they learned.

Teachers used KidSat as a launching point to cover lessons on a wide variety of topics. They highlighted the basics of spaceflight, including gravity and orbits. Students applied KidSat to math and science, too. They learned the importance of precise calculations to make sure they could capture their targets. In viewing the final images, students covered Earth science and geography and honed their communications skills by describing their observations in writing. As a team-oriented task, KidSat reinforced the importance of working together to achieve greater successes.

When I was working with Sally in the mid-1990s, we were simply trying to see if KidSat could work. The first mission in 1996 was tested by teachers and students from only three middle schools: a rural school in Humbolt, Calif.; an inner-city school in San Diego, Calif.; and a magnet academy in Charleston, S.C. The small educational team included teachers from these schools and a few more.

Westbrook seventh-graders Emily and Jessica use a map and the Internet to determine the latitude and longitude of their next picture. (Credit: NASA)

Sally assembled a diverse team for KidSat, including education specialists from NASA’s education program, flight controllers from NASA’s Johnson Space Center mission operations, college students at the University of California, San Diego, database experts from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and a couple of interdisciplinary Earth scientists like myself to guide the science curriculum development with the small cadre of middle school teachers.

Every step of the way, Sally leaned on those teachers to make KidSat work. The teachers wrote the classroom activities and provided feedback on the spaceflight stuff (orbital dynamics for 6th graders—really?). They thought through the implications of conducting a mission in the classroom during the middle of the school year, which would include four days straight and midnight operations! The team also forecasted potential failure scenarios from a classroom perspective, such as: What if my dyslexic students transpose numbers? What if we can’t get Internet? What if it is cloudy?

This truly collaborative and interdisciplinary partnership that provided opportunities for KidSat continues today with space station’s EarthKAM. The inspiration and lessons spill over from science classes into other areas, such as art, math, English, and even gym!

Of course, both of Sally Ride’s Earth observation investigations were remarkably successful. KidSat grew during the first 3 flights of the program from 3 to 17 to 52 schools! Hundreds of schools have participated since that time, involving tens of thousands of students. Today, EarthKAM continues to inspire where KidSat left off. Pulling in thousands of participants with each operational opportunity, EarthKAM has reached more than 190,000 students to date.

Sally Ride’s legacy continues to inspire girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. (Credit: Sally Ride Science)

My reflection about Sally leads to the core of what she inspired and championed—innovative learning for middle school kids, and a celebration of our natural curiosity about Earth and the Solar System. Through her legacy, she will continue to inspire for generations to come and I am honored to have been part of her team.

Cynthia Evans, Ph.D., is Associate International Space Station Program Scientist for Earth Observations and Deputy Manager for Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office. Evans holds degrees in Earth Science and Geology, and has been active in Earth Observations from the space shuttle, the NASA-Mir Program and the space station. She has participated as a science team member in several Desert RATS analog missions, and manages the GeoLab workstation—a glovebox-based test article integrated into the Deep Space Habitat testbed. As a volunteer, Evans also taught several EarthKAM classes at local middle schools.



Experiencing the First Annual ISS Research and Development Conference

In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger Emily White, with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, shares her experience at the First Annual International Space Station Research and Development Conference.

In late June, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, and the American Astronautical Society, or AAS, in cooperation with NASA, cosponsored the First Annual International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Denver, CO. The conference promoted future space science opportunities through keynote speakers and a variety of breakout sessions focused on space research, accomplishments to date and educating attendees on pathways to space station utilization.

The major theme of the June conference was the “Decade of Utilization.” On the first day of the conference, NASA Chief Scientist Waleed Abdalati commented that the “station empowers us to understand our world.” CASIS, as the nongovernment nonprofit organization that manages the space station’s U.S. National Laboratory, facilitates use of the National Lab for improving life on Earth. By collaborating with AAS and NASA on this conference—the only annual gathering that showcases the full breadth of research and development aboard the station—the CASIS team was able to share this goal with nearly 400 attendees representing scientists and organizations from a variety of fields, including many investigators new to space.

CASIS staff members Justin Kugler and Ken Shields talking with conference attendees. (Credit: CASIS)

On day two, CASIS Interim Executive Director Jim Royston moderated a panel focusing on upcoming research opportunities on the station’s National Lab. Deepak Agrawal, our Director of Science and Technology, represented CASIS; Larry DeLucas, from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, discussed crystallization research; and Jeff Manber of NanoRacks discussed his company’s research platforms. These talks paralleled the current and near-term activities of CASIS. In fact, CASIS released our first Request for Proposals, or RFP, in the field of protein crystallography on the first day of the conference. An RFP in materials science, in collaboration with NanoRacks, will be released in the coming months.

As mentioned above, many new-to-space investigators attended the conference—an exciting success for the space science community that has long sought to attract new players to the space station. Those of us from CASIS were especially encouraged, since one of our major goals is to make space science accessible to a broader community. Toward this goal, the final day of the conference was aimed specifically at new users.

Implementation partners and potential investigators participating in the Tradeshow. (Credit: CASIS)

In the morning, CASIS Director of Operations Duane Ratliff moderated a workshop for new investigators on space station utilization. Expectations were that maybe only a handful of new researchers might attend the workshop, as it was the last day of the conference. Instead, the room was full of attendees, many of whom had never sent an experiment into space. An Implementation Partner Tradeshow complemented the workshop. Booths targeting potential investigators were set up by companies with expertise in developing and integrating payloads for flight to the space station.

Presentations and video footage of the First Annual International Space Station Research and Development Conference are available on the CASIS website and the AAS website.

It is an exciting time at CASIS following the conference and the release of our first RFP. Having been with CASIS since almost the start, I’ve watched the organization grow and bring on talented team members, and the RFP release is a major milestone and an energizing achievement for all of us. On the second day of the conference, CASIS also announced a signed Memorandum of Agreement with COBRA PUMA GOLFTM to conduct space-based materials research projects for use in its sporting goods product line. Along with this announcement, we released our design for a “Space Is In It” product endorsement that will be awarded by CASIS to select products enhanced by National Lab R&D. A very busy week!

CASIS staff conducting meetings at our booth during the BIO conference. (Credit: CASIS)

The week prior to the Denver conference, CASIS team members attended the annual BIO conference in Boston, where we had a booth in the exhibit hall and productive and encouraging meetings with a variety of companies and foundations.

As the momentum builds from CASIS outreach events and announcements for research opportunities, we hope to attract even more pioneers in the R&D community and to support the efforts of the next generation of innovators.


Emily Roberge White works with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, in scientific communications. White previously worked in medical writing for the Eisenberg Center for Clinical Decisions and Communications Science and also does freelance science writing, editing and consulting. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, a Master of Science degree in Molecular and Human Genetics and a Master of Science degree in Science and Technology Journalism.


Ringing Out 2012 by Chiming in on International Space Station Achievements

In today’s A Lab Aloft International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson looks back at the year in review for research aboard the orbiting laboratory.

As the year comes to a close, I like to take a moment to look back at all the amazing accomplishments from the previous twelve months for the International Space Station. There are lessons to be learned and goals to be evaluated as part of planning for the new year. But this is also a time to enjoy achievements and strides made via this orbiting laboratory in research, technology and education.

Keeping a Helpful Eye on Earth

The vantage point of station offers not only an impressive view of our planet, but the chance to capture and study important aspects of the Earth’s atmosphere, waters, topography and more. The 2012 arrival of the ISS SERVIR Environmental Research and Visualization System, known as ISERV, will enhance the viewing capabilities from orbit used to support disaster assessment, humanitarian assistance and environmental management.

This year an externally-mounted station instrument contributed to the Environmental Protection Agency’s goal of monitoring and improving coastal health. The same Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean, or HICO, also assists the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, with scans to determine depth below murky waters, bottom type, water clarity and other water optical properties.

Assisting with disaster response became the secondary mission for the International Space Station Agricultural Camera, or ISSAC. This imager was originally intended for agriculture vegetation surveys to assist with crop and grazing rotation. When that primary science objective ended, the camera became part of the space station’s response efforts for global disasters as part of the International Disaster Charter.

Map of chlorophyll-a for Pensacola Bay derived from HICO data. Higher values (yellow and red) indicate high chlorophyll concentrations in the water that suggest algal blooms are present. Algal blooms can reduce oxygen levels in the water, leading to fish and other animal kills. Some algal blooms also contain organisms that produce toxins harmful to other life, including humans. (EPA)

Inspiring Future Generations

This year NASA’s continued support in educational areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) led to some exciting student-based activities and resources. With the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program, or SSEP, for instance, 15 investigations were selected from close to 800 proposals of student inspiration and design. The results from these studies will be shared at the national conference held each year in Washington DC.

The YouTube Space Lab competition provided another opportunity that caught the attention and imagination of students around the world. Two investigations were selected as winners from more than 2,000 video submissions and many tuned in to watch as the experiments were conducted by astronauts live on orbit.

You can read about all of the education activities available to students to participate in space station science in our recently published “Inspiring the Next Generation: International Space Station Education Opportunities and Accomplishments, 2000-2012.” This retrospective book details station activities involving more than 42 million students and 2.8 million teachers across 48 countries from 2000 to 2012.

Joseph Avenoso (left), Gage Cane-Wissing (right), and Adam Elwood (not pictured), presented their findings on bone loss in microgravity as part of the 2012 SSEP National Conference. (NCESSE/Smithsonian)

Technology Testbed

The space station plays an important role as a microgravity testbed for emerging technologies. The JEM-Small Satellite Orbital Deployer, or J-SSOD, for instance, operated for the first time in 2012, launching multiple small satellites into orbit. This new capability provides a reliable, safe and economically viable deployment method for releasing small satellites, in addition to enabling the return samples to the ground for analysis.

Another exciting technology tested on station is the Robotic Refueling Mission, or RRM, which may help support future space exploration using advanced robotics to service vehicles and satellites in orbit. This capability does not currently exist, but is essential to long-duration exploration missions of tomorrow.

JAXA astronaut Aki Hoshide preparing the JEM Small Satellite Orbital Deployer aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

Exciting Discoveries for Human Health and Science Disciplines

Findings from station investigations are impacting human health both here on Earth and in orbit. For instance, recently published results related to bone health showed that a combination of nutrition, Vitamin D supplements, and high-intensity resistive exercise help the crew to preserve bone mass density without the need for pharmaceuticals. These findings also apply to the development of treatments for osteoporosis patients here on Earth, an estimated 44 million in the United States alone.

Crew health was highlighted in vision studies in 2012, as well, with the publication of two results papers focused on the impact of microgravity on astronaut vision changes. Research found that significant vision loss in 20 percent of crew members may derive from a combination of the spaceflight environment and changes in metabolism, with an enzyme related to cardiovascular health potentially playing a role.

A discovery of “Cool Flames” caused excitement in the physical sciences community this year. These low-temperature flames ignite via chemical reactions from fuel vapor and air, burning invisible to the eye. This knowledge can help with improving fire safety in orbit, but also has implications for cleaner and more fuel efficient combustion in engines here on Earth.

A burning heptane droplet during the FLEX investigation on the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Ringing in the New Year

Looking forward to 2013, there are still so many exciting things to learn in the various disciplines studied aboard station. Whether in biology and biotechnology, Earth and space science, human research, the physical sciences or even technology developments, there remains a huge potential for discovery. The advent of updated and new facilities planned for the station will help enable investigators in their research in these areas.

Along with the research taking place aboard station, we continue to see Earth benefits that derive either directly or as a spinoff of station science. I look forward to continuing to share these findings and stories with you in the coming year and through the lifetime of this amazing microgravity laboratory.

Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D.
International Space Station Program Scientist


Remembering Dr. Bob Phillips

In today’s A Lab Aloft we remember Dr. Bob Phillips, who served as the chief scientist for Space Station Freedom, helping to pave the path for future research in orbit.

While I did not have the pleasure of working directly with Dr. Bob Phillips, he helped blaze a trail for research in space that played an important part in what eventually became the International Space Station (ISS) Program.

A doctor of veterinary medicine with a Ph.D. in physiology and nutrition, Bob started his career with NASA in 1984. Part of Spacelab Life Sciences (SLS) 1, which launched aboard space shuttle Columbia’s STS-40 mission in 1991, Bob had planned to serve as an astronaut payload specialist, but was grounded due to a minor medical condition. Instead, he played a key role as the principal radio contact between the crew and ground while they conducted the first mission dedicated to microgravity biomedical research.

Bob followed the SLS-1 mission with a three-year stint as chief scientist of Space Station Freedom, which evolved into today’s International Space Station. As the current space station program scientist, I can’t help but look back at Bob’s accomplishments and be inspired in my own goals and endeavors for research in orbit.

Mark Uhran, former assistant associate administrator for the International Space Station, recalls the contributions made by Bob during his tenure. “During the space station design phase, Bob Phillips was a pivotal voice in mediating between science and engineering to develop research requirements that were practical and achievable. He served as both chief scientist and as a member of the Space Station Utilization Advisory Subcommittee, where his pragmatic approach was invaluable in resolving a final design for what later became the ISS.”

Robert W. Phillips (Credit: Colorado State)

I recently spoke about Bob’s contributions to NASA with my colleague Jennifer Rhatigan, Ph.D., who was a leader in space station science during the station’s assembly and established the International Space Station Program Science Office. Jennifer, who served with Bob on a number of committees, remembered him not only as a scientist, but also as a gentleman who was a pleasure to work with.

“Bob brought a focus on science in the early days of the space station design (during the Freedom program),” Jennifer shared. “He recognized that science needs had to be part of the design and maintained that focus through the many early de-scopes and design changes. The space station science community of today is lucky there were people like Bob looking out for their needs 25 years ago.”

Bob continued his career with NASA and into retirement with a focus on outreach and education. According to his NASA Quest profile, Bob espoused a belief in lifelong learning and continued scientific endeavors.

“I don’t feel that I have any goals yet to accomplish, except to continue to accomplish and pursue new and interesting questions and challenges. I have retired several times and look forward to continuing to be a productive scientist educator. I am having too much fun to really quit.”

Bob passed away on Feb. 26, leaving behind a rich legacy including a book he wrote to communicate with the general public the importance of biomedical microgravity research, titledGrappling with Gravity: How Will Life Adapt to Living in Space?”

When I think about where we are now with research aboard the space station after more than a year of full utilization, I am still in awe of the accomplishments that are shared by those who contributed past, present and future to the station’s success. The flexible and adaptable laboratory we have today was built on the foundation of hard work and dedication from people like Bob Phillips and the way he helped to put science into an engineering marvel.

Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D.
International Space Station Program Scientist

SAGE Wisdom for Atmospheric Research

In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger Kristyn Damadeo shares the history of the SAGE investigation, scheduled for future use on the International Space Station. This technology can help researchers to better understand Earth’s atmosphere makeup, especially the health of our ozone layer.

The International Space Station houses some unique experiments and soon it will be home to an exciting new Earth science mission: SAGE III, the Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment III.

SAGE III mounts externally to the space station and is a mission to study Earth’s atmosphere sponsored by the NASA Science Mission Directorate and led by NASA Langley Research Center. It will be the first Earth-observing instrument of its kind aboard station, taking accurate measurements of the amount of ozone, aerosols—tiny particles—water vapor and other key components of Earth’s atmosphere.

The SAGE Legacy

SAGE III is the first of its kind to operate on station, but the SAGE family of instruments has been taking atmospheric measurements for more than 30 years. SAGE III is the fourth generation in its family operated by NASA.

The artwork above belongs to the SAGE III instrument, which is part of a family of SAGE technology developed to help research Earth’s atmosphere. (NASA Image)

The first SAGE instrument was flown on a satellite in 1979. SAGE I was a sun photometer that used solar occultation—a measurement technique using the sun as a backlight—to gather information on aerosols and important stratospheric gases in the atmosphere. SAGE I collected valuable data for nearly three years, until the power system on the satellite failed.

With SAGE I came the start of a global database for stratospheric aerosols, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide that is still used in the study of global climate. While SAGE I was active, it provided crucial input into the understanding of global, seasonal and inter-annual variability in climate and, in particular, trends in stratospheric ozone.

SAGE I was followed by SAGE II in 1984. SAGE II data helped to confirm human-driven changes to ozone and contributed to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which banned the use of chemicals that harm the ozone layer. SAGE II lasted 21 years on orbit, allowing us not only to determine the initial extent of ozone changes, but also to measure the effectiveness of the Montreal Protocol. SAGE II saw ozone stop decreasing and begin to recover during its time on orbit.

Engineers at NASA Langley work in a clean room with the SAGE III instrument. (NASA Image)

Then in the late 1990s, SAGE III was developed by Ball Aerospace and Technology Corp. The first of the instruments was launched in 2001 on a Russian satellite, METEOR-3M. The second instrument was stored for a future flight of opportunity. The third was removed from storage and prepared for flight on the space station. The mission will enable researchers to fill an anticipated gap in ozone and aerosol data in the second half of this decade.


SAGE III will study Earth’s protective ozone layer from aboard station. Ozone acts as Earth’s sunscreen. When ozone starts to break down, it impacts all of Earth’s inhabitants. Humans, plants and other animals are exposed to more harmful rays from the sun. This can cause long-term problems, such as cataracts and cancer in humans or reduced crop yield in plants.

When SAGE III begins making measurements from the space station in late 2014, some models predict that stratospheric ozone should have recovered by 50 percent. The precise pattern of ozone recovery measured by SAGE III will help improve the models and refine our understanding of the atmosphere.

Particles in the upper Earth’s atmosphere cause the blue layer shown in this image of a sunrise taken from aboard the space station. SAGE III will measure these atmospheric gases from a similar perspective. (NASA Image)

Measurement Technique

SAGE III takes its measurements using solar and lunar occultation. Occultation is a technique for pointing and locking onto the sun or the moon and scanning the limb—thin profile—of the atmosphere as the sun or moon rises or sets. SAGE III will operate mostly autonomously and the data will be transmitted to the ground through the space station’s communications systems.

The space station provides the perfect orbit from which to take measurements of the composition of the middle and lower atmosphere. Our location aboard station also gives us a great view for our solar/lunar occultation technique.

Back in Action

SAGE III is scheduled to launch to the space station aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon in mid-2014.

The SAGE III suite consists of a sensor assembly that has pointing and imaging subsystems and an ultraviolet/visible spectrometer; an European Space Agency- provided hexapod pointing system and a nadir viewing platform. The Canadian Space Agency-provided robotic arm will robotically move SAGE III from the Dragon trunk and install it on the Earth-facing side of the EXPRESS Logistics Carrier-4, or ELC 4, storage platform. 

The graphic above depicts the SAGE III instrument, which will collect data to help researchers better understand Earth’s atmosphere. (NASA Image)

The research results of the space station-mounted SAGE III will provide insights that will help humans better understand and protect Earth’s atmosphere. Only by understanding these changes will we be able to mediate future impacts on our environment. Much more data and research is needed to better understand and quantify our impact on our world’s climate system.

The SAGE program has a long heritage and is one of NASA’s longest running Earth-observing programs. Continuous long-term data collection is necessary to understand climate. Once it is on the space station, SAGE III will help to extend a long record of atmospheric measurements for the continued health of our Earth. The observations of SAGE III from station are crucial for providing a better understanding of how natural processes and human activities may influence our climate.

SAGE has been pivotal in monitoring ozone and making accurate measurements of the amount of ozone loss in Earth’s atmosphere. Today, the SAGE technique is still the best for the job. Although new technologies have come along to measure ozone, none are as thorough as solar occultation. Through this dataset, SAGE on the station will enhance our understanding of ozone recovery and climate change processes in the upper atmosphere. We also extend the scientific foundation for further sound decisions on environmental policy, both nationally and internationally.

Kristyn Damadeo is the Education and Public Outreach Lead for SAGE III on the International Space Station at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. She has previously worked as a science writer and a newspaper reporter, specializing in environmental reporting. Damadeo has a degree in Communication Arts from Ramapo College of New Jersey.