Boning Up on Skeletons in Space

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, Jean Sibonga, Ph.D., explains what’s next for microgravity bone research aboard the International Space Station. Using what we’ve learned in the last 50 years, investigations in orbit will help scientists pinpoint the impacts of countermeasures and refine treatments.

Boning Up on Skeletons in Space

All research begins with a question. In my case, two of them. My first question came from research I was doing during my postdoctoral study at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine working with oral biologists and orthodontists. Impressed with how an orthodontist can practically move teeth from one end of your mouth to another — I wondered about what told the cells to break down the bone at the front end of the tooth and then to fill in the cavity left by the tooth’s movement. What kind of chemical communication was happening to make this possible?

My second question came years later from former NASA administrator Michael Griffin during a visit to my directorate at Johnson Space Center. Griffin asked: “How can we make those bone cells stop what they are doing up in space?” He was referring to the real concern of accelerated bone loss for humans living in microgravity. He wanted to know if it were possible to stop the cells from breaking down bone.

Both questions about cell communication are fundamental to my research into bone strength and how it changes under certain circumstances, such as with aging or in microgravity. The answers are pivotal for long duration living in space, whether aboard the International Space Station or future missions. We’re trying to understand if space disrupts the communication between cells, whether this miscommunication is responsible for reducing the strength of bone and whether we can prevent this decline in strength by overriding this perturbed cellular communication.

You may have read about the findings from the first 50 years of bone research in space, compiled by my colleague Scott M. Smith, Ph.D., and his team. With Smith’s biochemical data we can get an idea of how cells are responding to the spaceflight environment—which cells are stimulated, which are suppressed or un-responsive. More importantly, we can try to figure out why this is happening—that is, are the signals that turn cells on or off not being produced or not being received? Pharmaceutical companies, for example, are particularly interested in this topic. The answer may help them develop medications for patient use on Earth. So, by refining our understanding of how current countermeasures work in space, at the cellular level, we might advance treatments for future space explorers, as well as Earth dwellers.

My research is an extension of Smith’s results. So far, our research suggests to us that the right combination of nutrition and specific types of exercise—can reduce the loss of bone mass in astronauts. What we still need to understand is whether the bones protected by the combined effects of diet and resistive exercise in space are as strong as they were before spaceflight.

My training in bone research  was in histomorphometry; simply, it means that I measured bone tissue. I measured the amount of newly-formed tissue, I counted the number of cells, I calculated the rates of bone formation, I measured cellular activity. So while biochemistry helps researchers surmise why and how changes in a bone’s mass are occurring in microgravity, bone histomorphometry helps us understand the cellular activity that change bone tissue. The result of these changes—by different cells, on different surfaces—can end up reshaping the structure of bone.

Since the bone structure is a contributor to bone strength, I think it’s really important to understand how bone strength changes with spaceflight—not just how bone mass or bone cells change. After all, NASA research tries to solve potential problems in space by asking: Are astronaut’s bones strong enough to do the operations of a mission without fracturing? Will exposure to spaceflight cause fractures to occur earlier in an aging astronaut after he/she returns to Earth?

NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman, Expedition 40 flight engineer, gets a workout on the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) in the Tranquility node of the International Space Station. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman, Expedition 40 flight engineer, gets a workout on the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) in the Tranquility node of the International Space Station. (NASA)

Research that describes how living in space changes bone cell signaling, bone mineral and bone structure helps us to understand how space may be changing the strength of bone. But, these research tools require looking at bone tissue extracted from animals or in biopsies from test subjects—not a very attractive test to spin-off for an Earth-based doctor.

So, in Earth-based medicine, bone clinicians use an x-ray-based technology to measure the amount of bone minerals in an image of bone, without having to remove any bone tissue from the body. But those measurements are no longer sufficient for understanding whether or not a bone will fracture.  A previous flight study used a research technology called QCT to measure bone mineral in different astronauts’ hip bones before and after spaceflight. The study then used a computational tool that engineers developed to test the integrity of complex structures, like bridges or cars. This tool estimates the force of the load that would cause the hip to fracture by applying a “virtual” mechanical load to the computerized model of the hip until the structure “fails.” We are hoping to use these estimates to figure out which tasks performed by an astronaut could lead to a hip fracture.

My background in animal studies tells me that different countermeasures affect different types of bone cells in different locations of the hip. When countermeasures affect the very dense cortical bone shell differently from the spongy, more porous trabecular bone on the inside, then the overall structure of bone changes and the strength of the bone may change as a result. I like to remind people that you can’t “feel” when your bones are weakened. If we could compare hip bone strength with the loads of physical activity, we might be able to detect when an astronaut might overload his or her bones, even after return to Earth.

NASA astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore setting up the Rodent Reseach-1 Hardware in the Microgravity Science Glovebox aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore setting up the Rodent Reseach-1 Hardware in the Microgravity Science Glovebox aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

This is why I proposed a study called Hip QCT, which is building on results of multiple flight studies. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. With biochemical tests, we can monitor the hormones that induce the production of protein signals, the signals that stimulate cellular activity, and the by-products that reflect the formation and the degradation of bone tissue. I hypothesized that Hip QCT can capture the difference between mechanical countermeasures, such as exercise, and biochemical countermeasures, like nutrition or pharmaceutical agents, because of its ability to detect changes in bone structure. In the end, we want to describe how countermeasures during spaceflight change the strength of the hip by changing the structure of hip bone.

There’s a problem with QCT as a test, however, as there is an issue with greater radiation exposure. One hip scan, for example, amounts to two to six days on the space station, depending on the age and sex of the astronaut. We’re trying to demonstrate the value of collecting QCT data and estimating hip strength. Someday we hope to detect the effects of spaceflight in astronauts on the connectivity of trabecular bone as observed in our mouse studies. We are investigating some emerging technologies which do not require any radiation. With these collective measures, we are hoping to prevent fractures by estimating which physical activities may cause bones to be overloaded during a mission or even after return to Earth.

Micro-computed tomography bone density imaging shows ground mice (G) with highly connected, dense spongy bone structure, flight mice (F) with less connectivity and flight mice treated with a myostatin inhibitor (F+D) on STS-118 that appear to have bone structure unaffected by microgravity. (Bioserve)

Micro-computed tomography bone density imaging shows ground mice (G) with highly connected, dense spongy bone structure, flight mice (F) with less connectivity and flight mice treated with a myostatin inhibitor (F+D) on STS-118 that appear to have bone structure unaffected by microgravity. (Bioserve)

Because we have an aggressive schedule for decision-making, NASA puts innovative approaches on a fast track for application. If NASA can clearly demonstrate the benefits of these innovations to protect astronaut health and performance, then the translation of these novel predictive capabilities may enhance the earlier diagnosis of osteoporosis in people here on Earth.

This was really brought home at last year’s meeting of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research where I hosted a workshop. It was standing room only! Everything we learn about bone loss and rebuilding in space can also provide insights to the numerous scientists studying osteoporosis and its treatment on Earth.

In order to monitor changes in skeletal health that could lead to fracture, we need to leverage new and innovative ways of evaluating changes to bone tissue and the impact on bone strength. There’s a whole new generation of technologies and scientists to look into these questions. I am excited to see what we discover as we work together for better bones!

 

Jean Sibonga, Ph.D., lead scientist in the discipline of bone research for the Human Research Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX (NASA)

Jean Sibonga, Ph.D., lead scientist in the bonediscipline of bone research for the Human Research Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX (NASA)

Jean Sibonga, Ph.D. is the lead for bone discipline in the Human Research Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Sibonga received her B.S. in Chemistry and English from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. She later earned her Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Loma Linda University, California. Sibonga has more than 30 years of research experience in bone cell biology & physiology at such institutions as the Jerry L. Pettis VAMC, Loma Linda, CA; NASA Ames Research Center; Harvard School of Dental Medicine; and the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN.

Rubber Vacuum Pants that Suck

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The latest in astro-chic fashion aboard the International Space Station is sure to generate a lot of buzz – among scientists, at least. Where else can you get away with wearing rubber suction pants?  While these pants look a little unusual, they may help us understand a potentially serious vision problem that affects some astronauts on long duration spaceflights.

Cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko wears the Chibis suit. Credit: Roscosmos

Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko wears the Chibis suit. Credit: Roscosmos

The human body is roughly 70% fluids, which includes blood, lymph, and water contained within and around cells. On Earth, our cardiovascular system keeps those fluids distributed throughout our body despite the pull of gravity. During spaceflight, body fluids accumulate in the upper body, causing a noticeable puffiness in astronauts’ faces. This redistribution of fluids may be contributing to the aforementioned vision impairment.

NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson on Earth (left) and with noticeable puffiness in space (right). Credit: NASA

NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson, Ph.D. on Earth (left) and with noticeable puffiness in space (right). Credit: NASA

The Russian Chibis suit is designed to counteract the tendency for fluids to pool in the upper body by applying lower body negative pressure (LBNP). Chibis works like a household vacuum cleaner to suck astronauts into the pants, load the bottoms of their feet, and expand veins and tissues of the lower body. By sucking blood and other body fluids back to the lower body, swelling in the face and elevated pressure in heads of astronauts may be avoided.

During the one-year mission recently embarked upon by American Astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, a new investigation called Fluid Shifts seeks to test the relationship between the head-ward fluid shift and a pattern NASA calls visual impairment and intracranial pressure syndrome, or VIIP.  VIIP involves changes in vision, the structure of the eyes and indirect signs of increased pressure in the brain. More than half of American astronauts have experienced VIIP symptoms during long spaceflights.

A unique aspect of the Fluid Shifts investigation is the use of the Russian Chibis suit, namely LBNP, during cardiovascular and VIIP-related physiological measurements. Precursors of LBNP actually include the ancient practices of bloodletting and cupping to alter blood volume and pressure in the sick. The first true use of LBNP was in the early 1950s, and it was widely used as a research tool to study the cardiovascular system in the 1960s. The Chibis suit was first used in spaceflight during the Salyut space station missions and has been used regularly late in missions as part of the cosmonauts’ health program to prepare them for return to Earth.

Exercise devices presently aboard ISS such as the cycle ergometer and treadmill provide a cardiovascular workout, but they are not designed to move blood and body fluids back toward the feet. LBNP stresses the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems in a way that is similar to standing and exercising on Earth. In a way, LBNP is an artificial gravity device.

Stuart Lee, Ph.D., one of the Fluid Shifts investigators, demonstrates the Chibis suit. Credit: Alan Hargens

Stuart Lee, Ph.D., one of the Fluid Shifts investigators, demonstrates the Chibis suit. Credit: Alan Hargens, Ph.D.

In fact, the Fluid Shifts investigation may result in design of future space exploration exercise devices that simulate gravity and shift fluid to the lower body. Such a device may provide an integrative system for protecting astronauts across multiple physiologic systems prior to incorporation of more advanced concepts of artificial gravity such as a rotating spacecraft or a centrifuge.

The Fluid Shifts investigation has Earth benefits for health applications as well. Results may improve our understanding of how blood pressure in the brain affects eye shape and vision which could also benefit people confined to long-term bed rest, or suffering from disease states that increase swelling and pressure in the brain.

By now, you are no doubt wondering where you can get your own pair of rubber suction pants. You’re in luck! By using suction in exercise equipment on the ground, athletes can be trained at higher weight-bearing levels to improve their performance.  Also, using positive pressure in a lower body chamber, elderly patients and people with leg injuries can be brought back to normal daily activities and “peak performance” earlier than possible with present modes of rehabilitation.

“Moonwalker” system to reduce body weight and speed recovery from disease and injury using lower body compression. Suction chamber with vertical treadmill to move blood and body fluids back to the feet and generate weight-bearing forces in horizontal posture as when we stand up and walk on Earth.  Reproduced with permission of Macias BR, D’Lima DD, Cutuk A, Patil S, Steklov N, Neuschwander TB, Meuche S, Colwell CW and Hargens AR. Leg intramuscular pressures and in vivo knee forces during lower body positive and negative pressure treadmill exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology 113 (1): 31-38, 2012

“Moonwalker” system to reduce body weight and speed recovery from disease and injury using lower body compression. Suction chamber with vertical treadmill to move blood and body fluids back to the feet and generate weight-bearing forces in horizontal posture as when we stand up and walk on Earth. Reproduced with permission of Macias BR, D’Lima DD, Cutuk A, Patil S, Steklov N, Neuschwander TB, Meuche S, Colwell CW and Hargens AR. Leg intramuscular pressures and in vivo knee forces during lower body positive and negative pressure treadmill exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology 113 (1): 31-38, 2012

The Clinical Orthopaedic Lab at the University of California, San Diego has been involved in spaceflight cardiovascular, bone and muscle research for over 30 years; and we are particularly excited to be a part of the international team of investigators involved in the Fluid Shifts investigation. While unlikely to start a new fashion trend, we look forward to sharing the important results from the rubber vacuum pants that suck.

Alan Hargens, Ph.D.  Credit: Alan Hargens, Ph.D.

Alan Hargens, Ph.D. Credit: Alan Hargens, Ph.D.

Alan Hargens PhD., previously served as Chief of the Space Physiology Branch and Space Station Project Scientist at NASA Ames Research Center (1987-2000) and Consulting Professor of Human Biology at Stanford University (1988-2000). His recent research concerns gravity effects on the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems of humans and animals.

 

Space Station Espresso Cups: Strong Coffee Yields Stronger Science

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, International Space Station researcher, Mark Weislogel, Ph.D., boils down why brews served in microgravity will percolate better science than coffee, thanks to the Space Cup.

You may have heard the “caffeine buzz” around the Internet about the ISSpresso machine that recently launched to the International Space Station. It would be out of this world indeed to have a cup to go along with it. So we designed, fabricated, tested, and flight qualified one. In fact six such cups are now on the space station and ready for action. With real science backing the design, our microgravity coffee cup will do more than lift espresso to astronauts’ lips — it will also provide data on the passive movement of complex fluids as part of the Capillary Beverage investigation. The results will confirm and direct math models that help engineers exploit capillary fluid physics (capillary fluidics) to control how liquids move by designing containers specific to the task at hand. Whether getting the last drop of fuel for a rocket engine or delivering the perfect dose of medication to a patient, there are real Earth benefits behind the brew.

In 2008, astronauts aboard the International Space Station demonstrated the pouch method of drinking yesterday’s coffee and today’s coffee, while the Space Cup will serve the coffee of tomorrow — providing real science for fluid physics research. In the front, left to right, crew members Michael Finke and Chris Ferguson, with Eric Boe and Donald Pettit in the back. (NASA)

In 2008, astronauts aboard the International Space Station demonstrated the pouch method of drinking yesterday’s coffee and today’s coffee, while the Space Cup will serve the coffee of tomorrow — providing real science for fluid physics research. In the front, left to right, crew members Michael Finke and Chris Ferguson, with Eric Boe and Donald Pettit in the back. (NASA)

On Earth, gravity is responsible for making bubbles rise and liquids fall. Such mechanisms vanish in the weightless environment of orbiting spacecraft. In fact, in microgravity there is no concept notion of floating or sinking, or up or down. Other forces such as surface tension that are normally overwhelmed by gravity on Earth rise to dominate liquid behavior.

In a spacecraft, if the effects of surface tension are not understood, liquids (e.g., water, fuel) can be just about anywhere in the container that holds them. Similarly, the gas (e.g., oxygen, nitrogen) in such containers can freely range, too. You’re in for a challenge if you want to find where these fluids are and use them. Even if you just want to drink them. This is why in space you’ll only see astronauts drinking from bags with straws so that they can completely collapse the bag to assure the liquids come out. From a practical safety perspective, the bags also provide a level of containment.

When my laboratory heard of ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and the Italian Space Agency’s espresso machine investigation (ISSpresso) going to space, it got us thinking about that beautifully complex drink and how it would behave differently — especially whether the coffee would develop a crema or not. Currently, we don’t believe so because the bubbles that form during the espresso brew process won’t naturally rise to the surface due to absence of buoyancy in the microgravity environment. Other weaker forces often masked by gravity are present and will likely play an unearthly role in what happens, making the espresso fun to observe. It will be a different kind of fun altogether to get real science out of the process at the same time.

In a normal cup of espresso, carbon dioxide bubbles release and collect to form a crema. Some of the bubbles adhere to the walls of the cup, while the remainder rise and stratify due to their size in layers we refer to as foam. Steam rises above the surface of the crema in part condensing in an advancing front on the inside surfaces of the cup. The cup cools by natural convection and the aromatics waft at rates determined by buoyancy. These processes are completely induced by gravity!

When the influence of gravity is greatly reduced, as it is aboard orbiting spacecraft, not much of this stuff is going to happen. This will be unusual for the astronauts. Even the smell of the coffee diffusing through the crema is driven by natural convection currents in the air, which are absent in the microgravity environment. So the simple, every day fluid physics taking place in your daily coffee are highly dependent on gravity. From taste to smell, we anticipate what may even be a disappointing cup of coffee in space. But only the astronauts will know, and we will have to take their word for it in the hopes of one day trying this for ourselves.

Touching your lips to the rim of the Space Cup establishes a capillary connection allowing the drinker access to the entire contents. Sip-by-sip or in one big gulp, the cup’s contents may be imbibed somewhat normally in space, as on Earth. (A. Wollman, IRPI)

Touching your lips to the rim of the Space Cup establishes a capillary connection allowing the drinker access to the entire contents. Sip-by-sip or in one big gulp, the cup’s contents may be imbibed somewhat normally in space, as on Earth. (A. Wollman, IRPI)

You can imagine how many variables are at play for the drinking experience from a human factors perspective, but gravity influences many of these, too. Sinus drainage, saliva migration, time aloft, and others are reasonable microgravity-related parameters affecting one’s response to the drinking experience in space. We designed the Space Cup with the central objective of delivering the liquid passively to the lip of the cup. To do this we exploit surface tension, wetting conditions, and the special geometry of the cup itself. We have yet to learn the human-cup interaction in microgravity. The cup design forces the drinker’s nose directly over the fluid contents. But since the aromatics do not rise, one might expect a rather concentrated dose upon the first whiff. Maybe this won’t be a big deal since astronauts report a reduced sense of smell while in space, due to somewhat clogged sinuses. This is presumably due to the headward fluid redistribution that occurs in spaceflight.

We were highly motivated to make the cup transparent so we could observe all of the fluid physics going on in the process. It may sound nerdy, but that’s what we do—we study microgravity fluid physics in hopes of designing more reliable fluid systems for future spacecraft, and more effective fluid systems for applications on Earth.

Touching your lips to the rim of the cup establishes a capillary connection, almost like the wicking of water through a paper towel, allowing the drinker access to the entire contents. My colleagues and I have been doing research aboard station for more than 10 years. During the course of hundreds and hundreds of experiments, we’ve been developing the mathematical predictive tools and computational tools for such passive capillary fluidic processes. Now we are in a place to develop designs for systems in space — systems with promises of high reliability because they perform their function passively, without moving parts. Examples include things like urine treatment and processing, and systems to close the water cycle helping to enable truly long duration crewed space exploration. These same tools also help us with fuel systems, cooling systems, water processing equipment for plant and animal habitats, and much more.

Perfecting these systems can also help us prevent disasters in orbit or on long-duration missions such as the journey to Mars. For example, the primary oxygen supply systems on many spacecraft use electrolysis. If the system gets a single air bubble lodged within its tubing, it can shut down until the bubble is found and removed. To get a sense of working with these types of systems in space, you need an understanding of capillary phenomena from studies, believe it or not, like Capillary Beverage.

The Space Cup’s specific design uses known geometry, gathered in prior International Space Station research, to direct fluids to the lip of the user. (Credit: M. Meyer, IRPI)

The Space Cup’s specific design uses known geometry, gathered in prior International Space Station research, to direct fluids to the lip of the user. (Credit: M. Meyer, IRPI)

While fun, this study has plenty of design research behind it. Many of the aspects of our fluid physics research in microgravity are present in this simple cup demonstration — the effects of wetting, the effects of geometry, and the effects of fluid properties, especially surface tension. The results could provide information useful to engineers who design fuel tanks for commercial satellites, for instance. If you can find all your fuel, you can save costs and maximize the mission duration.

With this cup we can also study complex fluids that we have not previously addressed. For example, just adding sugar or milk to tea is expected to radically change the performance of the process of how the fluids move. We’ll approach this systematically aboard the space station. We’re starting off with water, then clear juice, then tea, tea with sugar, etc., including complex drinks like cocoa, a chocolate breakfast drink, and even a peach-mango smoothie. Undissolved solids, dissolved gasses, foams, free bubbles, surfactants, varying viscosities, temperature effects and more — all in little transparent 3D printed cups used by astronauts to drink on the space station. This progression from simple to complex beverages will give us a wealth of data — data which we aim to apply not just in space, but on Earth, too.

The astronaut(s) will set up the experiment near the galley, position the cup, camera, and lighting for orthogonal views (views at right angles), and a variety of experiments will be performed using the HD video as our quantitative data source. For example, when the astronaut fills the cup, the filing process is research. When the astronaut drains the cup, the draining is research. The static and dynamic interface shapes tell us everything we need to know, from wetting conditions to stability, to visco-capillary interaction. This is the exciting part for us! We see the profile of the interface, we watch particles and bubbles as flow tracers, we get velocities and volumetric drain rates, and all as functions of what the astronaut is doing — enjoying a cup of coffee! Astronaut Kjell Lindgren is planning to take up plenty of his own espresso during Expeditions 44/45. We have plenty to look forward to.

International Space Station Expedition 44/45 crew members Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui enjoying food tasting at NASA’s Habitability and Environmental Factors Office in Houston. Lindgren plans to take his own espresso grounds with him into orbit to enjoy as part of the Capillary Beverage study. (NASA/Bill Stafford)

International Space Station Expedition 44/45 crew members Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui enjoying food tasting at NASA’s Habitability and Environmental Factors Office in Houston. Lindgren plans to take his own espresso grounds with him into orbit to enjoy as part of the Capillary Beverage study. (NASA/Bill Stafford)

With this cup, most everything is taken care of passively by the shape of the cup. There isn’t a straight line in it. There are no moving parts. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the fluid systems on spacecraft worked like that? We know it would result in less worry on the ground. The simpler things are, the more robust their function and the less time is needed for maintenance.

Check out this video about our first version of a zero-g coffee cup.

What we are learning here is not just for space. All the design tools we are developing are applicable to small fluidic systems on Earth, too. For example, portable point-of-care medical diagnostic devices exploit capillary flow to passively move a very small sample of blood to any variety of regions on a testing chip. That makes it possible to diagnose infectious diseases in places where there is no power or where power is unreliable. It also reduces the time between sample collection and diagnosis and, therefore, initiation of treatment. We will report more on this connection in the future.

The next time you brew a cup of your favorite coffee, imagine what it might be like to take a sip from the Capillary Beverage cup aboard the International Space Station while watching the Earth go by. Then consider the fluids research off the Earth, that can make a difference right here on the Earth.

Mark Weislogel, Ph.D. (Portland State University)

Mark Weislogel, Ph.D. (Portland State University)

Mark Weislogel, Ph.D., is senior scientist and vice president of IRPI LLC and professor Mechanical Engineering at Portland State University. He was founded in microgravity fluid physics while employed at NASA’s  Glenn Research Center. Whether in the private sector or academia, Weislogel has since continued to make extensive use of NASA ground-based low-gravity facilities and has completed investigations aboard space shuttles, the Russian Mir Space Station, and the International Space Station. He led the design of the Dryden Drop Tower, which has conducted over 4,000 drop tests and continue at a rate of over 1,000/year. Current efforts are directed to research, development, and delivery of advanced fluid systems for spacecraft.

Health Research off the Earth, For the Earth

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Today’s A Lab Aloft was posted by Ellen Stofan and Julie Robinson on April 17, 2015.

The International Space Station is a unique laboratory for performing investigations that affect human health both in space and on Earth. Since its assembly, the space station has supported research that is providing a better understanding of certain aspects of both fundamental and applied human health, such as the mechanisms causing aging and disease. Several biological and human physiological investigations have yielded important results, including improved understanding of bone loss and rebuilding, and development of new medical technologies that have impacted lives right here on Earth.

From studying the behavior of cells to developing potential improvements in clinical settings, a variety of health research arrived at the space station today aboard the sixth SpaceX contracted resupply mission. The Dragon spacecraft delivered research equipment for biology, biotechnology, human research, as well as additional research and supplies to the station. These new and ongoing investigations continue to assist researchers in pursuing scientific and medical knowledge not possible under the weight of gravity on Earth.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying the Dragon resupply spacecraft on the sixth commercial resupply services mission to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 4:10 p.m. EDT on April 14. (NASA/Tony Gray)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying the Dragon resupply spacecraft on the sixth commercial resupply services mission to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 4:10 p.m. EDT on April 14. (NASA/Tony Gray)

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and his identical twin brother Mark will participate in a series of human health studies as part of the recently begun One-Year Mission aboard the space station. The data collected comparing the twins, Scott on the space station, and Mark living on Earth, will enable researchers to determine how cognitive function, metabolic profiles, gastrointestinal microbiota, immune system and genetic sequences are affected by different factors attributable to the environmental stress of spaceflight. Results could potentially be used as the first steps to understand how to help develop new treatments and preventive measures for health issues on Earth.

Another investigation will study how and why some astronauts experience eye changes that can affect their vision during missions aboard the station. There are several factors that may cause this problem during spaceflight. This research will improve scientists’ understanding of this phenomenon and how changes in the brain and eye shape affects vision. It could also help people on Earth suffering from conditions that increase swelling and pressure in the brain.

NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins and European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano perform ultrasound eye imaging as part of the Fluid Shifts investigation during Expedition 37 on the International Space Station. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins and European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano perform ultrasound eye imaging as part of the Fluid Shifts investigation during Expedition 37 on the International Space Station. (NASA)

Studying cells in space is another important area of health research on the station. Research in microgravity provides an important novel tool to better understand the mechanisms that cause cellular functions such as cell division, gene expression and shape. Looking at cells in space provides unique insights, because in the absence of Earth’s gravity, cells grow with a similar structure as they do in the body. Scientists can use this knowledge to improve diagnosis and therapies.

A type of bone cell, called osteocytes, will arrive at the space station on today’s cargo delivery as part of a project funded under the Biomedical Research on the International Space Station (BioMed-ISS). This initiative is a collaborative effort among the National Institutes of Health, the ISS National Laboratory and NASA. The investigation team, led by Dr. Paola Divieti Pajevic, Assistant Professor at Boston University and the Director of the bone cell core at Massachusetts General Hospital, will analyze the effects of microgravity on the function of osteocytes. The study will provide better understanding of the mechanisms behind bone disorders on Earth, such as osteoporosis.

The three colorful bioreactors where mouse bone cells grow within a 3D material for the Osteo-4 investigation aboard the International Space Station. (Divieti Pajevic Laboratory)

The three colorful bioreactors where mouse bone cells grow within a 3D material for the Osteo-4 investigation aboard the International Space Station. (Divieti Pajevic Laboratory)

Additional investigations also may yield results that can potentially improve patient health in clinical settings on Earth. Scientists may be able to develop methods for combating hospital-acquired infections, a chronic problem in clinical settings, by researching bacterial growth in a microgravity environment. Moreover, by studying protein crystallization in space, scientists may be able to improve crystallization technology that can change the way drugs are used for treating various human diseases.

The programs outlined here illustrate only a fraction of the space station’s potential as a groundbreaking scientific research facility. The International Space Station National Laboratory, as designated by the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, is a unique scientific platform that continues to enable researchers to put their talents to work on innovative experiments that could not be done anywhere else. Use of the space station’s singular capabilities as a permanent microgravity platform with exposure to the space environment is improving life on Earth; fostering relationships among NASA, other federal entities, and the private sector; and advancing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

We may not know yet what will be the most important discovery gained from this orbiting laboratory, but we already are doing significant research on the International Space Station that could greatly benefit human health. Through advancing the state of scientific knowledge of our planet, looking after our health, and providing a space platform that inspires and educates health, science and technology leaders of tomorrow, these benefits will drive the legacy of the space station as its research enhances the quality of life here on Earth.

Ellen Stofan is the Chief Scientist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA/Jay Westcott)

Ellen Stofan is the Chief Scientist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA/Jay Westcott)

NASA’s International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D. (NASA)

 

 

Research Ramps Up When Commercial Crew Launches

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D., looks at how research will ramp up with the advent of the commercial crew.

The International Space Station (ISS) represents a key milestone for NASA in exploration research for future missions, in economic development of low-Earth orbit (LEO), and in developing commercial research and development for the ISS National Laboratory. Each of these three areas depends on getting the maximum research knowledge out of the facilities and infrastructure that has been built.

Even though we try to minimize crew hands-on time when we design experiments, the unique things that can be done aboard station are highly dependent on the crew. Crew members serve as the eyes and ears of the scientists. They also serve as research subjects for the wide variety of investigations in physiology and behavioral health. In biology and physics, they do the delicate laboratory tasks that cannot be automated. Given this importance, it may not surprise you to learn that crew time for research is one of our most limited resources in the laboratory.

European Space Agency Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti performs maintenance on a controller panel assembly in the International Space Station’s Tranquility module. Life aboard the space station is one of constant maintenance and working with science investigations. (NASA)

European Space Agency Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti performs maintenance on a controller panel assembly in the International Space Station’s Tranquility module. Life aboard the space station is one of constant maintenance and working with science investigations. (NASA)

When we hit a limitation such as crew time, it means that facilities might sit unused waiting for crew to change supplies, or that fewer physiology experiments can be done. In other words, we aren’t getting the maximum amount of research that the station could be doing if it didn’t have this constraint. Fortunately, the station was designed to support seven crew members, and almost all the daily time of that extra crew member will be devoted to research when they can be safely housed aboard station.

Researchers are waiting patiently (well, actually impatiently) for Commercial Crew Program (CCP) spacecraft to fly so that the crew can be augmented, and research can gear up to a higher rate. CCP also includes special requirements for model organisms such as rodents or fruit flies, advancing live return and ground processing capabilities. Commercial crew is on our critical path to getting the most research out of the space station, whether to benefit future exploration, expand research in LEO after ISS is complete, and most importantly, to make our lives and health better back here on Earth.

NASA’s International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D. (NASA)

NASA’s International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D. (NASA)

Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D., is NASA’s International Space Station Chief Scientist, representing all space station research and scientific disciplines. Robinson provides recommendations regarding research on the space station to NASA Headquarters. Her background is interdisciplinary in the physical and biological sciences. Robinson’s professional experience includes research activities in a variety of fields, such as virology, analytical chemistry, genetics, statistics, field biology, and remote sensing. She has authored more than 50 scientific publications and earned a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Utah State University, as well as a Doctor of Philosophy in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology from the University of Nevada Reno.

Women in Space Part Two, What’s Gender Got To Do With It?

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger Liz Warren, Ph.D., looks at the differences between male and female astronaut physiology on long duration space missions.

I hate to break it to you, but men are not actually from Mars and women are not really from Venus. This silly saying illustrates a question that researchers, however, are serious about studying. With International Women’s Day around the corner, I thought it the ideal time to address the question: Is there a difference between the sexes as the human body adapts to microgravity?

You may remember reading the earlier blog that I wrote about celebrating “firsts” for women space explorers. The sky is certainly no longer the limit for females interested in exploration, science or any other career they wish to pursue. In fact, if you’re following our current mission, you already know we have two women living and working on the International Space Station.

ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and Roscosmos cosmonaut Yelena Serova live and work aboard the International Space Station as part of the current crew. (NASA)

Roscosmos cosmonaut Yelena Serova and ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti live and work aboard the International Space Station as part of the current crew. (NASA)

In the fall of 2015, Sarah Brightman will be the 60th woman to fly in space. As we approach longer durations in human spaceflight, such as the one-year mission and the journey to Mars, it is important to tease out all aspects of how humans handle life in microgravity to ensure crew safety. The answers may also hold insights for human health even if you never leave the ground.

Our current crew aboard the space station includes ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut of Italian nationality, Samantha Cristoforetti, and a Roscosmos cosmonaut of Russian nationality, Yelena Serova. While serving aboard the orbiting laboratory for about six months, they each perform experiments in disciplines that range from technology development, physical sciences, human research, biology and biotechnology to Earth observations. This research helps in benefitting our lives here on Earth and enables future space exploration. They also engage students through educational activities in addition to operational tasks such as equipment maintenance and visiting vehicle tasks.

Russian cosmonaut Elena Serova, Expedition 41 flight engineer, works with hardware for the ОБР-8 Khimiya-Obrazovanie (Chemistry-Education) experiment in the Glove Minibox. Image was taken in the Rassvet Mini-Research Module 1 (MRM1) of the International Space Station. (NASA)

Russian cosmonaut Elena Serova, Expedition 41 flight engineer, works with hardware for the ОБР-8 Khimiya-Obrazovanie (Chemistry-Education) experiment in the Glove Minibox. Image was taken in the Rassvet Mini-Research Module 1 (MRM1) of the International Space Station. (NASA)

It’s important to acknowledge the contributions women in space make to both exploration and research. For instance, on Feb. 3, a prestigious tribute went to another woman space explorer, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Chiaki Mukai. She was conferred the National Order of the Legion of Honour, Chevalier. Mukai flew aboard space shuttle missions STS-65 and STS-95, and is currently the director of the JAXA Center for Applied Space Medicine and Human Research (J-CASMHR). The work these trailblazers accomplish also includes their role as research subjects themselves.

Female space explorers are skilled professionals, representing the best humanity has to offer, executing complex tasks in an unforgiving environment. Their sex differentiates them only so far as biology determines—which is exactly the topic covered in a recent compendium titled “Impact of Sex and Gender on Adaptation to Space.” The results were published in the November 2014 issue of the Journal of Women’s Health.

Samantha Cristoforetti taking images of the Earth from the International Space Station’s cupola. (NASA)

Samantha Cristoforetti taking images of the Earth from the International Space Station’s cupola. (NASA)

Space exploration is inherently dangerous, and as we look to longer duration spaceflights to Mars and beyond, NASA wants to make sure we are addressing the right questions to minimize risk to our astronaut crews. Based on a recommendation by the National Academy of Sciences, NASA and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) assembled six scientific working groups to compile and summarize the current body of knowledge about the different ways that spaceflight affects the bodies of men and women. The groups focused on cardiovascular, immunological, sensorimotor, musculoskeletal, reproductive and behavioral implications on spaceflight adaptation for men and women. NASA and NSBRI created a diagram summarizing differences between men and women in cardiovascular, immunologic, sensorimotor, musculoskeletal, and behavioral adaptations to human spaceflight.

Thus far, the differences between the male and female adaptation to spaceflight are not significant. In other words, mission managers planning a trip to Mars, for example, can do so without consideration of the sex of the crew members. However, many questions remain unanswered and require further studies and more women subjects in the human-health investigations. There is an imbalance in data available for men and women, primarily due to fewer women having flown in space.

As a physiologist, I am intrigued by several of the differences described in the journal. An area that interests me in particular is cardiovascular physiology. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cardiovascular disease—including heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure—is the number one killer of men and women across America. Many studies have shown that healthy habits including good nutrition and exercise are important for maintaining a healthy heart here on Earth. Those habits are even more important for astronauts on the space station.

Of the findings described in the journal, one is that women astronauts tend to suffer more orthostatic intolerance upon standing after return to Earth. Related to this finding, women also appear to lose more blood plasma during spaceflight. Possibly connected to the inherent differences in the cardiovascular system between men and women, male astronauts appear to suffer more vision impairment issues in space than women, although the difference is not statistically significant due to the small number of subjects—meaning more research needs to be done.

NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, Expedition 36 flight engineer, conducts an ocular health exam on herself in the Destiny laboratory of the Earth-orbiting International Space Station. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, Expedition 36 flight engineer, conducts an ocular health exam on herself in the Destiny laboratory of the Earth-orbiting International Space Station. (NASA)

Another difference between men and women in spaceflight is worth noting, and that is the radiation standard. While the level of risk allowed for both men and women in space is the same, women have a lower threshold for space radiation exposure than men, according to our models.

This is an exciting time in human space exploration. We are addressing questions today that will lead to safer journeys off our planet. This month, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will embark on the first joint U.S.-Russian one-year mission to the space station. Most stays on station are six months in duration, but planners anticipate a journey to Mars to be closer to 1,000 days. This first one-year mission is a stepping stone in our travels beyond low-Earth orbit. NASA anticipates to continue one-year long missions, and women will be part of these crew selections.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly (left), Expedition 43/44 flight engineer and Expedition 45/46 commander; and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, Expedition 43-46 flight engineer, take a break from training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston to pose for a portrait. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly (left), Expedition 43/44 flight engineer and Expedition 45/46 commander; and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, Expedition 43-46 flight engineer, take a break from training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston to pose for a portrait. (NASA)

In the meantime, what we learn about our bodies off the Earth has benefits for the Earth. In part one of this guest blog, I stated that, “in space exploration and in science, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.” I am thrilled to think of what we are about to learn from the one-year mission, as well as the continued research on and by both men and women in orbit. What an exciting time for humanity!

Liz Warren, Ph.D., communications strategist for the International Space Station Program Science Office. (NASA)

Liz Warren, Ph.D., communications strategist for the International Space Station Program Science Office. (NASA)

Liz Warren, Ph.D., is a physiologist with Barrios Technology, a NASA contractor supporting the International Space Station Program Science Office. Warren has a doctorate in molecular, cellular, and integrative physiology from the University of California at Davis, completed post-doctoral fellowships in molecular and cell biology and neuroscience, and has authored publications ranging from artificial gravity protocols to neuroscience to energy balance and metabolism.

Ironing Out Nutrition’s Bell-Shaped Curve

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In today’s A Lab Aloft NASA research scientist Sara Zwart, Ph.D., shares the compelling results of studying nutrition with the crew of the International Space Station.

What you eat can affect your performance and health, in both the short term, and over the course of your life. Eating a balanced diet is important to be sure you get all required nutrients to avoid deficiencies, but at the same time to avoid getting too much. The reason is that nutritional status in general, and the status of particular individual nutrients, often follows a bell-shaped curve. The top of the bell, representing the most favorable amount of a nutrient, is between two unfavorable amounts, not enough and too much. Iron is one of those nutrients.

A typical bell curve. (NASA/Julie Robinson)

A typical bell curve. (NASA/Julie Robinson)

Most people are familiar with iron deficiency, and now there is a growing awareness of health problems associated with having too much iron in the body. It can be difficult for the body to get too much iron, as it absorbs only a small fraction of the amount consumed in the diet. Once iron is absorbed, however, the body doesn’t have a routine way to get rid of any excess. One way to reduce the amount of iron in the body is to donate blood. In population studies, people who donated blood more often had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease than those who did not donate blood or donated it less often. This is just one example of the relationship between iron excess and disease.

Iron status is one of the areas covered by our lab’s ongoing Biochemical Profile study, for which blood samples are collected before, during, and after crew members’ flights to and from the International Space Station. These samples allow us to monitor changes in nutrition and other physiological systems during missions aboard the orbiting lab. As a side note—the amount of blood we collect at each blood draw is relatively small, less than 10 percent of a typical blood donation.

NASA astronaut Kevin Ford is drawing his blood on the International Space Station. Blood samples allow scientists to assess nutrition status. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Kevin Ford shown here drawing a blood sample on the International Space Station. Blood samples allow scientists to assess nutrition status. (NASA)

When the body has an excess of iron, it uses specific molecules to transport and store the iron. We see an increase in body iron stores in astronauts early during spaceflight, and iron stores return to preflight levels in most crew members by the end of the flight. There are several potential causes for this increase astronauts experience when they begin their time in orbit.

First – the food system contains more iron than desired, on average about three times the recommended dietary allowance. Many food items on the space station are commercially available, and common items found on grocery store shelves (like bread and cereal) are fortified with iron.

Second – iron stores increase in response to a decrease in red blood cell mass. That decrease is a normal physiological change of spaceflight. We believe that because it is easier for the heart to pump blood to the body in microgravity, less blood is required, and the body reduces the volume of blood in the circulation. This reduction happens in the first two weeks of spaceflight, and the iron from the blood cells is put into storage—because, as noted earlier, the body doesn’t have a way to get rid of it.

NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, Expedition 36 flight engineer, prepares a breakfast taco using a tortilla. Foods like this tortilla are traditionally fortified with iron, which may account for some of the increase of the mineral during the early days of spaceflight in astronauts. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, Expedition 36 flight engineer, prepares a breakfast taco using a tortilla. Foods like this tortilla are traditionally fortified with iron, which may account for some of the increase of the mineral during the early days of spaceflight in astronauts. (NASA)

In looking closely at the pattern of changes in iron status, we found that the increase in iron stores during spaceflight was related to both oxidative damage and bone loss. Think of oxidative stress in the body as similar to rust on a car. There are molecules in the body that react when exposed to certain factors such as oxygen, radiation, and even excess iron. The crew members who had the biggest increase in iron stores had the most bone loss. Those who had taken the longest time for iron stores to return toward preflight levels also had more bone loss. The next step will be to study the mechanism for how the oxidative damage is associated with bone loss, which is currently being studied on Earth as well.

Among the unique aspects of spaceflight research are the generally very healthy condition of astronauts, and the nature of the changes observes in the spaceflight environment. We observed these changes in a matter of months, whereas similar research on Earth would take years. The findings emphasize that excess iron can have negative consequences on many systems in the body in space or on Earth.

Studies regarding nutrition aboard the International Space Station can lead to benefits for future explorers, as well as those with health concerns on Earth. Here ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, Expedition 41, enjoys a prepackaged meal while living in space. (NASA)

Studies regarding nutrition aboard the International Space Station can lead to benefits for future explorers, as well as those with health concerns on Earth. Here ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, Expedition 41, enjoys a prepackaged meal while living in space. (NASA)

Further spaceflight research is needed to better understand how iron metabolism changes in astronauts on long-duration missions, and how these changes are related to other health concerns of space travel, including immune dysfunction and radiation-induced cancer risk. On exploration-class missions to other planets or celestial bodies, changes in iron metabolism on either side of the bell-shaped curve could cause or contribute to significant health issues. Our Biochemical Profile study, for which we are tracking nutrition status along with markers of bone metabolism and general chemistry, will allow us to continue to monitor iron status of astronauts and determine what other body systems are affected.

Aboard the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Steve Swanson, Expedition 40 commander, harvests a crop of red romaine lettuce plants that were grown from seed inside the station’s Veggie facility. Such food production capabilities may provide for better nutrient options during long duration missions. (NASA)

Aboard the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Steve Swanson, Expedition 40 commander, harvests a crop of red romaine lettuce plants that were grown from seed inside the station’s Veggie facility. Such food production capabilities may provide for better nutrient options during long duration missions. (NASA)

On either side of the iron bell curve, humans face health challenges and we hope to find data to help advance answers for the medical community. In the broader context, research on the far-reaching effects of increased iron stores suggests that studies aboard the space station have implications well beyond NASA for the general medical and scientific communities. Better recommendations for optimizing iron status for people on Earth may come in the future, thanks in part to the answers discovered for space explorers, but that found their way back home.

Sara R. Zwart, Ph.D. (NASA)

Sara R. Zwart, Ph.D. (NASA)

Sara R. Zwart is a research scientist with NASA’s Nutritional Biochemistry Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. She obtained her doctorate in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Florida in 2003, and B.S. in Biology from The University of Notre Dame. She is a co-author on a recent book, Human Adaptation to Spaceflight: The Role of Nutrition.

2014 Retrospective a Look Forward as the Space Station Comes into its Own

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In today’s A Lab Aloft International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D., looks back on 2014 to highlight some of the year’s milestones and research achievements.

As I take a moment to reflect on the accomplishments of the past 12 months, I can’t help but think of how they relate to where we’re going next with the International Space Station. From the crew capabilities to research goals, from NASA’s plans for continued exploration to the benefits for humanity from station studies, there are some key areas that stand out from 2014.

Expedition 41 crew portrait on the International Space Station. From left: ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst, Roscosmos cosmonauts Elena Serova, Maxim Suraev and Alexander Samokutyaev, and NASA astronauts Reid Wiseman and Barry Wilmore. (NASA)

Expedition 41 crew portrait on the International Space Station. From left: ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst, Roscosmos cosmonauts Elena Serova, Maxim Suraev and Alexander Samokutyaev, and NASA astronauts Reid Wiseman and Barry Wilmore. (NASA)

During the last year there has been so much demand for research on the space station—including investigations that require crew time—planners really have had to push the schedule. We deferred some preventative maintenance, scaling back on some filter changes, for instance, to adjust operations for increased crew time for research. That’s allowed us to get as much as 47 hours a week averaged in a six-month period. This number is the total for the three U.S. astronauts, rather than the original standard of 35 hours for science. When you think about it, that’s almost half again as much research as the designed schedule.

This is a great performance of balancing time aboard station, though we won’t always be able to hold to that. This is why we still need to go to seven crew members. The crew dedicating time to tend to investigations helps us to optimize the research coming out of space station, as well. Currently we house six crew members in orbit aboard the space station, and some of you may know that this is one person short of the craft’s design to sleep seven. This is because our Soyuz “lifeboat” can only return six crew members in an emergency. The advent of commercial crew will allow us to expand by that extra crew member, as the new vehicles can ferry four. This is a future goal that we all look forward to:  a full house.

The crew was particularly busy during the latter part of 2014 with a huge new capability for biological research using model animals. This also was driven by user demand to launch rodents—meaning mice and rats, though so far we’re starting with mice on the space station. We now have a system that can launch rodents aboard the SpaceX Dragon vehicle. The animals can live aboard station for a long period of time in special habitats, and then either be processed on orbit or eventually returned live. This system was important to get online this year, because we had a large number of users in medical research and pharmaceuticals interested in using space station as a test bed for their studies.

NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore setting up the Rodent Reseach-1 Hardware in the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore setting up the Rodent Reseach-1 Hardware in the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

There are many discoveries that have affected human health that were dependent on the use of animals as what we call “model organisms,” from the discovery of insulin to the that of tamoxifen to treat breast cancer to kidney transplants. This doesn’t mean these organisms are going to grace the cover of a magazine, but rather that they provide a model for humans to help us understand disease processes. By watching how they respond to research, we can in turn learn how to fight those diseases.

The use of model organisms in laboratories on Earth and aboard the International Space Station can lead to insights for researchers into human health. (NASA/Julie Robinson)

The use of model organisms in laboratories on Earth and aboard the International Space Station can lead to insights for researchers into human health. (NASA/Julie Robinson)

Having the ability to fly mice to space for long-duration studies is a huge advance. Fulfilling this capability was our response to the Decadal Survey recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences. We have years of research already lined up hoping to get access to these mice. To optimize the potential for discovery, we combine as many experiments together on this precious resource as possible.

This is an exciting area of study, as just a handful of mice have flown in the past—both on space station assembly flights and one flight in a system called mice drawer system. Even so, those findings account for a significant number of our highest profile publications from space station research. With access twice per year, we now have this type of study as a routine capability. This means we can expect to see a huge ramp-up in high-impact research in biomedical areas.

Another big change this year has been the space station maturing as a platform for Earth science. My colleagues in Earth sciences at NASA have called this the year of the Earth, because they’ve had five related instruments go into space this year. That’s a record, and two of these are on the space station, a first!

Artist's rendering of NASA's ISS-RapidScat instrument (inset), which launched to the International Space Station in 2014 to measure ocean surface wind speed and direction and help improve weather forecasts, including hurricane monitoring. It wasinstalled on the end of the Columbus laboratory. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Johnson Space Center

Artist’s rendering of NASA’s ISS-RapidScat instrument (inset), which launched to the International Space Station in 2014 to measure ocean surface wind speed and direction and help improve weather forecasts, including hurricane monitoring. It was installed on the end of the Columbus laboratory. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Johnson Space Center

Moving forward we’re going to see a couple instruments a year go up until the space station’s current external sites are primarily full, likely in 2017. We now need to study whether to grow our capabilities to support more Earth sciences instruments, as well as astrophysics and heliophysics studies.

It’s really thrilling to see these initial instruments come to station and begin operations right off the bat. The first of these, ISS-RapidScat, was bringing hurricane data home within three hours—this was less than a week after installation. The instrument measured the sea-surface winds and was used to look at Typhoon Vongfong in Japan. How quickly scientists can use these data and incorporate findings into use for us on the ground can provide real benefits. The results can give valuable information that people need to know to protect their lives and property, making it an important advance to have available aboard station.

Next is the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS), an imager that looks at clouds and aerosols for climate research. CATS will be followed by a number of instruments that are either brand new to science or that fill a gap from similar satellites to provide cross calibration. Our understanding of the Earth is going to improve thanks to the research from all of these instruments.

Supertyphoon Vongfong as seen by the crew of the International Space Station on Oct. 9, 2014. (NASA)

Super typhoon Vongfong as seen by the crew of the International Space Station on Oct. 9, 2014. (NASA)

One of the areas that congress has encouraged us to pursue is the development of commercial applications and commercial research on the space station. To this end, they declared the space station U.S. segment a national laboratory in 2005. In 2011 we selected CASIS, the Center for Advancement of Science in Space, to manage that national lab side for use by researchers that are not funded by NASA. These scientists may be funded by other government agencies or the private sector or nonprofit organizations.

This year CASIS grew substantially with the advent of their ARK-1 and ARK-2 suites of investigations aboard station. Also in 2014, the first National Institutes of Health (NIH) investigator of the space station national lab era launched her immunology research study. There are other NIH studies to come, including one that looks at bone loss. CASIS also brought large initiatives in protein crystal growth, Earth sciences, stem cells and materials science to continue to advance commercial research aboard the space station.

I recently spoke with Brian Talbot, marketing and communications director with CASIS, and he shared his thoughts with me on the accomplishments of the organization for the past year. “The continued growth of CASIS as an organization in 2014 speaks to the limitless opportunities commercial and academic researchers see aboard the space station. Through funded solicitations in proven areas of space-based research to innovative and non-traditional commercial users, CASIS is moving ever closer towards its goal of fully utilizing of the national lab for Earth-benefit inquiry.”

When I talked about crew time, you may have noticed that it was broken down by U.S. and Russian segments and crew members. While this division is useful for tracking purposes, it’s important to mention how we are blurring those boundaries. This international laboratory brings collaborations together through research that transcend relations on the ground. The space station exemplifies a global partnership at its best.

One thing that has driven us to continue advancing our partnership is the announcement of the joint one-year expedition. Since the 2013 announcement, we have made advances in finalizing our research goals in preparation for the 2015 launch. This extended expedition will have an astronaut and a cosmonaut both stay aboard the space station for 12 months, instead of the current six-month standard. It’s been decades since astronauts were in space that long. With the leaps in our medical technology, the one-year stay will help us to better understand what happens to the human body on long-duration flights. These studies also may help answer related concerns for health here on Earth.

Selected crew members for the one-year mission aboard the International Space Station, U.S. Astronaut Scott Kelly (pictured left) and Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko (pictured right). (NASA)

Selected crew members for the one-year mission aboard the International Space Station, U.S. Astronaut Scott Kelly (pictured left) and Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko (pictured right). (NASA)

I’m really excited about how that international collaboration across all of our partners has evolved. We’re combining more investigations, we’re releasing open data for the entire global scientific community to work with and we’re joining crew member resources to optimize all of these activities. Whether it’s microbial sampling, taking care of plants or making specific observations of the human body, our crew members are working together on what is truly an international station in space.

Early this year, John Holdren, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy for the Obama administration, announced their support of extending the space station to 2024. We have worked through the impacts that this has for space station research and this extension gives us 90 percent more external research and close to 50 percent more pressurized research—those studies taking place in the cabin. 2024 is very important to what we can achieve with this global microgravity resource of the space station.

When we have scientists already in line wanting to do investigations, having more time to get those studies done and even to do follow-on research opens up the discovery potential. This also provides more time for research markets to develop independently. Just like on the ground, when someone wants to study a certain area, they contract a lab to do the experiments. Someday, when space station is gone, we want scientists to have continued access through this emerging market of microgravity research in space. This longer duration for station to remain as a platform helps to open up those opportunities for researchers around the world. This is the world’s chance to continue the mission of discovery off the Earth for the Earth.

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

Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D., is NASA’s International Space Station Chief Scientist, representing all space station research and scientific disciplines. Robinson provides recommendations regarding research on the space station to NASA Headquarters. Her background is interdisciplinary in the physical and biological sciences. Robinson’s professional experience includes research activities in a variety of fields, such as virology, analytical chemistry, genetics, statistics, field biology, and remote sensing. She has authored more than 50 scientific publications and earned a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Utah State University, as well as a Doctor of Philosophy in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology from the University of Nevada Reno.

Partnerships Powering Student Investigations Launch to Space Station

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In today’s A Lab Aloft we hear from William Wells Jr., aSTEAM Village SSEP Kansas City program director, as he shares the difference made in the lives of students when schools work together to support education opportunities. These students literally reach for the stars with the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program when they send their studies to the International Space Station.

Many U.S. students lack foundational skills and knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM, or with art added STEAM) as a result of the absence of authentic learning activities in STEM subjects. They have little to no exposure to highly competent role models in STEM fields and limited opportunities to think critically, solve problems, research, publish and hypothesize.

Through the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program (SSEP), which is led by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE), Benjamin Banneker Charter Academy of Technology in Kansas City, Missouri, engaged with other public and private school districts through aSTEAM Village, and I am honored to serve as the SSEP Kansas City program director. I work to fulfill the aSTEAM Village mission of helping to level the playing field for students in the Kansas City area. Our goal is to ensure all students are exposed to 21st-century knowledge through an expanded learning strategy in before/after-school and regular classroom environments using STEAM curriculum.

SSEP Mission 5 launch delegation posing in from of the Antares rocket that successfully carried the selected experiment ‘Oxidation in Space” to the International Space Station in July 2014. (aSTEAM Village)

SSEP Mission 5 launch delegation posing in from of the Antares rocket that successfully carried the selected experiment ‘Oxidation in Space” to the International Space Station in July 2014. (aSTEAM Village)

Through this in-depth program, our community’s students are presented an opportunity to be immersed in a high-profile community science competition. The objective is for students to submit an experiment that they hope will be selected to ferry to the International Space Station. Aboard the orbiting laboratory astronauts will perform the student experiment in microgravity. Meanwhile, the students conduct the ground truth of the study here on Earth. This is a real space program and not a simulation!

Astronaut Luca Parmitano getting ready to activate specific SSEP mini-labs aboard the International Space Station. The SSEP Falcon I Experiment Payload box is open. (NASA)

Astronaut Luca Parmitano getting ready to activate specific SSEP mini-labs aboard the International Space Station. The SSEP Falcon I Experiment Payload box is open. (NASA)

I was speaking recently with Marian Brown, Ed.D., superintendent for Benjamin Banneker Charter Academy of Technology, who shared with me the difference she has noticed in students attending aSTEAM Village partner schools through their participation with SSEP.

“We are so pleased that teachers and mentors have embraced the struggle to immerse and engage students in every facet of real science to ensure all students are provided the chance to explore the scientific method, as well as experience science firsthand. More importantly, we have observed an increase in our students’ capacity for hard work, perseverance and resilience. In addition, this program and partnership will help alter the path of children’s lives by fostering creative thinking, real-world problem-solving and true innovation for urban revitalization.”

I was not surprised that Dr. Brown’s thoughts were echoed in a conversation I recently had with Kristen Marriott, a middle school STEM teacher who has been involved with SSEP in three missions at two different aSTEAM Village partner schools: Della Lamb and Crossroads Academy. Marriott believes that the best thing about the program is watching the students problem solve and work collaboratively.

“They start the project as individuals but end up as a group, working through difficulties and limitations together. I have been amazed with the variety of experiments the students have proposed. We truly have a generation of STEM leaders making their way through school at this time.”

Eamon Shaw and Nicole Ficklin with astronaut Dr. Don Thomas at the NCESSE National Conference (Lisa Shaw)

Eamon Shaw and Nicole Ficklin with astronaut Dr. Don Thomas at the NCESSE National Conference. (Lisa Shaw)

I think it’s safe to say there is plenty of evidence to support Marriott’s assertion. Two teams from another aSTEAM Village community partner, St. Peter’s School, had two flights selected, Mission 5 and Mission 6, which Robert J. Jacobsen, the school’s science teacher and SSEP coordinator said, “provided not only St. Peter’s, but the Kansas City community, a sense of achievement and pride.”

It has been fun watching the students reap the rewards of their diligent work and effort, from brainstorming and proposing ideas to presenting their projects at the NCESSE 2014 National SSEP Conference in Washington. The student researchers, grades 5-8, discovered the need to be flexible yet manage their time and energy. They learned to value review boards, both at the local and national level, and the important input that they had to offer. The student teams also mastered answering questions from the media (and what a wonderful job they have done). We have seen the enthusiasm of the student teams involved with both Missions 5 and 6 act as a motivating force for the Mission 7 teams who have just completed their proposals to be evaluated by the local review board.

Through mostly local funding, SSEP also provided the opportunity for the Mission 5 finalists and first-time SSEP participants from the Kansas City area to get a life-altering VIP tour of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The aSTEAM Village students, from six different public, charter and private schools, had the opportunity to learn, explore and enjoy an experience of a lifetime in the Chincoteague, Va., and Washington, D.C., areas.

SSEP_WallopsB

SSEP Mission 5 Launch Delegation visiting the NASA Wallops Flight Facility. (aSTEAM Village)

For several of the students, it was the first time they had ever left the immediate Kansas City area. The highlight of our trip was the visit to the flight facility center where the flight project manager made it his point to host the tour. He spent several hours with the students, teachers and chaperones. What came forth was the utmost and genuine enthusiasm and passion for science and engineering that the individuals and teams of the flight facilities displayed. This experience was so important and it definitely left an unforgettable impression upon both the students and us adults in the Kansas City delegation.

I have been truly amazed to see the realization of the vision of NCESSE director, Jeff Goldstein, Ph.D., and his message to educators, students and parents that, “the world is a classroom.” It is an honor to serve as SSEP Kansas City program director as this program not only has all of us mentors, students and parents looking to the skies and beyond, but it also without question, has inspired the next generation of scientists, technologists and engineers. More importantly, it is infusing the confidence in the student researchers that indeed they can become whatever they want to become, because at a very early age of their life they can truthfully say that participation in SSEP has made them a part of America’s space program.

SSEP Kansas City students from Banneker, St. Peter's and Academie Lafayette come together in the Banneker Lecture Hall to view the launch of the selected Mission 6 experiment with student researchers Holden O'Keefe, Nicole Ficklin and Eamon Shaw. The original experiment was lost in the catastrophic failure of Orbital Science Corp.’s Antares rocket shortly after liftoff on October 28. Holden, Nicole and Eamon's experiment will re-launch on SpaceX’s upcoming resupply mission to the space station. (Paula Holmquist)

SSEP Kansas City students from Banneker, St. Peter’s and Academie Lafayette come together in the Banneker Lecture Hall to view the launch of the selected Mission 6 experiment with student researchers Holden O’Keefe, Nicole Ficklin and Eamon Shaw. The original experiment was lost in the catastrophic failure of Orbital Science Corp.’s Antares rocket shortly after liftoff on October 28. Holden, Nicole and Eamon’s experiment will re-launch on SpaceX’s upcoming resupply mission to the space station. (Paula Holmquist)

Seeing these kids take to STEM, NASA can rest assured that SSEP will produce their next wave of talented explorers and leaders. They’ll be ready for hire when NASA ushers our nation deep into the galaxy and beyond over the next century. I know from my experience with these bright and enthusiastic student scientists that they’ll take us great places!

SSEP and its passionate team are a wonderful gift to the younger generation. We need people to challenge the young minds. They indeed are the future. Go, SSEP!

William Wells Jr., aSTEAM Village SSEP Kansas City program director. (Alison Barnes-Martin)

William Wells Jr., aSTEAM Village SSEP Kansas City program director. (Alison Barnes-Martin)

William Wells, Jr., is a seasoned tech professional and entrepreneur who leverages his knowledge and expertise to inspire the next generation of STEAM professionals as the aSTEAM Village SSEP Kansas City program director. He has successfully formed collaborations among a diverse coalition of schools to bring unique STEAM-related programming to hundreds of K-8 students through the aSTEAM Village. Wells currently serves as the lead robotics and computer science instructor at Benjamin Banneker Charter Academy of Technology. He has been named the National and Local Black Engineer of the Year and attended the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and Kansas City Kansas Community College.

 

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in the U.S., and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with NanoRacks LLC, working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory. SSEP is the first pre-college STEM education program that is both a U.S. national initiative and implemented as an on-orbit commercial space venture.

Rodent Research Ramps Up Aboard the International Space Station

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In today’s A Lab Aloft International Space Station Assistant Program Scientist Kirt Costello, Ph.D., lays out what’s new in rodent research in orbit. The updated facility and planned studies will advance capabilities for microgravity life science and biology research.

In this blog we often talk about the “why” reasons for the research that we are doing on the International Space Station, but sometimes it’s also important to talk about “where” NASA gets the ideas. Specifically, where do the concepts and research announcements come from? How does NASA know that the science being selected fits the needs of the country in its quest to get the most beneficial use of the space station’s national laboratory?

Today’s discussion is on the new space station Rodent Research Facility and the objectives that NASA is trying to meet by making this system available to both researchers seeking safe exploration of space and those seeking improvements in health here on Earth. Many of these investigations directed specifically at improving life on Earth come through the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) as the manager of the space station’s national laboratory resources.

Image of the Mouse Immunology (MI) Animal Enclosure Modules (AEM). (NASA)

Image of the Mouse Immunology (MI) Animal Enclosure Modules (AEM). (NASA)

NASA has been conducting rodent research in space for many years. The majority of those investigations focus on clinical questions about how we keep our astronauts healthy in space for longer periods. They also address very basic life science questions about how animal physiology changes in a weightless environment. Prior to and during the time of station assembly, the Space Shuttle Program hosted the Animal Enclosure Module (AEM) studies. The AEM flew 28 missions conducting research, such as the Commercial Biomedical Testing Module or CBTM investigations. The AEM system was well suited to the Space Transportation System (STS), allowing researchers important access to their rodent subjects both before flight and during post flight recovery.

With the end of the shuttle program, it was clear that the use of newly designed transportation vehicles would necessitate redesign efforts for AEM use aboard station. Conducting such investigations not on the vehicle, but aboard the station would enable longer-duration studies. The change from a few weeks to a few months in microgravity increases the potential research returns, but also requires some changes in the design of the hardware.

NASA’s Rodent Habitat module, seen here with both access doors open, is the next generation replacement to its predecessor, the Animal Enclosure Module (AEM). (NASA/Dominic Hart)

NASA’s Rodent Habitat module, seen here with both access doors open, is the next generation replacement to its predecessor, the Animal Enclosure Module (AEM). (NASA/Dominic Hart)

The importance of continuing rodent research aboard the space station is laid out by the National Research Council (NRC) in their 2010 Decadal Study Report, “Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration Life and Physical Sciences Research for a new Era.” In that study’s section on animal and human biology a third of the recommendations specifically called out the use of mouse or animal model organisms as the mechanism to proceed with research on the orbiting laboratory. These recommendations focus on muscle and bone loss, the testing of drugs for osteoporosis, changes to the animal immune system, the effects of aerosol exposures to the lungs and multi-generational and developmental studies.

To accomplish the wide array of research that the NRC proposed, some improvements were made to the AEM system to update the workhorse that had served well during the shuttle years. Improvements include features such as upgraded longer lasting filters, changeable food trays and support systems within the microgravity science glovebox (MSG) facility. These changes allow for studies to focus on the effects of microgravity exposure over much longer time frames. While the AEM of the shuttle era only housed rodents for up to 17 days, the new facility on space station can maintain an investigation for months.

NASA astronaut Nicole P. Stott, STS-133 mission specialist, is photographed using a camcorder to record Mouse Immunology-2 investigation in one of the orbiter Discovery’s middeck lockers. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Nicole P. Stott, STS-133 mission specialist, is photographed using a camcorder to record Mouse Immunology-2 investigation in one of the orbiter Discovery’s middeck lockers. (NASA)

Part of what makes rodents ideal test subjects is the fact that they reach maturity and age much quicker than humans. The typical rodent lifetime is about 2.5 years versus about 72 years for the comparable human. The capability to support rodents for up to 180 day stays is in development for the space station. During stays that long, researchers can begin to investigate questions that deal with developmental biology and extended exposure to microgravity. A half a year stay for a rodent might be the equivalent of a 14 year exposure to a human.

Updates to the old system also add both white light and infrared cameras for observing rodent conditions and behaviors. This capability allows researchers on the ground to closely monitor their studies. It also requires less crew time, as the observations can be done remotely, which in turn frees up that crew time to get more science done aboard the space station.

The first flight of the new Rodent Research Facility is on the upcoming SpaceX-4 mission to the space station. During this flight, designers will validate all of the initial performance goals for the rodent research hardware. The facility also will get a head start on some of the NRC decadal recommended goals with the CASIS sponsored portion of the Rodent Research-1 investigation. This study will include 10 of the 20 mice flying in the two habitats, and is in partnership with the commercial pharmaceutical company, Novartis.

A view of the SpaceX Dragon Commercial Resupply Services-3 (CRS-3) spacecraft grappled by the Canadarm2 Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS) during Expedition 39. (NASA)

A view of the SpaceX Dragon Commercial Resupply Services-3 (CRS-3) spacecraft grappled by the Canadarm2 Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS) during Expedition 39. (NASA)

The test subjects will live aboard the space station for about 21 days. The CASIS mice will include five wild type—or typical—and five transgenic MuRF-1 knockout mice. Researchers will compare results from these two groups and the ground control counterparts to determine whether this genetic knockout impacts muscle atrophy and muscle sparing—where tissue is conserved—in those mice.

While the inaugural flight of the new rodent habitat system is right around the bend, the rodent research project team at NASA’s Ames Research Center is already hard at work. They are planning more complex investigations and improving the system to accommodate longer durations and more experimental aims for researchers. Rodent research will become a routine part of space station for the decade to come.

For me, personally, it’s been a great experience working with these teams to get this facility ready for flight. I’m excited by all the possibilities for the new research avenues that this opens for NASA and CASIS researchers. I’m humbled by the effort that has gone into this capability, and I hope you all will tune in during the mission to follow along with the accomplishments of the team.

Kirt Costello completed a Ph.D. in Space Physics and Astronomy at Rice University in 1998. Kirt is the Assistant International Space Station Program Scientist for National Research. In this position he works with the International Space Station Chief Scientist, NASA research organizations and CASIS to advise on the objectives and priorities of science being prepared to fly to the space station.

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