Author Archives: Julie Robinson

Tuning In Scientists so the Public Will Not Tune Out

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson shares how scientists can better share research with the public.

As scientists we are trained to “sell” our research to other scientists. We submit our proposals to a peer review panel, our papers to peer reviewers and we present those papers to each other at conferences. We write and speak for and to ourselves. Unfortunately, learning how to communicate with other scientists doesn’t necessarily prepare you to share your science with broader audiences like the public. Science often gets criticized for being too esoteric or not connected enough to taxpayers that fund the research. I think this is because the scientists have not learned how to communicate with those audiences.

It is worth the effort to take the time to become a better general communicator. I find that scientists who are good at speaking with non-scientists are also skilled at communicating with scientists in disciplines other than their own. This is because they are able to focus on more than their own discipline and think about the connections between the things everybody knows. Making the effort to communicate can actually make you a more innovative scientist!

International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson communicating the impacts of microgravity research at the 2012 ISS Symposium. (ESA)

Challenging yourself to think about what you’ve done and explain it to your grandmother or to your neighbor can be a powerful intellectual driver. If you can do that, and explain why the research matters, the conversation transitions from a lecture to an inspirational experience. It helps you become a better scientist when you make that connection.

One challenge we have when we attempt to communicate science to the public is the funny view that people have about scientists. I think most people picture Albert Einstein, the mad scientist stereotype or, heaven forbid, the crazy female scientist. Real scientists are innovative and not nearly as dramatic or as inscrutable as in the movies. Because of the stereotypes, people expect you to be hard to understand. The audience may dismiss the information, saying they don’t get that “science stuff” and just stop listening.

Albert Einstein, 1935. (Credit: Sophie Delar/Wikipedia)

Thankfully there are some great models out there on how to reach the public and how to get science information to them. For instance, NPR Science Friday covers various science disciplines accurately, and yet it’s understandable. There are some great science media outlets that are communicating research in inspiring ways. Nature magazine has great, publically accessible, weekly science reporting. Smithsonian and Discovery also connect with people that are interested in science.

Not only do we need to get people interested in what we’re doing and why it matters to us, but we also need to articulate why our work should matter to them. Making that connection is often hard for scientists. During our development as scientists our colleagues have trained us—sometimes painfully—not to overstate our conclusions. We are taught to say things with the caveat “we don’t know for sure” or “we might need to do more research to find out.” This automatically makes what we say boring, and it reduces the impact. It also seems so self-serving to a non-scientist because they get the impression that our main purpose is to justify more research.

Unfortunately, we often add these caveats unnecessarily by instinct. We don’t want anyone to accuse us of saying anything beyond our data. There’s a tension between explaining things in a dynamic way and overstating the case for findings or benefits of a study.

Thumbing through an airline magazine the other day, I saw several ads for universities that read, “We’re making breakthroughs for your health.” They’re happy and at ease making those sorts of statements; we at NASA would not be comfortable stating that without a lot of proof in the fine print. We have a lot of watchdogs that are ready to question our claims, even if what we are trying to do is be good communicators about our accomplishments.

The International Space Station Benefits for Humanity publication and associated website are part of the communications tools NASA uses to share benefits from space station research with humanity. (NASA)

The other thing to consider is that the International Space Station took a significant investment, and, much like the investments made in science in other areas, our public doesn’t understand how it helps their daily lives. If you ask people how the National Science Foundation helps their daily life, they can’t tell you. It’s the same if you ask about the space station; most can’t tell you how they benefit from our research. As scientists, we all have this same communication problem. With the space station, we’re trying to help connect the dots between the research we’re doing and how this can help make people’s lives better.

There are challenges to this. It takes time for those applications to develop; yet powerful applications have been made: cleaning the air in a daycare so kids aren’t as likely to transfer illness and research on astronaut bone loss are just two examples. The results from our bone loss studies are surprising researchers on Earth. There’s a lot of synergy, and there are some things we can study better on the space station in a microgravity environment. The results from space coupled with those from experiments on Earth benefit humanity in many ways.

It’s up to us, the scientists, to continue to challenge ourselves to share this work with the public in new and dynamic ways, to communicate the importance of this research and its outcomes. We can’t promise the application of a specific result, but we can promise our work will help our nation stay on the competitive edge. We shouldn’t oversell—but we also shouldn’t sell our science short.

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

Destination Station Brings the Space Experience Home

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In today’s post, International Space Station Program Scientist, Julie Robinson, Ph.D., shares the experience and benefits of Destination Station with the readers of A Lab Aloft.

Destination Station is a new endeavor that we have as a resource to help bring information about the International Space Station to the public. The goal of this traveling exhibit is to inform people around the country about this amazing orbiting laboratory and resource by visiting different host communities. Destination Station includes a fantastic museum exhibit that actually lets visitors walk through a mockup of the same shape and size of the modules on the space station. It also has interactive videos and posters, in addition to artifacts for people to look at.


The Destination Station exhibit will travel around the country to help inform the public about the International Space Station and promote research and education opportunities.
(Credit: NASA)

When the Destination Station exhibit arrives in a new community, there are about two weeks of different events that come with it. One major focus area includes educational activities, both linked to the host museum and to schools in the local community. NASA educators come in and bring some of our outstanding education programs out to different schools. They also set up communication events where students can experience a live downlink and talk with astronauts on orbit, asking them questions about station research and what it’s like to live in space.

Once Destination Station moves on, resources are left behind so that area teachers can continue to use space to get their students focused on science, math, and engineering. Studies have shown that students are interested in space—If you think about two things that get students excited about science, it’s space and dinosaurs. We can’t provide dinosaurs, but we do have a lot to share about space.


The Destination Station exhibit includes interactive posters, like the one pictured above showing a scale image of the station with a size comparison to a football field.
(Credit: NASA)

The other important aspect of Destination Station is reaching out to the business community. For example, at the most recent event in Denver, Colorado, there was a pretty large technology savvy population. Astronaut Mike Good and I had a chance to speak with state representatives and business leaders as part of the Destination Station scheduled talks. Through this forum, we had the opportunity to share with those leaders the importance of the space station and space exploration for the American economy. We focused on how research results and technology developments keep our country on the cutting edge, serving as an economic engine that drives innovation and business economies around the world.

The response from the Denver and Colorado-based business community was just outstanding! These community leaders were really interested in what is happening with the space station and the potential boost to economic growth. In fact, many of the businesses are already evolving technologies developed for aerospace and space research into Earth-focused products and services. Examples include things like clothing made from phase change materials, superior plant growth media, and GPS tracking services.


The Destination Station exhibit includes interactive posters, like the one pictured above sharing information about research in space.
(Credit: NASA)

In the Colorado area there are a number of companies that focus on working with scientists to help them do research on the space station. These businesses hosted a fair at Destination Station to reach out to those interested in translating their research from the university lab bench to the space environment. Scientists could go, see the hardware, and talk to providers experienced in taking ground-based research and putting it up into space. Bioserve Space Technologies demonstrated all of the hardware available at the fair.

Destination Station is a great combination of events for everyone from the students to the general public to researchers. Earlier in the year we also took the exhibit to the Ohio area, with events in Cleveland and Columbus. There are talks with universities and civic groups, it’s just a really exciting two weeks when Destination Station comes to town. We hope to see you at the next location for Destination Station stop in the San Francisco Bay area in early March 2012.


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



Touching Lives via International Space Station Benefits

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We are proud to announce the new International Space Station Benefits for Humanity website. Today’s entry highlights how this international collaborative effort communicates positive impacts to life here on Earth from space station research and technology.

Last month at the International Space Station Heads of Agencies meeting in Quebec, Canada, my international counterparts and I had the opportunity to share the results of more than a year’s worth of work across the international partnership. This collaboration culminated in the launch of the International Space Station Benefits for Humanity website, which looks at the early results from the space station and highlights those that have returned major benefits to humanity.

This website was translated into all the major partner languages and there also is a downloadable book format. The 28 stories found on the site focus on human health, education, and Earth observation and remote sensing, but these are just some of the benefit areas. Others, such as the knowledge gained for exploration or basic scientific discovery, are found on the space station results and news websites.

It can be a bit challenging at first see which station efforts will generate direct Earth benefits. This is because when we do the research, we finish things on orbit and then it can take two to five years for the results to publish, and possibly another five years after that before the knowledge yields concrete returns. I think each of us, while developing these stories, found things that surprised us. I suspect readers will, too. Some of these developments and findings are so amazing they go straight to your heart!

For example, the Canadian Space Agency robotic technology developed for the Canadarm was really cutting edge; now it has been applied to a robotic arm that can assist with surgery. Brain surgeons have used this robotic arm to help some patients who were not eligible for a standard operation, because the surgeries were too delicate for human hands. With the robotic assist, still in the testing phase, they were able to save the lives of several patients. This is a remarkable development.


Paige Nickason was the first patient to have brain surgery performed by the neuroArm robot, developed based on International Space Station technology. (Jason Stang) View large image

Another area where space technology returns offer a benefit to humanity is in the ability to provide clean water in remote regions and disaster areas. We also have stories about the ability to use station related telemedicine to improve the success and survival for women and their babies, if they anticipate complications during delivery. Providing a remote diagnosis to women in hard-to-reach areas enables them to seek life-saving medical care. These are just a few of the remarkable returns from space technologies.


Expectant women around the world can experience safer deliveries in part due to International Space Station technology in telemedicine. (Credit: Scott Dulchavsky)

The website also includes stories that focus on the research knowledge obtained during station investigations. One particular area gaining attention is vaccine development. Scientists are now creating candidate vaccines for salmonella that fight food poisoning, as well as one in the works for MRSA—an antibiotic resistant bacteria that is very dangerous in hospitals.


An example of Salmonella invading cultured human cells. (Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH) View large image

We also see ongoing benefits in the area of Earth observation, which our Japanese colleagues compellingly described after the Fukushima earthquake in Japan. The Japanese people were responding to that event in such courageous ways. Having information about what was going on really helped and the global community mobilized all the possible Earth remote sensing resources to provide aid via imagery of the disaster. The station provided imagery and data of the flooding from the original tsunami surge. I would like to share with you the comments of my JAXA colleague, Shigeki Kamigaichi, who was on the ground after the disaster:

“The Earth observation by astronauts from the International Space Station brought us several impressive image data offerings. Furthermore, the crew comments concerning the tsunami damage from March 11, 2011, to the people who suffered gave us a feeling of oneness and relief.”


Oblique image of the Japanese coastline north and east of Sendai following inundation by a tsunami. The photo was taken Mar. 13, 2011. Sunglint indicates the widespread presence of floodwaters and indicates oils and other materials on the water surface. (NASA) View large image

One of the exciting things about Earth observations work is that the station passes over populated parts of the world multiple times a day. Our Russian colleagues shared some examples of work they had done to track pollution in the Caspian Sea using data from the space station. They also used Uragan imagery to understand a major avalanche in the Russian Caucasus region, determining glacial melting as the root cause of the avalanche. These imaging efforts really help as we look at ways to better respond and predict disasters and prevent future loss of life.


Oil pollution in the northern part of the Caspian Sea, on the basis of data received from the Uragan experiment: 40 oilfields, equaling approximately 10 percent of the surface covered with oil film. (Roscosmos) View large image

Of course, there also are the compelling educational benefits from the space station. It is inspiring to see students get excited about science, technology, engineering and math, simply by connecting them to space exploration. Education is a bonus, since this is not why you build a laboratory like this. Once you have that laboratory, however, you can make a huge impact in children’s futures.

One of the most widely influential examples of educational benefits are when we hear students from all over the world, not just station partners, using HAM radio contacts to speak with astronauts aboard station. This happens on the astronauts’ free time, when they can just pick up the ham radio and contact hundreds of students through amateur radio networks. These children ask questions and learn about everything from space to life aboard the station to how to dream big. It is a recreational activity for the astronauts, taking just a few minutes, but the students are touched for a lifetime.

Because this effort is so readily routed internationally, students in developing countries can benefit just as easily as students in other areas. In fact, 63 countries already have participated with the space station; a much larger number than the 15 partner countries. Education activities are a core international benefit.


A student talks to a crew member aboard the International Space Station during an ARISS contact. (Credit: ARISS) View large image

While this initial launch of the Benefits for Humanity website was a big release, it is something we plan to maintain and continue over time with our partners. The work for these derivatives of station activities will continue to roll out over time, but we anticipate it to grow. When you have hundreds of experiments active during any six-month period on orbit, the throughput and the amount of crew time going to research each week is unprecedented!

The experiments are being completed faster than ever before and we are going to see these benefits and results coming out much more quickly, so it is an exciting time. It is important to start talking about these developments as we turn the corner from assembly to the full mission of research aboard this one-of-a-kind orbiting laboratory.


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


A Lab for Science, and for Thinking

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A Lab Aloft is pleased to republish a recent blog entry from NASA Astronaut Don Pettit. He is currently living aboard the International Space Station and conducting research on the orbiting laboratory. We hope you will enjoy his unique perspective on science in the frontier of space!

The International Space Station was conceived and constructed through the cooperation of fifteen nations. Now, with its construction complete, we can focus on how best to use it.

We have built a laboratory located on the premier frontier of our era. Our Earth-honed intuition no longer applies in this orbital environment. On frontiers, things do not behave the way we think they should, and our preconceived notions are altered by observations. That makes it rich in potential for discovery. The answers are not in the back of the book, and sometimes even the questions themselves may not be known.


Getting ready to insert biological samples in the Minus Eighty Laboratory Freezer for ISS (MELFI-1) in the Kibo lab.

On the Station we can use reduced gravity as an experimental variable for long periods of time. We have access to high vacuum, at enormous pumping rates. (The rate at which space can suck away gas, hence its ability to provide a region devoid of molecules, far outpaces anything we can do on Earth.) We are beyond the majority of our atmosphere, which lets us touch the near-space environment where solar wind, cosmic rays, and atomic oxygen abound. Such cosmic detritus, unavailable for study within our atmosphere, holds some answers to the construction of our universe and how our small planet fits into the picture.

The Station as a laboratory offers most of the features that Earth-borne laboratories have, including a good selection of experimental equipment, supplies, and a well-characterized environment (temperature, pressure, humidity, gas composition, etc.). There is generous electric power, high data-rate communications, significant crew work hours (the fraction of hours spent on science per crew day on Space Station is commensurate with the fraction for other science frontiers such as Antarctica and the deep ocean), and extended observational periods ranging from weeks to years. All this is conducted with a healthy blend of robots and humans, working together hand-in-end-effector, each contributing what each does best. Only on Earth is there a perceived friction between robots and humans.

In this orbital laboratory, we can iterate experimental procedures. We can try something, fail, go back to our chalk board, think, (we now have the time for this luxury) and try it all over again. We can iterate on the iteration. We now have continuous human presence, and time to see the unexpected and act upon it in unplanned ways. Sometimes these odd observations become the basis for studies totally different from those originally planned; sometimes those studies prove to be more valuable. And on this frontier the questions and answers mold each other in Yin-Yang fashion until reaching a natural endpoint or the funding runs out, whichever comes first. This is science at its best, and now, for the first time, we have a laboratory in space that allows us to do research in a way comparable to how we do it on Earth.

So what questions are ripe for study on the Station? What possible areas of research might bear fruit? We have a few ideas.

One area is the study of life on Earth. Life has survived for billions of years, during which temperatures, pressures, chemical potentials, radiation, and other factors have varied widely. Life always adapts and (mostly) survives. Yet there is one parameter that has remained constant for billions of years, as if our planet was the most tender of incubators. Now for the first time in the evolution of life, we humans can systematically tweak the gravity knob and probe its effect on living creatures. And we can change the magnitude of gravity by a factor of one million. Try changing other life-giving parameters, perhaps temperature, by a factor of one million and see how long it takes a hapless life form to shrivel up and die! The fact that gravity can be changed by many orders of magnitude and life can continue is, in itself, an amazing discovery. So now we have a laboratory to probe in-depth the effects of microgravity on living organisms.

The discovery of fire (or rather its harnessing) was a significant advance that allowed humans to transcend what we were to become what we are now. Well before Galileo and Newton dissected the basic formulations of gravity, humans intuitively understood that heat rises. We empirically learned how to fan the flames. But fire as we know it on Earth requires gravity. Without gravity-driven convection, it will consume its local supply of oxygen and snuff itself out as effectively as if smothered by a fire extinguisher. Questions about fire (up here we prefer the term “combustion”) are ripe for a place where we can tinker with the gravity knob.

Another invention, the wheel, literally carried us into the Industrial Age. Ironically, that particular tool is rendered obsolete on a frontier where one can move the heaviest of burdens with a small push of the fingertips. In space the problem is not how to move an object, but how to make it stay put. Perhaps the invention of the bungee cord and Velcro will be the space-equivalent to the development of the wheel on Earth. Such shifts in thought and perspective, some seemingly minor, happen when you observe the commonplace in a new and unfamiliar setting.

We are now told that we may only be seeing about 4 percent of the stuff that our universe is made of (which raises the question, what is the other 96 percent?). Some questions about fundamental physics can only be made outside our atmosphere or away from the effects of gravity. The International Space Station, contaminated with human-induced vibrations, may not be the ideal platform for these observations, but it is currently in orbit and is available to be used. Many of these experiments are like remora fish, latching onto an opportune shark for a sure ride instead of waiting for the ideal shark to swim by. And we pesky humans, even though we cause vibration, occasionally come in handy when some unexpected problem requires a tweak, a wrench, or simply a swift kick.

Although we have preconceived ideas about how the International Space Station can be utilized, benefits of an unquantifiable nature will slowly emerge and probably will be recognized only in hindsight. The Station offers us perspective; it allows us to question how humans behave on this planet in ways that you can’t when you live there.


Don Pettit holds a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering from Oregon State University and a doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of Arizona. He was selected by NASA as an astronaut in 1996. He is a veteran of three spaceflights and is currently aboard the International Space Station  as part of the Expedition 30/31 crew. Pettit is scheduled to live and work aboard the station until May 2012.



Space Innovation and Mobile Healthcare

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, our guest blogger is the Director of NASA’s Human Health and Performance Center, Dr. Jeffrey Davis. This center fosters a collaboration between space and Earth research and technologies. Dr. Davis shares with readers the potential behind cooperative efforts during the development stages of projects.

Mobile healthcare is the focus for the upcoming NASA Human Health and Performance Center, or NHHPC, Workshop, scheduled for June 7 in Washington, D.C., as part of D.C. Health Data and Innovation Week. This is our third workshop, and topics of interest include not only terrestrial global health issues, but also technologies for smartphone applications to collect data, to inform patients, to connect patients with their providers, etc.


A collaborative moment from the NASA Human Health and Performance Center Workshop, Jan. 19, 2011. (NASA Image)

For everything developed through the NHHPC, we would like to see an Earth and space application, as well as a transfer of knowledge in both directions. NASA technology could be adapted to terrestrial health issues, via spinoffs and other applications, but we hope to pull in ideas that exist in the public domain for the mutual benefit of everyone. That is the concept behind the center, to connect people and employ that bridge in both directions to benefit spaceflight and life on Earth.

While there are a number of projects ongoing between members, for this blog I am focusing on the Colorimetric Solid Phase Extraction, or CSPE, technology. This is a great example, because it’s different from flying a commercial off-the-shelf device on the International Space Station. It has the potential for development in more than one application.

The CSPE is a paint chip identification device originally designed to match paint colors. The technology was adapted, however, to measure silver and iodine in water and it is now flying on the space station for this purpose. Called the Colorimetric Water Quality Monitoring Kit, this tool enables the measurement of biocides found in water on orbit to allow for safe drinking water for the crew.


NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, Expedition 21 flight engineer, conducts a water quality analysis using the Colorimetric Water Quality Monitoring Kit, or CWQMK, in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. (NASA Image)

There are additional Earth benefits that could derive from the CSPE. It has the potential to be modified to measure arsenic and lead in water, which are global public health concerns. This other capability is not yet developed, but it is a great example of how an innovative design from a non-biomedical piece of equipment can have mutual space and Earth applications.

Through the NHHPC, we hope to find technology applications for space flight or that can use the space station as a testbed for evaluation in later flights. When we are able to fly technologies early in their development on station, we have the benefit of visualizing how the orbiting lab works as a platform for planning purposes.

The inverse of this is that as we continue to learn more about human adaptation to long duration space flight, we can expand that knowledge base through our member organizations and derive how existing NASA technologies or future technologies might adapt for Earth benefits. What we have found is that by approaching problem solving early enough with the NHHPC members, we can preemptively address issues or requirement questions. Creating a device that is low weight, low power and robust parallels many healthcare concerns, especially for remotely located populations.

We find that by asking the right questions, we can connect people in the early phases of technology planning and development. Technology sharing can always occur, but the goal is to identify common issues for use as collaboration platforms that can eventually turn into projects.


The NASA Human Health and Performance Center logo, showing the core goals of collaboration, innovation, and education in global human health and performance efforts in spaceflight between NASA and member institutions. (NASA Image)

The NHHPC is a global, collaborative virtual center designed to convene government, industry, academic, and non-profit organizations that support the advancement of human health and performance innovations for space flight, commercial aviation, and challenging environments on Earth. Our member organizations participate in face-to-face workshops, webcasts, and virtual working groups to address issues, share best practices, and formulate collaborative projects in various areas, including innovation, education, human health and technology development. You can read more about the NHHPC events and developments on our website and follow us on Twitter via @NASAHumanHealth.


Jeffrey R. Davis, MD, MS
NHHPC Director

Johnson Space Center

Jeffrey R. Davis, MD, MS, currently serves as Director, Space Life Sciences, and as the Chief Medical Officer for the NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Dr. Davis’ past positions include Professor, Preventive Medicine and Community Health at the University of Texas Medical Branch; Corporate Medical Director, American Airlines; and Chief, Medical Operations NASA Johnson Space Center.



Remembering Janice Voss

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The International Space Station Program Science Office would like to dedicate this entry of A Lab Aloft to the life and work of astronaut Janice Voss, who passed away February 7, 2012. Her support NASA’s vision for science on orbit was a remarkable contribution to our research mission.

Janice Voss, Ph.D., was an astronaut and mission specialist for five space shuttle missions, logging over 49 days in space. These were physical science flights, including STS-83 and STS-94, which were historic re-flights to achieve a singular microgravity research mission. Voss also flew the first “commercial” Spacehab and the radar mapping mission.


June 27, 1993 — Inside the SPACEHAB module, onboard the space shuttle Endeavour, astronaut Janice Voss, STS-57 mission specialist, works with biomaterials products. (Credit: NASA Image STS05739001)

With a real love for physical sciences, Voss used her dedication to research to determine her next role as NASA transitioned from the shuttle era to the station era. Voss was the only crew member ever selected to serve as a Lead Increment Scientist to represent the research community during experiment operations. She worked in this role during Expeditions 8 and 9.  

“Her boundless enthusiasm for getting as much research done was contagious, especially welcome in the challenging time after Columbia,” remembers John Uri, her manager in the ISS Payloads Office at the time. “Her experiences from flying science missions as an astronaut were invaluable in optimizing the onboard research.”


April 4-8, 1997 — Astronaut Janice Voss, payload commander, pictured here following a successful test at the Combustion Module-1. The test was designed to study the Structures of Flame Balls at Low Lewis, or SOFBALL, numbers.
(Credit: NASA Image STS083305017)

The timing of her tenure, which followed the Columbia tragedy, led to one of the more interesting things that happened while Voss was Lead Increment Scientist. While the shuttle was grounded, researchers proposed experiments that could be done with existing materials on orbit.

The International Space Soldering Investigation, or ISSI, was one of these studies performed in microgravity. The crew used the soldering materials they had on orbit to make coupons and melt them, which led to an amazing result! The rosin that was in the solder boiled out to the outside of the coupons, orbiting around them.


In July 2004 astronaut Mike Fincke melts solder onboard the International Space Station. See the full length movies: Windows media format (2 MB), Real video (2 MB), mpeg format (15 MB). (Credit: NASA)

I remember how excited Janice was about this new finding. She worked with scientists to evaluate what caused the orbital effect, with the final determination pointing to Marangoni convection. Voss presented the results in a press briefing, including the incredible video of the experiment.

Later on, as Voss was assigned to different things in the Astronaut Office, she became the ongoing research representative for a number of years. There she represented the crew office, but always with the perspective she carried with her from her time as a Lead Increment Scientist, which made her viewpoint unique.

Voss had a natural scientific curiosity that prompted her to always try different things. She never accepted at face value how things worked, and would try alternatives to investigate further. This questioning nature was an exceptional attribute and helped to make her a success in her many roles with NASA.


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


Part of the Mission, Part of the Science

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In today’s A Lab Aloft entry, guest blogger and European Space Agency astronaut Christer Fuglesang talks about his role as a test subject while living aboard the International Space Station.

You may not know it, but being an astronaut also means being a guinea pig. A lot of the research done in space is about humans, in particular how our bodies are affected by the weightlessness. This is important to know in order to prepare ourselves for future human exploration, like when we will travel to Mars. But this research also gives us many new insights in how our bodily systems work. This knowledge can help scientists and doctors to improve medical treatments here on Earth. They can even find new and better ways to prevent illnesses based on microgravity studies.


European Space Agency astronauts Frank De Winne and Christer Fuglesang photographed during the installation of the new Minus Eighty Degree Laboratory Freezer for ISS, or MELFI, in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. (NASA Image)

Virtually every astronaut that has ever gone into space has participated in medical experiments as a test subject – or as I like to call it, a guinea pig. The inhabitants of the International Space Station almost daily have some activity related to human research. During a workout, for instance, we take measurements like blood pressure, heart rate, or body temperature to provide valuable research data.

Some studies, like the Neuroendocrine and Immune Responses in Humans During and After Long Term Stay at ISS, or Immuno, require taking a saliva sample to check the immune system. Then there’s the Nutrition Status Assessment, or Nutrition, which requires blood and urine samples that store in the Minus Eighty Degree Laboratory Freezer for ISS, or MELFI, aboard the station. They later return to the ground for analysis. Another investigation that comes to mind is Bodies In the Space Environment: Relative Contributions of Internal and External Cues to Self – Orientation, During and After Zero Gravity Exposure, or BISE, which measures brainwaves while the astronaut performing some visual tasks to investigate how microgravity affects the neurological system.


European Space Agency astronaut Christer Fuglesang trains for the Otolith Assessment During Postflight Re-adaptation, or Otolith, investigation prior to his departure to the International Space Station. (Credit: Christer Fuglesang)

It seems that almost every system in our bodies gets more or less affected by weightlessness: from muscles and bones to cells in the immune system, from the heart and lungs to eyes and the balance organs in the ears. Humans are designed to live in a 1-g environment, making their long-term exposure to microgravity a fascinating and biologically altering study of the entire body.

In my case, I have specifically participated in several experiments related to the balance system, or vestibular system, such as the Otolith Assessment During Postflight Re-adaptation, or Otolith, and the Ambiguous Tilt and Translation Motion Cues After Space Flight, or Zag. Before and after my flights, I stood on wobbling plates and sat in spinning and sliding chairs, trying to keep my balance or perform some set of actions.

Meanwhile, scientists observed me and compared my responses from before flight with how I performed right after about two weeks in weightlessness. They also looked into how my balance regained normality during the week after returning to Earth. This helped them to understand new things about how humans keep our balance. This  knowledge may eventually help doctors to better diagnose people who have medical disorders like disorientation and nausea.


Canadian astronaut Robert B. Thirsk wears sensors and hardware in preparation for the Canal and Otolith Interaction Study, or COIS, another vestibular system investigation. (NASA Image)

In almost all science, doing an experiment one time is not enough. This is particularly true in human research, since each test subject is somewhat different. Therefore, some 10 other astronauts also performed the above-mentioned experiment. As one can understand, with only so many crew members on orbit at a given time, it takes awhile to get enough guinea pigs to complete a round of human research in space.

These studies are well worth it, however, as is the discomfort of sitting in a chair that spins with 400 rotations per minute while sliding sideways. The research is important and yields unique results for the benefits of humans, both in space and on Earth.


Christer Fuglesang
(NASA)

Christer Fuglesang is an astronaut with the European Space Agency, or ESA. He flew as a Mission Specialist with STS-116 and STS-128 to the International Space Station where he participated in multiple extravehicular activities, or EVAs. He is the first Swedish astronaut to fly in space.

The International Space Station: Scientific Melting Pot

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

 

The Tool to Fill the Gaps of our Senses: AMS

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Can you sense my impatience and excitement?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Tara Ruttley, Ph.D.
(NASA Image)

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

A Slice of Time Pie

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

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

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

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


(Credit: NASA)

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

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

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

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

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

Don’s blog also appears at airspacemag.com.

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