ISS Research in the Decade Ahead

International Space Station astronaut Suni Williams recently addressed a symposium at the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) annual meeting regarding research in extreme environments. In this entry for A Lab Aloft, she shares her perspective on extreme research on the International Space Station.

The upcoming decade of utilization is an exciting time for the International Space Station. As an astronaut, I had the opportunity to help build the station, to live and work on it, and I hope to go back someday. I think many people are unaware of the different aspects of this incredible laboratory: the various control centers; the communications that are involved just to prepare, make, and operate the station; as well as the different countries involved. Just providing operations for the station requires a tremendous amount of communication and control. And for the last 10 years, the station has also been furthering science.

There are fascinating opportunities for scientists with the space station going forward. An awareness of this can spur on ideas of ways to do investigations in space. Just looking at the science that has already been done during the last decade of assembly is inspirational. Think about it; when building projects are being erected, they do not usually operate at the same time. Take a hospital, for instance—it does not take patients while under construction. When you sit back and look at how much research was done while the station was under construction, it is pretty amazing.

Astronaut Sunita L. Williams, Expedition 15 flight engineer, performs one of
multiple tests of the Capillary Flow Experiment (CFE) investigation in the
Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. CFE observes the flow
of fluid, in particular capillary phenomena, in microgravity.
(NASA Image ISS015E05039)

Compared to other laboratories, being in such a harsh environment adds some unique challenges. It also requires a lot to take care of it. When a toilet brakes, when the oxygen generation system does not work, when a solar array does not supply power, the crew are the only six people who can and have to go out and fix things. Control systems have to be maintained and this reduces the amount of science we can get done, compared to six people in a friendly environment here on Earth.

One of the main differences between the space station and other laboratories is that most labs work on only one experiment discipline, perhaps with variables. On the station, however, you really have to multitask; there are so many different investigations that people have wanted to do for a long time: biology and biotechnology, Earth and space sciences, education, human research, physical sciences, and technology. In a given day you could be doing experiments in all of these fields, which is different from other labs.

When interfacing with primary investigators on the ground, they are the scientists and I am somewhat of a tech operator while on the station. Astronauts are the hands-on connection, and there are good and bad parts to that. Sometimes we may need coaching from the investigator, but in exchange we bring an untainted perspective. We know what to look for from training, but we may notice some phenomenon that raises questions. This interaction is known as the human in the loop and it is really necessary. For instance, I was able to make unexpected observations for the Capillary Flow Experiment during my time on the space station. It was exciting to help scientists make new discoveries! There are some experiments we can automate 24/7, but others we don’t really know if we will find something without a critical eye observation.

Astronaut Sunita L. Williams, Expedition 15 flight
engineer, works at a portable glovebox facility in the
Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station.
(NASA Image ISS015E08308)

Now that I have returned from my work on the station, I am amazed to see the results coming out. For instance, there has been some exciting progress in vaccine development and even an approach to delivering a chemotherapy drug, due to space station investigations. This research is targeted to benefit people all over the world.

We all have to be a little bit patient, however, in waiting for such findings. For instance, I flew in 2006 and it is now 2011 and we are just now starting to see these positive results. What is encouraging now is that since science experiments have been going on, they are building upon themselves and yielding results. Follow-up experiments will continue to further investigate the problems and seek answers. I think getting concrete results is the most rewarding part of working on the space station and now is the time that we should start seeing it more frequently as science experiments get done.

We have a decade to use this lab, and it is time to start investing in the work. We are going to have humans in space for the next 10 years living and working on the station. The research and technology testing will provide us enough data and information for us to smartly build the next spacecraft to take us a little bit further. We need to find out things about the human body, the atmosphere, the spacecraft and how it is surviving. We are investigating things that happen in low earth orbit, and this gives us the confidence for humans to go one step farther. So I hope this is the stepping stone and inspiration for the next generation of explorers. We have to go someplace else.

Suni Williams is a NASA astronaut with and flight engineer for the International Space Station. She launched to the station on STS-116 (December 22, 2006) as part of Expedition 14 and Expedition 15, returning to Earth with STS-117 (June 22, 2007). During her increment in space, Williams set a new record for females of 195 days in space. In today’s blog, Williams shares her thoughts and perspective as a crewmember aboard the International Space Station with the readers of A Lab Aloft.

Boiling it down to the bubbles: It is about heat transfer

This week, comments from guest blogger and International Space Station Associate Program Scientist Tara Ruttley, Ph.D., as she reflects on the physical science of boiling in space.

If you don’t think of yourself as the type of person who could ever be interested in physics, let’s boil this down.

You’re hungry. It’s pasta time. Your pot of water is on the stove, you’ve turned on the maximum heat, and the wait for boiling begins. You are staring impatiently at the pot when the water looks like it’s starting to swirl. You’re anxious to see the bubbles that signify that you can put your pasta into that water. But what do those bubbles tell you and what makes them the key indicator of perfect pasta water temperature?



On Earth, water boils via natural convection.
(Image courtesy of Markus Schweiss via Wikipedia)


To simplify a bit, boiling is actually a very efficient heat transfer process and, in this case, boiling transfers the heat from the fire on your stove to the water that will cook your pasta. It seems straight-forward enough here on Earth: you turn on the burner, wait a few minutes, and when all those small bubbles appear, you’re ready to get cooking.

As you wait for your pot of water to boil, there is a complex process going on in there. First, the liquid on the bottom of the pot closest to the heat source starts to get hot; as it does, it rises. The rising hot water is replaced by the cooler, more dense water molecules. The water molecules in your pot continually exchange in this way, thanks to gravity, eventually warming the entire pot of liquid. This is known as natural convection—the movement of molecules through fluid—which is a primary method of heat (and mass) transfer.


Without buoyancy or convection, boiling fluids
behave quite differently in space.
(Video courtesy of NASA)


But natural convection is not enough, as it does not yet provide those bubbles you need for your pasta. To get those bubbles, you have to wait long enough for the bottom of the pot to get hotter than the boiling point of the water. When the boiling point is breached, you finally begin to see the tiny bubbles of water vapor you’ve been waiting for! The bubbles rise, due to buoyancy, and then collapse as they reach the denser, relatively cooler water at the surface of the pot. This motion not only helps to move the water around more quickly (think stirring), but the bubbles themselves transfer heat energy as well. This bubble formation is called nucleate boiling; a far more effective way to transfer heat than natural convection on its own. In fact, so effective that ultimately it leads to more complex boiling called transition boiling—the highly turbulent bubble flow that indicates the water is now hot enough to cook your pasta.

In space, however, bubbles behave differently. Without gravity, the effects of buoyancy and convection are absent. The warmer water cannot rise; instead it remains near the heat source, getting hotter and hotter. Meanwhile, the remaining water further away from the heat source stays relatively cool. As the heated fluid reaches its boiling point, the bubbles do not rise to the surface. Instead, the bubbles that do form coalesce into one large bubble that sits on the heated surface. Within the bubble lies precious heat energy, trapped! The result is a seemingly inefficient or at least very different, way to transfer heat.



Image of liquid boiling on a heater array during the low gravity
 produced by NASA’s KC-135 aircraft. Blue regions indicate
regions of low heat transfer.
(Courtesy of University of Maryland)

As it turns out, there are plenty of scientists out there who are fascinated with the fact that if you boil water in space, you get one large bubble that tends to “swallow” smaller bubbles. Why the fascination? Well, beyond the gains in fundamental thermodynamics “textbook” knowledge, because boiling is such an effective heat transfer process, understanding more about this complex process can help to build more efficient cooling systems for Earth and space. For example, automotive engineers are interested in designing compact, energy-efficient systems to cool off hot car engines, based on the heat transfer mechanics of boiling.

In fact, your own refrigerator uses a coolant with a low boiling point and some associated pressure changes in order to keep your food cold inside. By transferring heat from the fridge air to the coolant to the point of boiling, heat ultimately dissipates from the bubbles and radiates out into the air in your home. In essence, although the air inside of your fridge may seem cold to you, it is actually warm enough to boil its coolant, which is the very heat transfer process responsible for keeping your food cold.

The Boiling Experiment Facility or BXF, which launched on STS-133 in February 2010, will enable scientists to perform in-depth studies of the complexities involved in bubble formation as a result of heat transfer. For instance, what roles do surface tension and evaporation play during nucleate boiling when buoyancy and convection are not in the equation? What about the variations in the properties of the heating surface? By controlling for gravity while on the International Space Station, scientists can investigate the various elements of boiling, thus potentially driving improved cooling system designs. Improved efficiency in cooling technology can lead to positive impacts on the global economy and environment; two hot topics that have much to gain from boiling in space.

Dr. Tara Ruttley is an Associate Program Scientist for the International Space Station (ISS) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) at Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston. Her role in the Program Science Office consists of representing and communicating all research on the space station, and supporting recommendations to the ISS Program Manager and to NASA Headquarters, regarding research on the ISS. Prior to her role in the ISS Program Science Office, Dr. Ruttley 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. Dr. Ruttley has authored publications ranging from hardware design to neurological science, and also holds a U.S. utility patent.



Dr. Tara Ruttley
(NASA Image)

Concept to Implementation in as Little as Six Months

Original Post March 02, 2011

This week, comments from guest blogger and International Space StationNational Laboratory Manager Marybeth Edeen, as she reflects on ways to helpresearchers reduce the time from concept to implementation for space stationexperiments.

Have you ever heard complaints about how long it takes tofly investigations in space? There has been a lot of discussion about how longit takes to get research from concept to implementation. Numerous people willtell you that it cannot be done in under 1 year or even as long as 5 years. Withrecent changes put in place with the National Laboratory Office, however, we havebeen successful in getting payloads from concept to implementation in as littleas 6 months.

The National Laboratory Office guides payload developers througha feasibility process to evaluate research ideas to determine how quickly thestation could accommodate a given payload. The first step is a triage meeting,where the research team and the payloads office experts discuss a concept todetermine the complexity of the research. Depending on the intricacy, we canguide the developers to use systems that are already in place, which cansignificantly speed up getting the research aboard the station. In many cases,we are able to slip the developer payload into a prepared research plan, using placeholderswe have prepared in advance. The research plan placeholders have certain capabilities(e.g., size, weight, etc.) set aside to reserve predefined spots for payloads.This way, when the time comes, we can determine which new payloads fit into theplaceholders.

Additionally, the Payloads Office has a “lean process,”which enables payloads to go through the integration process and be put onorbit ready for operations in as little as 6 to 7 months; from the time it wasidentified as available for launch. The National Laboratory Office sponsoredsome payloads that went into orbit in as little as 6 months, but that is notthe norm at this time. A developer is already in the assembly process on theirend for the payload, rather than in the development stage of their idea. Anamazing turnaround like this is for known re-flight science, not for newpayloads being assembled.

What we are trying to do with National Lab is to use theprocesses and manage the integration in such a way that we can bring things inlater than the normal flow. This is contingent on the National Laboratory modelof the commercial or government agency having their funding and developmentready to bring to the table. If they are waiting for anticipated funds to moveforward with development, this significantly delays the progress.

This image shows six seed wells inside of the NanoRacks-CubeLabs 6-plant
growth chamber, a student-designed investigation by Valley Christian High
School in San Jose, CA.
(Image courtesy of Werner Vavken)

One such developer who succeeded in an accelerated timelinewas the NanoRacks-CubeLabs team. The proposal for this commercially sponsoredpayload was submitted in July of 2009. A Space Act Agreement was signed inSeptember and by December of the same year, they had hardware delivered to the KSCfor launch. The developer team had already gone into the design work beforeapproaching NASA, but had not built the hardware at that point. They enteredhardware production in parallel with the integration process in order to getthe hardware certified for flight by December.

On our side, the National Laboratory Office is trying toshorten the templates and build flexibility into the process. We want to enabledevelopers to determine their final plan later in the process, when necessary.There are only so many payloads you can run through the process this way,however, to avoid delaying the details of the planning for everyone involved. Wehave to prepare our research plans 18 months in advance, so we look at this andsay: “hmm, there are three guys wanting this type of experiment, let’s toss in aplaceholder for that” or “this group has been talking to us frequently, hastheir funding lined up, and seems pretty serious.” We are trying to identifyand create spots for payloads that are likely to show up in 18 months ready togo. Rather than advertising these placeholders, we try to identify them andfill them according to the interest we see on the horizon. We take an educatedguess when creating these placeholders to prepare for our research ahead.

On the NationalLaboratory Web page, under Key Resources, payload developers can find theheading of Helpful Documents where our lean process documentation will post.We also posted the PayloadDevelopers and Principal Investigators Payload Planning, Integration andOperations Primer, so that researchers know what NASA needs from them atwhich times and why. This gives people an idea of what to bring to the tablebefore they talk to us, allowing them to move more swiftly through the process.This primer also cites changes for those using the lean process, to help savetime. More documents are continuing to post—some are still going through theapproval processes—so interested developers should continue to check back. Thislean process is new, so we are beta testing the documented process. Once we havebeen through it a few times, we can make changes and continue to improve it. 

The completion of ISS gives the crew a lot more time to workscience, so the faster we can get things up, the more science they can do. Also,there is more available upmass on the transport vehicles to transport resourcesfor experiments. It opens up more opportunities for our payload developers,especially if using existing hardware already on orbit. If you are interestedin doing research on station, give us a call. We are always open and lookingfor feedback in our processes to make them simpler and more user friendly forour researchers, so they can continue to get their results in a timely mannerand make great discoveries to benefit us all.

Marybeth Edeen is themanager of the ISS National Lab Office. She has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Texas andan M.S. in Chemical Engineering from Rice University.  She has worked at NASA for 24 years. 

The Importance of the Recent MAXI X-ray Nova Discovery

(Originally posted October 27, 2010)

About a month ago, I received a really interesting press release from JAXA about the discovery of a new X-ray nova via the International Space Station Monitor of All-sky X‑ray Image (MAXI) instrument. One of the first things I did was contact colleagues in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate to ask what they thought of the finding. I have a background in Earth science, not space science, so I was interested in their point of view on what sounded like an exciting discovery. They were full of additional questions and wanted more information. So we contacted our Japanese associates to better understand the discovery and impacts.

Of particular assistance was Masaru Matsuoka, the JAXA lead member on the MAXI team. I wanted to know if this was a new X-ray nova occurring or an existing one that was missed in previous surveys. He responded that the X-ray nova discovered by MAXI was a new X-ray source, not previously identified or catalogued. In other words, he continued, this nova occurred as an outburst in this location for the first time, which is why RIKEN named it MAXI J1659-152.

Matsuoka-san added that what makes this X-ray source especially interesting is that it is the type that likely has a black hole at its center. A new find like this is made once or twice a year overall. This is the first new source discovered by MAXI.


              Comparison of all-sky images before and after September 25 when the nova was found.
(Image courtesy of JAXA press release)

The MAXI instrument was able to locate this recent find by using two slit cameras (a gas slit camera and a solid-state camera) to continuously monitor astronomical X-ray objects. MAXI performs an entire sky scan once every rotation of the space station around the Earth. Mounted to the exterior of the KIBO module, MAXI has open access to the space environment where it identified the X-ray nova event. The information from the sky scans downloads to RIKEN, where the MAXI team disseminates data to scientists around the globe for study.

This is a promising result from the operations of this instrument. The more X-ray sources we find and study, the better knowledge astronomers can gain about the nature of black holes and their distribution in the universe.

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


(Update: Originally posted December 3, 2010)

On October 17, 2010, MAXI discovered yet another new X-ray nova, located in Centaurs. Since the emerging nova was dark, scientists continued to collect data while waiting for it to brighten. They announced the discovery on October 20, 2010 and named it MAXI J1409-619. The nova was confirmed as an unprecedented bright X-ray source, after NASA’s astronomical satellite, Swift, conducted an urgent target-of-opportunity observation. This nova is either a black hole or a neutron star with a companion star of a massive star existing over several ten thousands light-years.

Images of areas of 10 degrees in radius around the nova MAXI J1409-619. A celestial body that was not observed on Oct. 12 shone bright on the 17th. Right ascension 14 hr. 09 min. 2 sec., Declination -61 deg. 57 min. The detailed X-ray image shot by the Swift satellite. An unknown bright new celestial body was seen in the brighter part (0.2 degrees in radius) observed by the MAXI.

(Images courtesy of JAXA Press Release)

Of Fish, Astronauts, and Bone Health on Earth

This week, comments from guest blogger Dr. Scott M. Smith as he reflects on recent space station research, which connects a diet rich in fish intake and omega-3 fatty acids to a reduced rate of bone loss.

Scientists spend a lot of time discussing their work in proposals, manuscripts, and meetings, but Eureka! or light-bulb-going-off moments are amazingly rare. Our Nutritional Biochemistry Lab at NASA Johnson Space Center, however, was fortunate enough to have one of these moments recently.

Our lab’s Eureka! moment actually started a few years ago when we submitted a proposal to look at omega-3 fatty acids as a countermeasure for the muscle loss caused by space flight. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help stop muscle loss in cancer patients; we believed the sub-cellular mechanisms of the two types of muscle loss are similar. In theory, if it works for cancer, it should work for space travelers. Although that proposal was well scored, funding was short that year and our experiment did not make the cut.


NASA Johnson Space Center Nutritional
Biochemistry Lab Logo

    Image courtesy of NASA


The data suggesting that omega-3 fatty acids would help slow or stop muscle loss was pretty convincing, but some softer evidence hinted that omega-3 fatty acids might also help slow bone loss. We proceeded to do a cell culture study—long story short, we added omega-3 fatty acids to bone cells and it suppressed the activation of cells that break down bone; bone breakdown is the process that is accelerated during spaceflight and during disuse here on Earth. This was pretty exciting in and of itself, but not the moment of epiphany.

The Eureka! came when we were in a meeting reviewing another bone loss countermeasure that was tested during bed rest. Unfortunately, despite high hopes going into the study, this method was not working. As I rolled this around in my head, it seemed to me that nothing to date had worked at slowing bone loss. We had tried exercise and other physical countermeasures with limited success and, although drugs are available, there is not a drug out there without side effects.

It was during this reflection that the light bulb went on. Eureka! I realized that our bed rest studies had included a menu that was pretty loaded with fish, which is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids. This was done to help increase the vitamin D content of the diet, a very important factor. As I thought of ways to investigate my hypothesis, I realized I had some challenges to face in gaining specific data on omega-3 fatty acid intake. It is not easy to find volunteers to literally spend a few months in bed, let alone subjects who are willing to participate in the bed rest and also forego eating fish.

Driving home that night, I called my colleague Dr. Sara Zwart and suggested we look at the omega-3 fatty acid intake in the existing bed rest subjects and compare it to the bone data from the same subjects. The next morning, Sara had the graph, which clearly showed a relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and N-telopeptide—a marker of bone breakdown that appears in the urine. Specifically, and statistically significantly, the more omega-3 fatty acids the subjects ate, the less bone breakdown marker they excreted, which was pretty cool!

We then took the next logical step, to see if the diet of astronauts was related to their bone breakdown. We track dietary intake of astronauts during space flight using a food frequency questionnaire or FFQ. This tool monitors the intake of seven key nutrients: energy, fluid, protein, calcium, iron, sodium, potassium. The FFQ is designed to measure only these specific things, so if we wanted to measure anything else, we would typically have to modify how we grouped the foods in the questionnaire.

Instead of redesigning the tool, we took a leap and looked at fish intake in the diet of the International Space Station crewmembers. Given that we did not have the detailed omega-3 fatty acid content of all space station foods, and given that we did not sort out the fish by those rich or poor in omega-3 fatty acid content, this was admittedly a stretch. When we compared the relationship between reported fish intake in crewmembers and their bone loss after flight, however, we found another significant relationship. Those who ate more fish lost less bone. This was awesome stuff! It was one of those rare times in a scientist’s career when unrelated pieces of information actually built into a complete story.

This story did not end, though, with these findings. What we had at this stage was what is called correlational evidence. The two factors—fish intake and bone loss—were related. This does not directly prove a causal relationship, however, and could be nothing more than coincidence or indirect effect. For example, those who ate more fish probably ate less meat, which we also conjecture is bad for bone health. What we need now is a controlled study, where we track and control intakes throughout a space mission, with one group eating a high omega-3 fatty acid diet and others consuming a low or “control” omega-3 diet. By comparing the data from such a study, we can detect differences in bone loss. We have submitted this proposal and hope an opportunity arises in the near future to carry out the experiment.

This research not only has clear benefits for astronauts, but also significant implications for those of us on Earth. These types of relationships—between fish and bone—have been observed. Given the much slower rate of bone loss on Earth, however, makes effects more difficult to pinpoint. Microgravity research can amplify the impacts, providing new knowledge that may benefit those suffering from bone loss. This is just another example of where the space station provides an out-of-this-world platform for human research!


Astronaut Suni Williams eats a meal that includes salmon, a fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids,
while on orbit aboard the International Space Station.

Image courtesy of NASA: ISS014E13728


Dr. Scott Smith and his colleague Dr. Sara Zwart lead NASA’s Nutritional Biochemistry Lab at Johnson Space Center. The research discussed above was published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research (Volume 25, pages 1,049-57, 2010). In addition to ground-research studies, they lead two space station experiments: Nutritional Status Assessment and Pro K, which investigate the roles of animal protein and potassium in mitigating bone loss. In today’s blog Dr. Smith shares his thoughts and experiences as a scientist with the readers of A Lab Aloft.

A Teacher’s View of the International Space Station

This week, comments from guest blogger Susan Mayo with observations about the value of the International Space Station in inspiring students.

As a former high school chemistry and physics teacher, I am pleasantly surprised by the focus on education linked to research in space. For example, I was just at the American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology (ASGSB) annual meeting in Washington, D.C. This gathering included a hands-on workshop and panel geared towards education and I was inspired by the positive, exciting, next-generation focus of this group of professionals. The ASGSB meeting is the first conference I have been to in a long time where they planned to build partnerships with classroom teachers, rather than trying to “fix” them as educators. This, in turn, better enables those teachers to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with their students.

Inspiring the next generation of innovators is an essential component of K-12 education. Children can truly aspire to be anything they want to be if, and only if, they are willing to work for it. Educators have a responsibility to provide students with the tools to guide them through the difficult process of determining where their skills and interests will lead them in the future. Students do not understand the importance of having a strong background in math and science as they progress through their education. With the nationwide focus on testing students to determine knowledge, rather than developing critical thinking skills, we are forcing an entire generation of students to concentrate on becoming test takers and not innovators.

This is where partnerships between industry and educators can truly initiate a difference via collaboration. Well over 31 million students worldwide participated in hands-on activities related to space station research from 2000 to 2006. Now, in 2010, as the International Space Station moves to assembly complete and full utilization, the opportunities for reaching the next generation grow radically.

The new technological developments and scientific research taking place on station are not only cutting edge, but also applicable to our everyday lives. Many of the future careers our students will seize do not even exist today. Educators and students have a unique opportunity with the space station to participate in science while it is happening, rather than teaching about it later on as a history lesson. While speaking at the conference, former astronaut and explorer Dr. Scott Parazynski, Challenger Center for Space Science Education, stated, “NASA is in the business of taking the impossible and making it look easy.” I believe this is what educators do every day in the classroom.

The space station gives teachers an amazing forum for their students. If you are an educator or student who wants to be part of some of our ongoing outreach programs, like EarthKAM, Kids in Micro-g, or the Zero Robotics Challenge, just click on the imbedded links here.

Susan Mayo is a scientist and educator specialist for the International Space Station Office of the Program Scientist. Her background includes experience as a high school chemistry and physics teacher in Idaho and a scientist with a background in biochemistry, chemistry, waste management and environmental science. In today’s blog she shares her thoughts and experiences from the 2010 American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology conference with the readers of A Lab Aloft.

Who will be the Carl Sagan for the International Space Station?

(Originally published October 19, 2010)

At the 2010 meeting of the International Astronautical Congress, I moderated a session of international investigators talking about the importance of the International Space Station for their disciplines: ISS Research—A Decade of Progress and a Decade of Promise. As part of a wide-ranging discussion, Professor Urade from Japan shared an amazing video summarizing tests for a new treatment for Duschenne’s muscular dystrophy, which were developed using information from space station research. The crowd collectively caught their breath at the possibility and potential impacts on human lives.


One of the first questions from the audience inspired my title for this post: Who will be the Carl Sagan for the International Space Station? It is a great question—how do we get the message about this amazing research platform out to the world?


I grew up with Carl Sagan and Cosmos—everyone understood his simple message: with “billions upon billions” of stars, other life is out there and astronomy is the key to our future in the universe. He made astronomy popular and respected. His work is one of the reasons we are so moved by the deep-space images from Hubble. Carl prepared us to understand them.


It is a tall order to do the same for a platform with the potential to touch dozens, even hundreds of research disciplines.


As scientists, we are taught that good experiments control each variable in turn. Centuries of scientific research, however, have never controlled gravity as such a variable. How many errors in scientific theory trace back to our assumptions about gravity? What breakthrough will result from completing one of these ultimate experiments in orbit—with the effects of gravity removed? Buckle up, because we are about to find out!


This is the first entry of an ongoing blog on space station research and results. We will have no single spokesperson and no single catchphrase, because the potential for discovery on the station is much larger than that. Working with my team of scientists, our research community, and our international colleagues, we will bring you the stories of the people and the discoveries as they unfold.


Please join us on our journey into uncharted territory by following our blog: A Lab Aloft.


Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D.

International Space Station Program Scientist