Comparing Platforms: Suborbital and International Space Station Research

The following is aninterview with International Space Station Associate Program Scientist TaraRuttley and Southwest Research Institute Associate Vice President for Researchand Development Alan Stern as they discuss the benefits and differences betweenthe space station and suborbital research platforms.

A Lab Aloft’s JessicaNimon: Alan and Tara, thank you forjoining me. Today we are talking about the topic of microgravity researchplatforms. I sometimes hear people treat suborbital and orbital laboratoryoptions as synonymous. These options, however, offer distinctly differentbenefits. Alan, can you tell me what makes suborbital research unique?

Stern: Suborbitalis special for a number of reasons. First of all, it offers low cost and morefrequent spaceflight than we can currently achieve with orbital research. Italso provides the space station with a great training and proving ground. Sodespite its many amazing capabilities, space station is highly constrained interms of crew time, how much equipment you can get back and forth and room toplace investigations. Naturally, only the most important experiments can go upto station and they receive limited crew time. This is part of why it isimportant for the station to have a proving ground—like suborbital—where youcan test the equipment, the techniques and the science. This way selections forwhich experiments should go up to station can be made based on experience inresearch, not just theory.

My analogy for the relationship between the station andsuborbital research is a baseball one: the major leagues rely on the minors asa feeder system and I think this is a similar relationship between station (i.e.,the major leagues) and suborbital (i.e., the minors). Without the minorleagues, the majors would be crippled; they would not have the farm teams todevelop techniques and players. I think the station can use suborbital in thesame way and very cost effectively.

Ruttley: I agreewith Alan that suborbital research can help to pare out the tests thatinvestigators want to do. It could be a way for a scientist to get a goodhandle on a hypothesis prior to working with the space station. Once aninvestigator knows what might be seen in microgravity, a decision can be madeon the next step.

One of the advantages of working with the space station isthis ability for continuous testing. On the ground, scientists do oneexperiment, look at the results, and then repeat in a lab setting withcontrolled variables. The space station provides a researcher the ability toperform multiple trials to increase the data set, thereby offering longevitywith a sustainable presence in space.

You have large opportunities for data and power, as well. Theseare huge resources for investigations like the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer or AMS.This study could not sustain itself without the space station’s power and data capabilities.Space station also provides a humanin the loop to help troubleshoot in real time and potentially move theinvestigation on to the next step.

The starboard truss of theInternational Space Station with the newly-installed Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2, or AMS,
visible at center left.

(NASA Image S134E007532)

Something else to consider is that the space station offersnot only the U.S. laboratory, but also access to our international partnerlabs. Each partner module has its own range of facilitiesfor investigators to potentially take advantage of. This includes externalmounting for studies seeking exposure to the space environment. It is appealingto researchers that we have this massive, interdisciplinary, resupplied andfully-outfitted research laboratory on orbit.

A Lab Aloft’s Jessica Nimon: Alan, you mentioned thatsuborbital research can feed into station investigations. I’m curious, doesthis ever occur in reverse? Have findings from station studies contributed to suborbitalresearch?

Stern:  Not yet. I think that’s largely the outcomeof limitations with the current suborbital program at NASA. For one, NASA’scurrent suborbital program does not fly very often and it’s very expensive. Secondly,it’s primarily a Science Mission Directorate program and station does not do alot of planetary science, astrophysics or much Earth science—the mainstays ofthe Science Mission Directorate. These could be future areas, however, for thespace station to expand into.

But I also think the new commercially reusable suborbitalefforts are going to really change current paradigms and allow things to workin both directions. This is because the user community will vastly expand withdaily flights—instead of monthly flights—and lower costs will enable more trialand error experimentation like in a regular lab. The people interested incommercial suborbital are not necessarily looking at the same goals at the ScienceMission Directorate. They are looking instead at the things that fit betterwith station, in terms of the user base: microgravity, life sciences,technology tests.

Ruttley:  There are a few NASA research announcements sponsoredby the Science Mission Directorate right now that encompass the use of thespace station. These are the ResearchOpportunities in Space and Earth Sciences, or ROSES, and the Stand Alone Missions of Opportunity Notice,or SALMON.

Stern:  There are many places in the directorateportfolio that space station could assist with. Putting these things on thealready existing station platform makes sense; it would allow many kinds ofresearch to move forward faster. It is true, however, that while in many casesthis will work, some kinds of research just aren’t compatible with station. Forinstance, since station is a human space facility—which by nature has a lot ofoutgassing—it is too dirty for some kinds of external investigations.

A Lab Aloft’s JessicaNimon:  Do you see a difference in interest or a preference from users towardseither platform?

Stern:  Most of what I’ve heard is that there arelimited resources and too lengthy of a timeline for both station and suborbitalresearch. Fixing this for both arenas would be a home run hit. I think usersfind that suborbital is easier to work with, due to the faster timescales. Youcould spend 5 to 10 years in the past getting something to fly on shuttle, and2 or 3 years getting ready for a sounding rocket flight, but the commercialresearch and development cycle is usually less than a year—which is the verytimescale the new suborbital vehicles are comfortable with for arrangingflights.

If station can streamline its experiment manifesting andoperations, with COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] and commercial cargo goingback and forth, this may change. Now that we have great facilities aboard thespace station, I’d like to see the use of existing hardware to getinvestigations going more swiftly. Otherwise, the timescale is too big abarrier to most users. The space station needs to adapt the customer’s needs, Ithink, to increase its user base.

Ruttley:  That has been the case in the past, Alan, butrecent National Lab efforts have done a lot to improve the timeline. TheNational Lab has been successful in securing several agreements with governmentagencies, commercial users, and universities for the use of the space station.National Lab Manager Marybeth Edeen recently wrote a blogon this topic of improving the timeline to flight. Payload developers usingexisting hardware have been able to fly to station in as little time as sixmonths . This is not the standard yet, but it is possible by pairingresearchers with existing certified payload developers to really accelerate theprocess.

Stern:  I don’t think this is well known yet. Withthis changing for the positive, people need to know that the story haschanged—let’s get the word out faster.

Ruttley:  That’s part of what we’re doing with thisblog and with our other media efforts, like the storieswe publish on our International Space Station Research and Technology Website.With the National Lab effort, over 50 percent of NASA’s assets are available tousers. Perhaps the new non-profitmanagement planned for National Lab will have additional ways to help getthe word out.

Stern:  It’s good that the word is now starting toget out, but I think that more could be done to reach more users. PerhapsNational Lab can send representatives to host workshops at the meetings andconferences scientists attend, whether industrial or academic. Just to talk tothem and answer their questions on how to do business. Usually researchers arelooking for money, too, since universities don’t usually have their own for investigations.

Ruttley:  I agree. I think the progress ofcommunication and the streamlined process will continue to improve over thenext few years. National Lab users do have to come up with their own researchfunding, but it’s been shown to be successful already. Just last year, the NationalInstitutes of Health, or NIH, gave three awardeesthe money to do their research on the station; NASA will integrate and launchthe investigations. While the National Lab and the Space Station PayloadsOffice are working on a streamlined process for launch and integration, researchfunding itself will always be the real issue for potential researchers.

A Lab Aloft’s Jessica Nimon:  Where do you see the future of suborbitalresearch?

Stern:  Right now there are five firms buildingreusable suborbital systems: Virgin Galactic, XCOR, Armadillo Aerospace, MastenSpace Systems and Blue Origin. Four carry people and payloads and one—i.e.,Masten—carries only payloads. While the legacy NASA suborbital program fliesinfrequently, these commercial companies plan a far more frequent flightschedule. Between several times a week and daily, so we’ll go from roughly twodozen flights per year to hundreds per year. This will be a huge change to users’access to space. It will be more affordable, too, maybe in the hundreds of thousandsof dollars.

Ruttley:  The price of space station research is alsocoming down, because more and more experiment hardware can be reused. Companiessuch as BioServeor NanoRacks LLC offer excellent entrypoints for new experiments; you can do a lot on the space station in thehundreds of thousands range.

Dave Masten and Nadir Bagaveyev mounting the Amespayload rack onto the Xaero s
uborbital launch vehicle prior to a combined systems test.  
(Credit: Doug Maclise)

A Lab Aloft’s Jessica Nimon:  What is the operations duration for theseexperiments on suborbital flights?

Stern:  It’s really short. The typical time they havein microgravity is three to four minutes, which is the same as the currentstandard suborbital option. You can make a well thought-out experiment run inthis timeframe, however, and then fly it again to get more data.

Keep in mind that there are multiple experimentsrunning at once on a given flight. Each seat can hold racks capable of housing asmany as 10 experiments—in just one seat! Virgin, for instance, plans to havesix seats available on six vehicles, which they plan to fly on a daily basis.Add to this the other companies similar numbers and over time and with enoughflights, suborbital has the potential to start returning many hours of research—ifall the seats are full. The difference is that it comes in little blips, ratherthan all at once.

Currently the U.S. flies only one suborbital soundingrocket mission every two weeks. So as all of the various suborbital companiesramp up to full operations, we have a huge magnification of capability. We willhave 10s of hours per week of available human research flight time, in additionto the onboard automated experiments. We are approximately four to five yearsaway from full operations.

Ruttley:  This is a great way for short-durationexperiments to get microgravity time, especially as demand for the space station’slong-duration capabilities grows. The suborbital option can potentially free upthe station platform for investigations that need to run for longer than threeminutes in a given flight. The two options really could work in concert, asthey both meet different experiment needs, based on duration and capability.

I’d like to point out that the space station also usesracks, though of a different design and capability, to house multiple studies.These racks, which are housed in each module, can hold several investigationsat once. As far as hands-on research, however, the space station at fulloperation gets 3,500 hours of crew time per year across the whole partnership.Our long-duration capabilities enable our investigations to run according tothe needs of the research, whether in repeatable, short-duration experiments orin longer, ongoing operations. The crew can also replicate studies immediately,under the right circumstances, to look into unexpected phenomena.

A Lab Aloft’s JessicaNimon:  Alan, can you comment on current funding for suborbital flights?

Stern:  There are two sources that come to mind.There’s a request for proposals from NASA’s Chief Technologist Bobby Braun’soffice. In their flight opportunities program, they just completed finalselection for suborbital payloads. It’s a very small program, but it’s a start.Along with that, they also did another request for proposals due June 24, 2011to select launch service providers and integrators—and just announced IDIQ[indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity] contracts with seven flight providerfirms.

A Lab Aloft’s Jessica Nimon:  Tara, turning to the space station now. Wheredo you see the future of station research going?

Ruttley:  When you look at where the space station isheaded, there are really two areas to examine. The station as a whole and theNational Lab. For the station at large, our international partners each havetheir own individual goals based on their governing agency and their scientificand political climates. NASA’s own space station research goals are dependenton our mission—currently this is driven by the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.So as a result, NASA focuses on areas of research that benefit spaceexploration, and relatively less fundamental physical and life sciences, thoughthey are certainly not excluded.

The second piece is the U.S. National Laboratory, with afocus on Earth benefits. The combination of these elements drives the use ofthe space station as a whole. So the future of station is to continue to marchtowards these mission directives and goals. As more users engage in NationalLab efforts, we will see more of those Earth benefits, as well. It is importantto mention, however, that any research done on station can have Earth benefits,even if that is not the original focus of the investigation.

A Lab Aloft’s Jessica Nimon:  Where are your suborbital efforts headednext?

Stern:  We do a number of things related to suborbitalflight at the Southwest Research Institute.We will launch our own payload specialists and payloads in this effort; currentlywe have nine launches funded and options on three more.

A Lab Aloft’sJessica Nimon:  What do you hope to see ahead for orbitalresearch?

Stern:  I think one of the things this decade willhopefully see—and which may amp up the space station program—is an effort tohost commercial payload specialists. Whether in government or commercial taxis,these payload specialists could stay weeks or months on station using the NationalLab. It’s hard to tell if this will happen, in the government world, but it wouldbe a great program for the space station. We had something like this forshuttle and I think it would benefit station, as well.

Ruttley:  I think the real key is that efforts tohave commercial companies flying people into space are going to be importantfor both research on the space station and other flight opportunities. Witheasy access to both station and abbreviated platforms like suborbital flights,scientists will finally be unconstrained and able to do experiments where theysee fit. The discovery potential is amazing!

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

Dr. Tara Ruttley
(NASA Image)

Alan Stern, Ph.D., is the Associate Vice President for Research andDevelopment for Southwest Research Institute Boulder, Colo. He also served asNASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate in 2007-2008.Stern is a planetary scientist and an author who has published more than 175technical papers and 40 popular articles. He has a long association with NASA,serving on the NASA Advisory Council and as the principal investigator on anumber of planetary and lunar missions. Stern earned a doctorate inastrophysics and planetary science from the University of Colorado at Boulderin 1989.

Alan Stern
(ISPCS 2010)

What Kind of World Do You Want?

A LabAloft guest blogger Dylan Mathis, is the man behind the sensational “What Kindof World Do You Want” International Space Station YouTube video. Today heshares how this tribute to the Space Shuttle Program on behalf of the spacestation is his way of continuing the message of exploration to the world.

When people ask me why I put together the “World” video, I tell them it is amultimedia thank you on behalf of the International Space Station Program tothe Space Shuttle Program for building the station. Without this fleet ofamazing heavy-lift vehicles, it would not have been possible to launch andconstruct the various modules into the orbiting laboratory we have and usetoday.

I work at Johnson Space Center in Houston,Texas, as the Mass Communications Lead for the International Space StationProgram. This is an exciting career that allows me to use my imagination,talents and love of space together to create dynamic products, such as the“World” video, to promote NASA’s goals. I’m lucky to work on something I enjoyand believe in, which is part of why this video’s message struck such a chordwith me—and I suspect with the viewers, as well.

Screenshot from “World” video on NASA YouTubeshowing the International Space Station crew with the visual question: Whatkind of world do you want?
(NASA Image)

The concept for the “World” video sparkedwhen I was working with Expedition 25 Commander Doug Wheelock, or “Wheels”, on hispostflight video. He asked me to see about getting song rights from a bandcalled “Five for Fighting” to play along with his video. Typically that is nota simple process. I emailed Five for Fighting’s bandleader, John Ondrasik,explaining to him Wheels’ request. To my surprise, John replied 29 minuteslater, saying he would be honored to grant us the rights to use the music. Evidentlyhis dad had worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 70’s and hehimself was a self-proclaimed big space nut.

When I heard the song “World,” I was struckby the inspirational lyrical content. I knew this music had the potential tomake a tremendous soundtrack for an outreach video. So, while we were workingon Wheels’ postflight video, we negotiated additional usage rights at the sametime. The final agreement allows for the use of this song for 10 years on NASA TV,NASAYouTube, and any official NASA event,including when astronauts and management speak to the public.

Screenshot from “World” video on NASA YouTubeshowing Expedition 23/24 Flight Engineer Tracy Caldwell Dyson enjoying the viewfrom the Window Observational Research Facility, or WORF, aboard theInternational Space Station.
(NASA Image)

In making this video, I timed the imagery ofboth the space shuttle and the space station with the lyrics to describe themas the masterpieces that they are. These two iconic achievements of theaerospace industry are intermixed with imagery of children on Earth andastronauts working and living in space. My hope is that as viewers listen andwatch the combination play out before them, they will think of space explorationwith excitement and awe.

There are also images of the Earth from thespace station and shuttle in the mix. I wanted to share a reminder of thebenefits of space to life on our planet by including an Earth views. Reachingfor the stars has yielded so many advances for current and future generationsand I want younger viewers to consider a future in science and engineering. Itis this very sense of wonder, which I tried to convey in the video, that drivesso many real achievements in space.

I was honored by the reception the videoreceived. In fact, there was an unanticipated spinoff from the production, asmy connection with “Five for Fighting” turned into an onsite tribute concert atJohnson Space Center to honor the Space Shuttle Program. The show took place onAugust 27, 2011 for an audience of NASA employees, contractors and theirfamilies as a “thank you” for their support.  

The key message that I heard from the lyrics in“World” is that history starts now. This video is an invitation to each viewerto take action and think about the question, “What kind of world do you want?” Whatcan each of us do today to make tomorrow that much better? I ended the videowith a reminder that even with the retirement of the space shuttle, theInternational Space Station will continue to operate and make remarkablediscoveries to benefit humanity until at least 2020 and perhaps beyond. We arejust getting started!

Screenshot from “World” video on NASA YouTubeshowing the planned operational duration of 2020 for the International SpaceStation.
(NASA Image)

DylanMathis is currently the Mass Communications Lead in the International SpaceStation Program Office of External Integration. He earned an undergraduatedegree in Radio, Television, and Film and a Masters degree in High DefinitionTelevision and Digital Media from Baylor University. Dylan has worked at NASAin the International Space Station Program over 11 years.

The Power to Inspire: The Effectiveness of International Space Station Education Projects

This week guest blogger Camille Alleyne,International Space Station assistant program scientist, shares her experiencesin station educational outreach with the readers of A Lab Aloft.

As I go through my busy workday, absorbed in the detailsof my part to help support the International Space Station Program ScienceOffice, I rarely stop to think about the impact the work that my colleagues andI do has on the general populace. That was until last week, when I got toexperience first-hand the power of our educational programs to inspire generations.I was invited to participate in the 10thannual Caribbean Youth Science Forum that was held in Trinidad and Tobago,my birth country. This event brought together over 300 high school seniors from6 Caribbean countries who were interested in pursuing careers in science,engineering and technology.

Participants in theCaribbean Youth Science Forum with Camille Alleyne, second right (back row).
(Image courtesy of Trinidad ExpressNewspapers/Ishmael Salandy)

Given my position within NASA, I was invited to the forumand asked to do an interactive workshop with these students on a space-relatedtopic. Suspecting that these students had very rarely, if at all, thoughtseriously about space exploration, I wanted to create an experience for them.My goal was to not only expand their minds, but motivate and inspire them tobelieve in themselves and to dare to dream big.

That is exactly what happened when the forum’s studentshad the opportunity to participate in the International Space Station Ham Radio,or ISSHam Radio, project. This investigation, which uses ham radio technology, allowedstudents to make real-time contact with the crew members aboard the spacestation for a question and answer session. The ham radio communication was anhistoric event for the Caribbean region and one that fulfilled my education objective.ISS Ham Radio is a space station educational program with a global reach, givingstudents from all over the world an ability to talk to astronauts andcosmonauts as they work and live in space.

The scene during the ham radio communication included anauditorium filled with students abuzz with excitement as they waited for theactual contact to begin. The space station, on a trajectory towards SouthAmerica, was viewed on a giant screen that projected the world map and track ofthe station to help students visualize the orbiting laboratory’s location. Directcontact while the station was over Trinidad and Tobago was not possible, as thecrew would have been in their sleep period during direct flyover, so atelebridge connection was constructed. In other words, the call was scheduledto take place while the station was overhead of and able to obtain a directlink with another location—in this case, Argentina. Once established, theconnection was relayed to the Caribbean via an Argentinean ground station.

The event and contact were moderated by Steve McFarlene, amentor and radio operator based out of Canada. The Canadian team connected withthe Argentinean team over regular telephone lines in preparation for the groundstation to make the contact to the ham radio aboard the space station.

Twenty minutes before the contact, as the station enteredthe path that makes the contact possible, McFarlene gave an introduction andwelcomed the students of the region to the historic event of the first evercontact from space to the Caribbean. He asked the first student to do a test toensure a loud and clear communication. After the test, the local organizers ofevent had an opportunity to introduce themselves and the schools and studentsrepresented there. McFarlene then prompted the team from Argentina to introducethemselves. The growing excitement was palatable in the auditorium! 

At precisely 11:13 EDT, McFarlene gave the go-ahead tostart the event. Organizers queued up the 12 students chosen to read theirquestions to the space station crew and then a voice came over the speakersaying “testing, testing.” It was the voice of Satoshi Furukawa, the JAXA crew memberaboard the space station—my heart skipped a beat. We had made contact! 

Students asking Satoshi Furukawa their questions. Fromleft to right: Jonathan Gosyne, Presentation College Chaguanas; Adam Hanna,Queen’s Royal College; Oliver Maynard, TA Marryshow College, Grenada; andMichael Green, Deputy Director of Operations, TTARL.
(Credit: DesireeSampson/NIHERST)

The room was awed silence as the first student asked hisquestion: “Hi, I am Carlos. Howis the ISS powered and how does the station use its power source to maintainorbit? Over!” Satoshi responded and then the next student asked their question.Before an answer was communicated, something unexpected happened—the connectionwent dead! There was a gasp in the room and McFarlene announced that we had lost the connection. Thankfully,about 60 seconds later, we heard Satoshi’s voice again as contact was restored.

The rest of the eventwent flawlessly and all 12 students received answers to their well thought-outquestions. At 11:23 EDT, the connection dropped as the station continued on itspath out of the range for Argentinean communication. The room erupted in applauseas this historic contact successfully completed.

As the forumcontinued over the next few days, news of the event captivated the populace asit was broadcast across the region’s airwaves. During the course of the week, Ialso had an opportunity to meet with students to talk about their dreams of careersin engineering and science. Student after student told me how inspirationalthose moments were when we made contact with the station crew. A boy namedSharaz, who happened to be one of the 12 lucky students who spoke with thestation astronaut, expressed to me that being a part of the event was the bestmoment of his life; a moment he will never forget! Other students communicatedthat they knew anything was possible for their lives now, because of thisexperience.

It can be a challengehere in International Space Station Program Science Office to measure theeffectiveness of programs that we implement. As we work with educators to designactivities, our goal is to motivate the next generation of scientists, thinkers,innovators and explorers. What I found, based on my experience with theCaribbean ham radio contact, is that our work is not only meeting objectives, inspiringfor generations to come! 

Camille Alleyne
Credit: Jackie Hicks)

Camille Alleyne is an Assistant ProgramScientist for the International Space Station Program Science Office with NASA’sJohnson Space Center where she is responsible for leading the areas of communicationsand education. Prior to this, she served as the Deputy Manager for the OrionCrew and Service Module Test and Verification program.  She holds a Bachelor of Science degree inMechanical Engineering from Howard University, a Master of Science degree inMechanical Engineering (Composite Materials) from Florida A&M Universityand a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering (Hypersonics) fromUniversity of Maryland. She is currently working on her Doctorate in ScienceEducation at the University of Houston.

A Station with a View: The Importance of Earth View to Crew Mental Health

Our exploration future is focused on the goal of sending humans beyond Earth orbit. This is an incredible aim and the International Space Station has an important role to play in the achievement. If you are following this blog and the stories published on the International Space Station Research and Technology Website, you already know of many investigations that support NASA’s objective. In fact, the very experience of living on the space station can provide important insight into human health, leading to benefits for future explorers.

One aspect of long-duration spaceflight you may not have considered is the experience of isolation that can impact the psychological well being of crewmembers. Those lucky enough to experience interplanetary travel will be cut off from their families, homes, and even their planet. As the explorers travel, even the comfortingly familiar green and blue globe of Earth will resemble a feint blue dot.

A recent crew survey found that astronauts reported one area of spaceflight they found particularly enriching involved their perception of the Earth. The flip side to this finding is the implication that the lack of an Earth view may negatively impact crew psychological well being. To seek verification of this emotional tie to a view of our planet, my colleagues and I chose to examine available data from the Crew Earth Observations or CEO. The goal was to see if there was a correlation between crew photography and mental well being based on the frequency of self-initiated images vs. those mandated by scientific directives.

Astronaut Jeff Williams prepares to photograph
the Earth from the Zvezda Service Module
aboard the International Space Station.
(NASA image)

These images reside in an online collection of imagery called the Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. In the recently published paper, Patterns in Crew-Initiated Photography of Earth from ISS—Is Earth Observation a Salutogenic Experience?, we looked at the photos taken between Expedition 4 and Expedition 11. This duration spanned from December 2001 to October 2005 and provided 144,180 Earth images to review. Of these photos, 15.5% were taken by space station crewmembers in response to requests by scientists. This means that the other 84.5% were crew-initiated photographs.

This crew-initiated image of São Paulo, Brazil, at night is an example of photography using a
homemade tracking system to capture long-exposure images under low light conditions,
which was assembled by astronaut Don Pettit.
(NASA image ISS006E44689)

Upon examining the images, the data showed that crewmembers took more photos when they had free time. When ramping up for increased activity on orbit, voluntary photography declined, whereas during reduced times of work, imagery increased. Likewise, if the crewmember was already at the window with the camera in hand for a CEO objective, they were more likely to continue photographing the Earth. The longer the individual was on station the more frequently they photographed the Earth, likely due to task familiarity and general acquaintance with station life.

Surprisingly, there was no connection between crewmember photography and areas of specific interest—such as hometowns or birthplaces. This may have to do with the fact that in this study these places were chosen by the researchers, rather than by the crewmembers themselves. Perhaps a future examination delving into the crew’s preference, as compared with the available data, may show alternate findings.

There was also an element of challenge via Earth photography, including learning and perfecting a new skill with the station cameras, that appears to have engaged the crew’s interest. For instance, the choice to shoot more frequently with the 800mm lens, a much more difficult focal length to manage and control, implies enjoyment. For the same reason someone may pick up a crossword puzzle, those on the space station may seek to fill time with tasks of mental dexterity. This implies the benefits of providing extended exploration participants with not only a creative outlet, but objectives that require intellectual acuity.

This view, taken with using the 800-millimeter lens combination, shows a portion of an image
of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California, taken during Expedition 13 by
astronaut Jeff Williams from aboard the International Space Station.
(NASA image ISS013E65111)

When you consider that a round trip mission to Mars could last as long as three years, it is not hard to understand why we are concerned about possible negative psychological impacts of isolation and confinement. As for all our human exploration risks, we are seeking ways to mitigate the impacts. The significantly large percent of images that were self-initiated in this study indicates that—time permitting—viewing, photographing, and subsequently sharing pictures of Earth is important to crewmembers. Likewise, providing challenging, enjoyable, and comforting leisure activities for the crew may be the key to securing long-term mental health while they are far from home.

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


Sharing the Love

This week on A Lab Aloft, comments from guest blogger Justin Kugler, Systems Engineer with the National Laboratory Office, as he recalls his experience at the STS-135 Tweetup at Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

Our mission in the International Space Station National Laboratory Office is to make the unique capabilities of the station more open to other government agencies, industry partners, and education programs. Fulfilling that mandate from Congress has introduced me to a wide variety of researchers, technologists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and educators. I have every expectation that the National Lab portfolio will only grow more eclectic with time.

As the admin for the National Lab Office Twitter account, @ISS_NatLab, it was exciting to move out from behind the keyboard and take the stage at the STS-135 Launch Tweetup at Kennedy Space Center, Fla. on July 7, 2011. Presenting alongside me was scientist Tracy Thumm with the International Space Station Program Scientist’s Office. This is a great example of how NASA has embraced the power of social media to connect with the public and share our stories.

Tracy Thumm and Justin Kugler
speak at the STS-135 NASA
Tweetup (NASA image)

Back home, our colleges with @ISS_Research supported the Tweetup and posted updates for our followers on Twitter. Tracy and I spoke about the science, technology, and exploration research planned for the final mission of the Space Shuttle Program and aboard the space station. In addition to the physical group of 150 of NASA’s biggest fans, we had countless virtual participants through the live video stream and online forums.

Some of the topics we covered for STS-135 included advanced vaccine research and the J. Craig Venter Institute’s bacteriological survey of the station environment. I also had the privilege of presenting some of the new technologies that will be broken in on the station in preparation for future deep space exploration, such as new carbon dioxide scrubbers, non-toxic propellants, inflatable modules, and advanced telerobotics. 

I really enjoyed the Q&A session that followed my talk, as it allowed us to answer in greater detail how research opportunities are expanding on the station. For example, I shared a training module from a commercial partner, NanoRacks, LLC. This 10-cm cubed platform, with USB port for power and data, houses and integrates small experiments aboard the station. Using ready-made platforms like this enables researchers with a good idea, but relatively little funding to obtain sustained exposure to the microgravity environment. We also talked about the planned use of commercial lab equipment—such as a plate reader—modified for the station that will allow NASA to send data back to researchers on the ground without having to return samples. This reduces the time lag to get results.

My colleague Tracy fielded a question regarding the length of time till scientist see results from station research. In fact, we are already seeing results, such as a recently published study on the stability of pharmaceuticals in space. The International Space Station Research and Technology Website keeps tabs on the results, as they become available to the public. The actual duration for results varies from investigation to investigation.

One of my favorite questions, though, was about what we still need to learn to send humans on long-duration missions and where people can learn more. There are, relatively speaking, only a handful of data points for how the human body behaves in the space environment and billions of data points here on Earth. We understand very little of what happens in between, such as with the one-third-normal gravity of Mars. Future human research studies on the station will help us fill in those gaps so we can design vehicles and missions to keep human explorers healthy, safe, and sane on their journeys. NASA’s Human Research Roadmap covers this in much greater detail.

Later, I was told that the tent was quiet—except for the background hum of the portable air conditioners—because everyone was listening intently, taking notes for their blogs or posting our answers in real-time to Twitter. Attendees continued to come up to Tracy and I to ask questions about the work being done on the station throughout the rest of the event.

The Tweetup also included a special visit from Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and an entertaining interview between astronauts Mike Massimino and Doug Wheelock and Sesame Street star, Elmo. The Muppet, interestingly enough, had as many questions as the astronauts! 

Sesame Street’s Elmo interviews
astronauts Mike Massimino and
Doug Wheelock at the STS-135
NASA Tweetup.
(NASA Image)

After the rains of that Thursday passed, the attendees all made their way out to the lawn near Pad 39A to visit the shuttle Atlantis. The crowd was electrified by the breathtaking unveiling of the orbiter, as the rotating service structure retracted from view to clear the pad for launch. Despite the amorphous grey clouds in the background, the stark contrast between the orange external tank, black and white thermal tiles on the orbiter, and the white cylinders of the boosters was truly riveting.

The rotating service structure
retracting from Atlantis
(Image courtesy of Justin Kugler)

Surprises were in store for the Tweetup participants throughout the morning of launch day. This included a visit from astronaut legend, Bob Crippen, and the introduction of Bear McCreary’s “Fanfare” for STS-135 by Seth Green (an unabashed NASA enthusiast). As the hours rolled by, the anticipation was at a fever pitch. The weather was progressively improving and everyone had a sense that the launch would actually happen.

The passing of the Astrovan further raised the level of anticipation. We had our first indication that the “final four” were close from the passing of the escort helicopter. A spontaneous cheer went up when the van and its security entourage turned the corner and came into view. There was one last stop to let off anyone not going to the pad, then the crew of Atlantis pressed on to their destination and a beautiful launch!

One last stop for the Astrovan.
(Image courtesy of Justin Kugler)

After Atlantis’ ascent, people made their way back to their laptops in the Tweetup tent or established a connection with their smartphone, the blog posts, Tweets, and picture uploads resumed en masse. Each of the Tweetup attendees became an ambassador to the rest of the world for NASA.

That relationship is what NASA Tweetups are all about. Even in the twilight of the Space Shuttle Program, the love and passion for spaceflight was alive and well in us all. I believe it is the responsibility of those who experienced the final shuttle launch—NASA employees and honored guests alike—to share this connection with the rest of the world and to look forward to the next decade of research on the space station.

The Tweetups are successful because they embody more than just telling people about what we do at NASA. Attendees have the chance to participate and share the story on their own terms. It is this bond between NASA and the public that can sustain interest in and support for our nation’s space program and future exploration. We still have a lot of work to do on the space station and to prepare for missions in deep space, so I look forward to many more Tweetups to come.

The STS-135 Launch Tweetup participants.
(NASA image)

Justin Kugler works at NASA Johnson Space Center in the International Space Station National Laboratory Office. There he supports systems integration activities for science payloads. He has a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from Texas A&M University and a M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Rice University.


Why the International Space Station? Technology Demonstration

Thisweek, comments from guest blogger Brian Rishikof, Vice President of InnovativeSpace Propulsion Systems, LLC, as he comments on the International SpaceStation as a unique test bed for the aerospace industry.

New technology requires rigorous testing prior to productionand deployment, and this is especially true for the aerospace industry. Whendeveloping for space, however, you have a unique set of requirements that canlimit your testing platform options. This is why the International SpaceStation is such an asset for industry growth and progress.

Innovative Space Propulsion Systems, LLC, for instance, isworking on high-performance, non-toxic (or “green”) monopropellant replacementsfor in-space chemical propulsion systems, called NOFBX®. Using a simple, feedsystem and lightweight engines capable of deep throttling and operation fromany fluid phase, we hope to revolutionize spaceflight and associated groundoperations with radically improved safety, minimal pollutants and reducedcosts.

While there will be significant testing on the ground,flight testing is necessary to truly achieve full requirements verification for—andcustomer confidence in—the NOFBX® system. Ground testing allows us tocharacterize the system and resolve all issues for safe demonstration on thespace station, getting us to technology readiness levels of 6 to 7 (on a scaleof 1 to 10). This range represents the development to demonstration phases ofthe product in analogous environments. A flight experiment, however, canachieve a readiness level of 8 to 9, which seeks to demonstrate actual operationsin the intended environment. From a corporate and commercial perspective, thisis essential.

Theimage above is a Computer Aided Design representation of baseline NOFBX flight experiment pallet.
(Courtesy of Brian Rishikof)

Although the behavior and performance of a productundergoing testing can be well characterized on the ground, certain conditionsrequired for our test objectives cannot be replicated. For example, long-termexposure to the space environment, thermal cycling, microgravity, etc. cannotbe fully simulated on the ground. They are only achievable on platforms such asspace station or, to some extent, with suborbital flights. Our company wants tocharacterize how the system behaves and performs over time by running selectedtests after long quiescent/dormant periods when the system is completelyunpowered, however, which obviates the effectiveness of suborbital testingplatforms.

The space station also has many unique advantages as a testbed. It is already equipped with well-defined services for all the necessaryresources: power, data, mechanical, and analytical needs. It is, after all,designed to function as a laboratory. These resources reduce the complexity,technical risk, and total cost for users performing tests and investigations. Thespace station also supports video download, permits testing over an extendedperiod, and provides generous mass/volume/power capabilities. This allows forrapid design and flight of a human spaceflight safety-compliant system that willaddress thruster characterization, propellant transfer, and extended operationsobjectives in a single payload.

Above is an image of the prototype thrust
chamber and nozzle.
(Courtesy of Brian Rishikof)

Given the criticality of flight heritage in developing and commercializingthis technology, the station offers the shortest conceivable time-to-flight(~18 months), as well. In other words, the maturity and availability of thestation, and opportunities for transportation to the station, allows us topursue an aggressive schedule for in-space testing and demonstration, which inturn allows us to get to a marketable product sooner.

Employing ISS as a test platform accelerates the scheduleand significantly improves the business case (and U.S. competitiveness),because it allows timely consideration within the commercial crew developmentarena. This is of particular interest to my company as other “green”monopropulsion systems, some of which have already flown, are penetrating thecustomer market. Based on our review, the performance and other attributes ofour propellant and propulsion systems offer significant advantages.Demonstrating a superior alternative as quickly as possible will facilitatemarket penetration and accelerate U.S. competitiveness and achieve leadershipboth domestically and internationally. This will also accelerate theavailability of the cost and safety benefits to the U.S. government andgovernment suppliers.

Safety considerations also benefit from space stationtesting. The space station-based flight test positively enforces compliancewith all the safety requirements associated with operation of the propulsionsystem at, or in the vicinity of, the space station. There currently is noexisting established standard for bringing a new aerospace propulsion systeminto manned spaceflight applications. The space station safety review process isthe closest standard for acceptance testing a new system for human spaceflight.

It has become clear in my discussions with many potentialcustomers and users that the actual flight test in space changes perspectives. Provenflight heritage transforms casual interest into true consideration for missionapplications, such as commercial crew and cargo delivery to the space station.I constantly get asked, “Has it flown, yet?” or, “When will it fly?” Part ofthis customer interest derives from engagement with the NASA space stationteam, which provides access to independent expertise, processes, equipment andexperience. This adds significantly to the rigor of our combined work, and the necessaryconfidence that the end product is ready to be safely used at the space station,and by other customers for other applications.

Business operates on a global level, and the space stationprovides an unprecedented opportunity for domestic and international exposure.The station platform receives significantly more attention than other spaceassets, therefore enabling awareness and knowledge of the technology across amuch broader segment of the U.S. government and commercial industries. Inaddition, the international nature of the space station can generate interestfrom the international community and catalyze business opportunities and accessto new markets. This is not be possible on any other test platform, making thespace station a truly unique resource.

Brian Rishikof is VicePresident of Innovative Space Propulsion Systems, LLC and Program Manager forthe ISS-bound NOFBX Flight Demonstration Experiment. ISPS is chartered with advancingNOFBX® propulsion technologies and bringing them to the commercial andgovernment markets. Brian is also a founder and CEO of Odyssey Space Research,LLC, which specializes in Guidance, Navigation and Control, systemsengineering, software, analysis, and human spaceflight safety.

NASA readies to launch the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer

This week on A Lab Aloft, guest bloggers Trent Martin and Ken Bollweg share their recollections of working on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and their excitement as the investigation ramps up to launch on STS-134, scheduled for May 16, 2011.

With the launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour STS-134 mission, the hopes and dreams of over 600 physicists, engineers and technicians from 60 institutes in 16 different nations will be carried to International Space Station. The flight is poised to take the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer – 02 or AMS-02 to its final perch on the top of the space station, where it will finally begin its much anticipated operations.

The AMS-02 is a high energy physics experiment that employs a large magnet—which produces a strong, uniform magnetic field—combined with a state of the art precision spectrometer to search for antimatter, dark matter, and to understand cosmic ray propagation in the universe. The large international team working on this project is led by Nobel laureate Professor Samuel Ting of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The payload is sponsored by the United States Department of Energy, but funding comes from all over the world. This type of international collaboration is common in the world of high energy physics research for the last 50 years and is starting to become more common in the space science community. To date, AMS is the most diversely funded space-based science detector ever built. This is the type of collaboration that NASA hopes the space station National Laboratory will help continue to foster in the space scientific community.

Development of AMS was required to follow NASA standards for flight and ground safety and NASA retained the right to veto anything that violated those requirements. The AMS Collaboration has official responsibility for mission assurance though all the experiment hardware and software were developed to accommodate NASA recommendations for compatibility, reliability, and redundancy.

The successful precursor flight of AMS-01 on STS-91 took place with the last Shuttle-Mir mission in June 1998. There were some communications issues, due to a failed Ku-Band antenna, but the AMS detector performed as expected. The prototype engineering evaluation flight led to improved sensitivity of the measurement of antihelium and helium flux ratio by one part per million and AMS is expected to improve this to one part per billion.

View from Mir of AMS-01 and SpaceHab on STS-91
in June 1998.
(Image courtesy of NASA)

Work on a much more complex version of AMS began immediately after the completion of the STS-91 mission. With numerous increases in size, mass, and interfaces, the need for a second Unique Support Structure or USS-02 became apparent. The versatility of the new carrier was proven as the final payload weight increased from 9,197 to 15,251 lb. The first major upgrade was to change from a permanent version to a more powerful cryogenic superconducting superfluid helium-cooled magnet. Hundreds of internal and external interface, manufacturing, testing, and assembly problems were solved on the way to delivering the cryogenic magnet to the AMS Collaboration.

AMS integrated with the USS-02 and Vacuum Case in
the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) at KSC,
March 2011.
(Image courtesy of NASA)

The complexity of the experiment and its interfaces continued to increase as the number of data channels grew from ~70,000 on AMS-01 to over 300,000 on AMS-02.  The tremendous amount of data the experiment is expected to produce required detailed command and data interface coordination with the space shuttle and station. When the decision was made to extend the life of the ISS, the AMS Collaboration decided it would benefit the experiment to use the infinite life of the original Permanent Magnet instead of the limited life of the Cryogenic Magnet. 

Of course, without the space shuttle there would be no way of getting AMS to the space. The shuttle, which will retire this year, provides the gentlest ride to space of any manned or unmanned launch system ever developed. What’s more, without the space station, there would be no location for operations. The station solar arrays make the station the only currently available resource platform capable of generating enough energy to power the AMS and successfully run the investigation.

The ISS National Laboratory is just beginning to realize its potential as a research facility and the AMS investigation will play a significant role in helping to achieve this goal. The station provides guidance, navigation, and attitude control for the experiment. It also provides power, command, and data systems to control the experiment and to relay its data to the ground. NASA provides the tracking relay data satellites, ground stations, and control centers to transfer the commands and data to/from the AMS Payload Operations Control Centers at Johnson Space Center and at CERN.

AMS (foreground) as it will appear when attached to the International
Space Station National Laboratory.
(Image courtesy of NASA)

AMS-02 Ready for Launch in Endeavour’s Payload Bay April 2011.
(Image courtesy of M. Famiglietti)

Although the primary purpose of the AMS-02 payload is to search for antimatter and dark matter, the detector represents the most advanced charge particle detector ever flown in space. In the words of Prof. Ting, “The issues of antimatter in the universe and the origin of Dark Matter probe the foundations of modern physics,” but more importantly “the most exciting objective of AMS is to probe the unknown; to search for phenomena which exist in nature that we have not yet imagined nor had the tools to discover.” With AMS-02, we may now have those tools.

It has been an honor to work with the AMS Collaboration and Nobel prize winner, Professor Ting. I look forward to the launch of this incredible particle detector and to the discoveries and strides it will yield for the field of physics.

Trent Martin is the AMS Project Manager from the Johnson Space Center. He has worked on AMS since 1995 in various capacities for both Lockheed Martin and NASA. In addition, he currently manages the JSC James Webb Space Telescope activities and is a branch chief in the Engineering Directorate.

Ken Bollweg is the AMS Deputy Project Manager from Johnson Space Center. He has worked on AMS since 1994 in various capacities for both Lockheed Martin and NASA. Over the last five years, he and his family has spent three years living in Europe during the integration of AMS.

The Advantage of Laboratory Time in Space

This week, commentsfrom guest blogger and International Space Station Principal Investigator Dr.Mark Weislogel, as he reflects on the importance, advantages and joys oflong-duration investigations on the space station.

Scientists who have not used the International Space Stationbefore don’t always have a feel for how space experiments can be as successful,if not more so than those using other low-g environments. Researchers used tothe shuttle experience think in terms of a very small window of time to makechanges and adapt. Short duration investigations are intense and competitive.In hindsight, it seems they are high risk. If you have a three-hour slot to runyour experiment and some setback occurs that cannot be resolved, you lose aportion of your data.

On the space station this can also happen, but when youengage in long-duration investigations, you quickly realize that you have timeto think things over. Because of this, when unexpected events occur, you canrespond in a creative and curious way. The success factor of long-durationexperiments is high—barring any failures in equipment, a risk in any lab. Infact, you are very likely to discover things you would not anticipate; thingscompletely peripheral to the goal, which you will observe for the first time,due to man’s limited experience in microgravity.

When a setback occurs on the station, you get partialresults and then the investigation goes into storage or offline for a time.When you come back, you’ve had time to think about things. In my experiencewith the CapillaryFlow Experiment or CFE, the participating astronaut also had suggestions,an advantage to working with humans in space. Procedures were changed around fromthe previous run and we ended up with more data than ever planned and saw newthings en route. [Ground operations for the CFE investigation took place at theNational Center for Microgravity Research and Glenn Research Center, Cleveland,Ohio.]

NASA astronaut ScottKelly, Expedition 26 commander, works on the hardware setup for a CapillaryFlow Experiment (CFE) Vane Gap-1 experiment. The CFE is positioned on theMaintenance Work Area in the Destiny laboratory of the International SpaceStation. CFE observes the flow of fluid, in particular capillary phenomena, inmicrogravity.
(NASA Image ISS026E017024)

Transitions in fluid locations due to slight changes incontainer geometry. As a central vane is rotated in this elliptic cylindercontainer critical wetting geometries are established leading to wicking alongthe vane-wall gap, and/or a bulk shift of fluid from right to left.
(Image Credit: Suni Williams)

Time and resources factor into any discovery, of course, andsignificant astronautinvolvement makes a big difference, too; certainly more so than inautomated or robotic investigations. But even with the CapillaryChannel Flow or CCF investigation that I am working on right now, it is amazing! If you have a pump and some valves, you can configure them in many ways you did not anticipate and widen your data set. You want to get what you planned on, but it is a delight to get all this extra information that you never expected!

My previous experience dealt with handheld, smallexperiments, so to me CCF is a complicated investigation. CCF is focused ontwo-phase flow—a liquid system with gas bubbles. In space, the gas does notrise and we have not had many opportunities to study systems like this inmicrogravity. The investigation has pumps and valves and plungers andseparation chambers. While there are other studies devoted only to two-phaseflow, CCF has two-phase flow all throughout it just to generate the flow thatwe are interested in watching. CCF operates continuously, controlled from theground through the Microgravity Science Glovebox or MSG interface and does notrequire crew interaction.

We have gotten to the point with CCF where we can get around20 data points per day and we are on our way to where we can get hundreds andhundreds of data points in a 24/7 operation. The system is working, thoughthere are setbacks—often times with loss of signal during our commanding or dueto our own thing—in trying to take inventories of where the fluids and gasesare in the system. We are regularly downloading high resolution, high speedimages and plotting them right alongside of our analysis on the ground andseeing new things there, too. The 24/7 collection is exhausting, but we know wecan do it!

In the image above, single and multi-bubble migration and phaseseparation are driven passively by specific control of container shape. A taper ina polygonal sectioned conduit leads to capillary pumping of liquid from rightto left driving bubble left to right. Such mechanisms may be invoked by fluidsystems aboard spacecraft to separate and store fluids by phase without movingparts.
(Image Credit:
Scott Kelly and Cady Colemen)

On the ground, the joint German-US team started with 24/7 operationsto learn the experiment in the first 2 to 3 weeks. Then the team travelled toGermany and slowed the pace, learned the system, then ramped up again to 24/7operations. [Development and ground operations for CCF take place at the GermanAerospace Center, headquartered in Cologne, Germany.] Our operations are muchmore controlled than before, because we were working 16-hour days to supportthat. The team then continued running for a few weeks until we finished ourfirst set of objectives.

Unexpected developments are part of the joy in microgravityinvestigations. When you make a discovery, you think, “Oh my, of course thisshould happen!” But no one has seen it before, because no one has had this nicelow-g environment for such a long duration. This is fun because it kindles the samekind of excitement that you have in your lab when you are definitelydiscovering something. It’s very exciting!

The thing is that the chances for discovery are much higherwith long-duration investigations on the space station. This is because we do notlive in that environment. You may be trying to verify a theory—and that isgreat—but en route you are very likely to see things to compliment orsupplement your investigation and even take you in different directions. Youwon’t have thought of these discoveries until you actually see them. That’swhat it is like with fluids in microgravity, as well as with combustion, materialsscience, and other fields.

One thing I feel very good about is that most of myinvestigation results can apply in the real world right away. Our work hasalready led to design concepts to improve the performance and reliability ofadvanced systems, such as condensing heat exchangers and waste-water treatmentdevices. It can also help with liquid fuel tank and fuel transfer designs. Theresults give new insight, confirm theories, and are useful for space and groundresearch. So there is not always a long lead time between the science productsand their use. This generates a good feeling, seeing that there is contributionin an observable timescale. This is not common in science and usually takesdecades to realize. Instead, these results can improve design and space systemdesign right now.

Dr. Mark Weislogel isa professor in the Thermal and Fluid Sciences Group in the Maseeh College ofEngineering and Computer Science at Portland State University. He has researchexperience from government and private institutions. While employed by NASA, heproposed and conducted experiments relating to microgravity fluid mechanics.This unique subtopic area within fluid mechanics provides significantchallenges for designers of fluids management systems for aerospaceapplications. Weislogel continues to make extensive use of NASA ground-basedlow-gravity facilities and has completed experiments via space shuttle, theRussian Mir Space Station, and the International Space Station. While in theprivate sector, Weislogel served as principal investigator for applied researchprojects concerning high-performance heat transport systems,micrometeorite-safe space-based radiators, microscale cooling systems,emergency oxygen supply systems, and astronaut sleep stations. His current researchincludes passive non-capillary cooling cycles for satellite thermal control andcapillary fluidics at both micro- and macro length scales. Weislogel has writtenover 50 publications; see further details.

Three Misconceptions about the International Space Station

This week on A Lab Aloft, International Space Station Program Science Office Research Communications Specialist Jessica Nimon shares answers to some of the more frequently asked questions she receives about the International Space Station.

Recently I attended two different public forums as a representative for the International Space Station Program Scientist’s Office. It was an exciting opportunity to share information about the station with the public and to get some feedback in return. The first event, Space Day on the Capitol in Austin, Texas, was a chance to speak with state legislators, visiting students and even tourists. A week later, I went to Colorado Springs for the National Space Symposium, which was more of a traditional conference setting for space businesses and enthusiasts.

Children and educators converge
at the State Capitol for inspiring
and informational activities.
(Credit: NASA)

My main objective at these events was to educate and answer questions regarding the research done on the space station. I anticipated a varied set of queries, but was surprised to find that when it came down to it, attendees at both events had similar misconceptions regarding the station. So in this blog, I hope to take a few moments of your time to correct the three most frequent misunderstandings regarding this amazing orbiting laboratory.

Misconception 1: The space station ends with the space shuttle

While the public seems well aware of the impending retirement of the space shuttle fleet, they are mixed in their understanding of what this means for the space station. Quite a few people asked me, “Does the space station retire with the shuttle?” In a word, no. The international partner agreements plan to continue to operate the space station through the year 2020. Now that we are finally at assembly complete, the entire International Space Station program is ready for full utilization for research and technology investigations!

While we may not arrive there via the space shuttle any longer, we continue to have crew travel capabilities with the Russian Soyuz. In fact, American astronauts have successfully and safely flown with the Russians on Soyuz for many years. American companies are also pursuing new crew vehicle options to offer transportation to the space station in the future. The question of upmass—the capability to lift large amounts of payload and supply weight—will continue to be addressed with international partner unmanned transport vehicles: JAXA HTV and ESA ATV, as well as two new American commercial resupply vehicles: Space X Dragon and Orbital Cygnus.

Misconception 2: Scientists do not need the space station

One of my favorite questions to pose to the student groups that would visit the NASA booth at the National Space Symposium was “what is the space station used for?” Sometimes a shy hand would raise and a boy or girl would offer that the station was built for research. More often than not, however, I was met with complete silence and a sea of blinking eyes. What an opportunity to educate these young minds on the fascinating purpose of the station!

Pointing to the scale model—which was to 1/100 the size of the space station, situated above a mini football field to illustrate the actual size—my colleagues and I took turns explaining. From the very beginning, the point of this unique facility was to perform experiments in the microgravity environment of low Earth orbit. It is interesting to note that investigations were conducted during the course of assembly, as well. Because the research did not have to wait for station completion, we are already seeing results from the early studies in space, which is remarkable!

Not only can scientists use the space station for short- and long-duration investigations, but they can also participate in the growing body of knowledge generated from their predecessors. Space station research has been published in prestigious science journals and continues to generate spinoff benefits. This information stands to serve people across the globe. When investigations yield results, they have the potential to cross all boundaries—gender, race, socioeconomic, etc. Reading this blog and the space station research and technology Web pages are a great way to keep up with emerging benefits.

The International Space Station length and width is about
the size of a football field.
(NASA Image)

Misconception 3: When the shuttle retires, there won’t be Americans in orbit

While I was at the National Space Symposium, there was a space station sighting opportunity for the Colorado Springs area. I shared this viewing prospect with visitors at the NASA exhibit. Some were amazed that they could go out onto their lawn, gaze at the sky, and see what appears to be a bright, fast-moving star and really be looking at an international orbiting laboratory. It was fun to remind people that while they stare up, the crew may be looking down, too.

This idea of humans in orbit provides the chance to share an important milestone reached in November of 2010—the space station now has a track record of over a decade of continued human presence in orbit! With the impending shuttle retirement, however, some fear that the days of Americans in space are numbered. Since crewmembers will fly via the Russian Soyuz, there is a misapprehension that only Russians will get to view back at Earth from the station in the future. The population of the space station, however, will remain as international as the collaboration that built it. Not only will we still have an American presence in space, but we will continue to have participants from all over the world. Currently we have two Americans, three Russians, and a European crewmember working in orbit.

NASA astronaut Catherine (Cady) Coleman and European Space Agency
astronaut Paolo Nespoli, both Expedition 26 flight engineers, use still cameras
at windows in the Zvezda Service Module of the International Space Station
during rendezvous and docking activities of space shuttle Discovery (STS-133).
(NASA Image ISS026-E-030172)

The international investment has already been made in the space station. Now is the time to not only continue use, but to ramp up our employment of this unique resource. Scientists have the upcoming decade to ask questions and send up investigations to make the most of the asset we have in this incredible laboratory.

Jessica Nimon worked in the aerospace industry as a technical writer for seven years before joining the International Space Station Program Science Office as the Research Communications Specialist. Jessica composes Web features, blog entries, and manages the @ISS_Research Twitter feed to share space station research and technology news with the public. She has a master’s degree in English from the University of Dallas.


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.