International Space Station Engages with Education

In today’s A Lab Aloft Assistant International Space Station Program Scientist Camille Alleyne talks about a new education publication that highlights more than a decade of inspiring student opportunities with space station investigations and activities.

This October I was excited to see the publication of a book that was not only an international collaboration, but more than a decade in the making: “Inspiring the Next Generation: International Space Station Education Opportunities and Accomplishments, 2000-2012.” Readers can find the PDF version of the publication here and are encouraged to visit the space station’s opportunity site for current education activities.

From a personal perspective, the value of the space station is as a platform for promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education, and engaging and exciting students in their studies in these areas. We can really inspire and increase interest in these subjects so that our youth go on to become the next generation of scientists, engineers and explorers.

In the past 12 years of operation, there have been more than 42 million students, 2.8 million teachers and 25,000 schools from 44 countries involved in education activities aboard the space station. This is a bonus in addition to our space station research for exploration, scientific discovery and applied research.

This publication is the follow up to “Inspiring the Next Generation: Student Experiments and Educational Activities on the International Space Station, 2000–2006,” and is a product of NASA’s ISS Program Science Office. The new document is the first time we worked to share these education activities in partnership with our international partners to show the benefits of space station research and education interactions that impact our life here on Earth. There was a team of education leads from each of the international partners that contributed to this publication, which is a comprehensive documentation of all the education activities conducted on the space station since 2000. This includes activities that are ongoing and will continue for the next few years.

Cover of the education publication: “Inspiring the Next Generation: International Space Station Education Opportunities and Accomplishments, 2000-2012.” (NASA)

This book looks at education activities in several different categories. Students are able to get involved with experiments that fly on the space station. They also have opportunities to take part in competitions, with the winners getting to either fly their experiments on station or have a crew member perform some aspect of the challenge. Finally, students have the ability to participate in classroom versions of station investigations by either mimicking or outright partaking in the experiments happening aboard station.

An example of this is Tomatosphere, a Canadian Space Agency-sponsored plant investigation. Researchers fly tomato seeds aboard station, while students on the ground grow their own seeds in the classroom. The young scientists participate in the scientific process by comparing the differences in germination from seeds flown in space vs. those that never left Earth.

During a previous Tomatosphere program, students studied the growth of tomato plants in Miss Smith’s grade three class at Langley Fundamental Elementary in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The students took their plants home to grow in their gardens over the summer. (Tomatosphere)

When students engage directly with researchers flying their investigations aboard station, they usually play a role in data analysis and the setting up of studies before they fly. For instance, with the International Space Station Agricultural Camera, or ISSAC, a student-based staff participated in designing, building and controlling the camera remotely during primary science operations. So there are many ways for students to engage with the space station.

There are also opportunities to learn from demonstrations by astronauts previously done aboard station. Teachers can access and play these experiments in the classroom to demonstrate different scientific concepts and theories. Taking this one step further, students can even engage in real-time crew interactions via live downlinks or ham radio contacts.

With inquiry-based activities, students get to learn how real researchers work and how the scientific process functions simply by being allowed to ask questions, develop hypothesis and analyze data. They learn to think deeply and critically about different scientific concepts, which is a true value of education engagement with the space station.

A student at Lamar Elementary School in Greenville, Texas, proudly talks to an astronaut in space. (NASA)

The opportunity to collaborate with the international partners for this project was really interesting. I was able to gain insight into their education objectives and how they compare to those here at NASA. The Japanese Space Agency, or JAXA, for instance, puts a lot of emphasis not only on STEM education, but on using cultural activities as a way of inspiring the public. That is not something we focus on at NASA, but it was fascinating to see the diverse connection between art and science in these space-related education activities. Take for example the Space Poem Chain project, which used poetry to break barriers by using space as an inspiration for contributors from ages 8 to 98 from around the globe.

It was also fantastic to have Russian Space Agency contributions and to see the ways they go about inspiring their children. Also different from the U.S., the Russians use satellite development and communications technology as their main vehicle for engaging students, while simultaneously building their sense of wonder and skill. Seeing the different cultures and what their missions are in terms of educational goals, including how they manifest into activities, was fun to learn and then to share in this collaboration.

Students from Charminade College Preparatory, West Hills, Calif., run preliminary variations of their experiment in the lab. (SSEP)

We have one story from each partner highlighted on our Benefits website in the area of education. Now we get to take all of our collective efforts and extend the benefits of these activities across the partnerships to other students in other countries around the world. Building this education book with my colleague, Susan Mayo, was a unique experience; a very rewarding one. I look forward to the continuing and growing impacts of the space station.

I feel it is important to note that the inquiry-based approach to science education, like that done with the space station, is what scholars cite as the value that excites students to pursue careers in STEM based areas. I see more of an emphasis on this type of station educational activity in the future. I would also like to see younger participants for these station activities. Consider the Kids in Micro-g project, where we had 5th graders competing to design microgravity experiments. A group of nine year-old girls won and had their investigation conducted aboard station. This led to an actual scientific discovery that nobody expected, contributing to the body of knowledge in that area of physics.

NASA astronauts Catherine (Cady) Coleman and Ronald (Ron) Garan perform the Attracting Water Drops experiment from Chabad Hebrew Academy. (NASA)

The audience for this book is primarily space station stakeholders, but the activities that make up the content have the ability to impact students everywhere, no matter what culture or language. This book has some engaging opportunities that students all over the world could participate in. The thought that 8, 9, and 10 year-olds can teach us something new about exploration and going beyond what we think we know is really exciting! I would like to see what other young minds can contribute using space station education.

Camille Alleyne is an assistant program scientist for the International Space Station Program Science Office with NASA’s Johnson Space Center where she is responsible for leading the areas of communications and education. Prior to this, she served as the Deputy Manager for the Orion Crew and Service Module Test and Verification program.  She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Howard University, a Master of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering (Composite Materials) from Florida A&M University and a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering (Hypersonics) from University of Maryland. She is currently working on her Doctorate in Educational Leadership at the University of Houston.

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)

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.

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.

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.

Tissue Engineering and the International Space Station

This week, comments from guest blogger,medical doctor, engineer, and astronaut, Dr. David Wolf, as he reflects on tissueengineering in space.

The InternationalSpace Station National Laboratory has an edge for doing unique experiments inmedicine and biotechnology that are not possible anywhere else—we can “turnoff” gravity. As we gear up to fully use the station, the emerging field oftissue engineering is one of our high-value targets. This is a particularlypromising area of study where microgravity research has already made advancesin basic science. Indications are that further work will lead to importantapplications in clinical medicine on Earth.

Building onthe groundwork from earlier programs, biotechnology research on the spacestation, and associated ground-based research in emulated microgravity, hascreated a large body of information. This data collection demonstrates thevalue of controlled gravity systems for assembling and growing 3-Dimensional livingtissue from individual cells and substrates. The NASA-developed Space Bioreactorprovides a core in-vitro capability both in space and on Earth.

Dr. Wolf, on SpaceStation Mir, repairing a faulty valve in the Space Bioreactor,
an instrument for precisely controlling the conditions enabling the culture of 3-D
human tissues in microgravity.
(NASA image)

On Earth,these bioreactors are unique in that they are able to emulate, within limits,the far superior fluid mechanical conditions achieved in space. One may thinkof this Space Bioreactor as a 3-D petri plate. The core of the instrumentationis a rotating fluid filled cylinder, the culture vessel, producing conditionsinside resembling the buoyancy found within the womb. And much like in thehuman body, this vessel is surrounded by a life support system performing thefunctions of the heart and lung, achieving the precisely controlled conditionsnecessary for healthy tissue growth. The importance of this culturetechnique is that fluid mechanical conditions obtained in microgravity—and emulatedon Earth—allow the growth of tissues in the laboratory that cannot be grown anyother way. Emulated microgravity on Earth, and to a much greater degree, the actualmicrogravity of spaceflight enable an extremely gentle and quiescent fluiddynamic environment. The cells and substrates are free to organize into 3-Dtissues without the need to introduce disruptive suspension forces from bladesor stirring mechanisms. This leads to a broad array of applications based onenhanced in-vitro tissue culture techniques.

Theground-based versions of the Space Bioreactor produced very high fidelity colontumors for cancer research, providing strong indications of the value of actualmicrogravity, see Figure 1. Even so, when I first put space grown tissuesamples under the microscope, while aboard the Space Station Mir, I wasastounded! In my many years of experience culturing tissues, I had never seenany so well organized, so healthy, and with such fine structure. Nerve derivedtissue from the adrenal gland was forming long fronds of exceptionally delicatetissue, see Figure 2. What I was seeing could never form on Earth, even in ourstate-of-the-art systems that emulate microgravity.

Figure 1, Anartificially produced colon cancer tumor produced
under emulated microgravity on Earth is composed of millions of
cancerous cells forming a 3-D configuration, much like that
which would form in the human body. Work conducted at NASA
in collaboration with Dr. Kim Jessup.
(Image courtesy of Dr. David Wolf)

Figure 2, Neural-derivedadrenal tissue from a pheochromocytoma –
grown in actual microgravity. Photomicrograph taken by Dr. David Wolf
in work conducted on Mir in collaboration with Dr. Peter Lelkes.
(Image courtesy of Dr. David Wolf)

NASA researchin the Space Bioreactors produced over 25 U.S. patents and the technology isconsidered state-of-the-art for ground-based tissue culture. Scientists aroundthe globe from the National Institutes of Health or NIH, medical centers, and universitieshave produced numerous peer reviewed publications in highly respected journalsand even more patents based on the fundamental principles. Other actualspaceflight research has been successfully used to study breast cancer and prostatecancer. NASA has licensed its patents to spin-off companies including Synthecon, Inc., for commercialmanufacturing of the equipment, and Regenetech,Inc., for regenerative medicine and stem cell applications. These companieshave in turn sublicensed the technology even more broadly, enabling widespreaduse of this NASA-developed technology.

Researchers onEarth use this technology to study cancer, stem cells, diabetes, cartilagegrowth, nerve growth, skin, kidney, liver, heart, blood vessels, infectiousdisease—virtually every tissue in the body. The applications go much furtherthan engineering implantable tissue, to include vaccine production and living ex-vivoorganic life support systems, such as artificial livers. Researchers at the NIH,for instance, used the methods to propagate the HIV virus, responsible forAIDS, in artificial lymph node tissue—itself sustained in the bioreactor. This resultedin the ability to study the virus life cycle under controlled conditions,outside the human body.

But we arenot done. While very capable on Earth, the performance of Earth-boundbioreactors is still limited by the presence of gravity. Spaceflight testing onMir and the space shuttle demonstrate that the growth of larger, better functioning,and more organized tissue may be obtained under true low gravity conditions. Todate, the Space Bioreactor has been exploited primarily for basic research. Duringthe intervening time, the field of medicine has evolved a firm vision towardstrue regenerative tissue technology. In recent years, powerful molecular biologytechniques provided a detailed biological knowledge, which permits understandingcellular machinery almost like micro-machines. This convergence of technologywith the space station laboratory opens a new chapter for space biotechnology.

The InternationalSpace Station National Laboratory now provides an unprecedented opportunity tothe biotechnology community. Within NASA, scientists continue to work to build theinfrastructure to enable the biotechnology community; to help them take thenext steps in exploiting controlled gravity in-vitro systems. The vision is toteam together the very best minds and institutions, leveraging their abilitiesto advance regenerative medicine. Such advances can lead to improving ourquality of life on Earth and serve as a lasting legacy of the space station era.

Dr. David Wolf is anastronaut, medical doctor, and electrical engineer. Having traveled to spacefour times, Dr. Wolf participated in three short-duration space shuttlemissions and a long-duration mission to the Russian Space Station Mir. A nativeof Indianapolis, he participated in seven spacewalks, and the SLS-2 Life SciencesSpacelab Mission, logging over 4,040 hours in space. He received the NASAExceptional Engineering Achievement Medal, the NASA Inventor of the Year Award,among multiple recognitions for his work in advancing 3-D tissue engineeringtechnology.

When will we know if research on the ISS has paid off?

I often have the opportunity to do interviews with reporters who are interested in the kind of research happening on the International Space Station. Sometimes they are veteran space reporters, other times they are new and just learning about space research for the first time.


Regardless of their past experience, they often ask me for evidence that research on the space station is worth the cost. It is a simple question, but a misleading one. This is because it counts every penny on the cost side, but fails to account for the multiple benefits in addition to research results: international cooperation, engineering accomplishments, and research accomplishments.


The space station already benefits the country and the world through its construction and operation—even if it were never used as a laboratory, this would still hold true. We should not lose track of the power of daily international cooperation in constructing, operating and using the space station. The fact that this cooperation is on the cutting edge of space technology and for peaceful purposes amazes the previous generation, but is business as usual for us today. I work closely with colleagues at the main partner agencies, including Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan, and Canada; over 59 countries have participated in space station research or education activities through 2010.


Crewmembers from ISS Expedition 20 represent five nations and the five partners in building the International
Space Station: Belgium (European Space Agency), Canada, Japan, Russia, and the United States.
Image courtesy of NASA: ISS020e008898


The value of the space station as an engineering accomplishment should also not be underestimated. Common standards allow parts manufactured all over the world to interchange and connect flawlessly the first time they meet in orbit. Year round operations, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, have now extended for 11 years, and we have more than a decade ahead of us. The various life support technologies developed for station provide redundant capabilities to ensure the safety of the crew. They also provide technology advances that benefit people right here on Earth—for example, new compact technologies provided water purification after earthquakes in Pakistan and Haiti.


Water filtration plant set up in Balakot, Pakistan, following the earthquake
disaster in 2005. The unit is based on space station technology and processes
water using gravity fed from a mountain stream.

                                       Image courtesy of the Water SecurityTM Corporation


Even if we could place a monetary value on peaceful international cooperation and engineering advances from building and operating spacecraft, finding the true long-term payoffs of scientific research is very challenging. Some items could be tabulated as direct benefits from space station research—things such as new materials and products that can have a measurable market impact. Beyond the obvious items, however, the calculations get fuzzy. New products can lead to long-term economic value by making safer vehicles, by extending human life, and even by advancing the quality of life. What might appear as esoteric knowledge may indeed be the first critical steps on the path to a high-value breakthrough. Let us not forget indirect benefits from educational activities, job creation, and economic growth, as well. Colin Macilwain wrote a great critical review of the general challenges of valuing the worth of science in Nature last June, Science Economics: What Science is Really Worth, which I recommend for those interested in the challenge of valuing science.


In the coming weeks I will share with you stories of some of the direct benefits that I see coming from space station research. These developed from the modest research throughput during the station assembly period, prior to the full use of the finished laboratory we have today. Based on publications so far, most space station experiments take 2-5 years post-laboratory to publish results. New products related to these results take another 5-10 years or more to transition to a direct benefit. In fact, the space station will be deorbited before an accounting can be completed.


Along this journey, there are some really exciting possibilities emerging. I invite you to browse developments from space station research via our key results Web site, as we monitor the progress from knowledge to direct benefits.


Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D.

ISS Program Scientist