Texas Talks Space

In today’s A Lab Aloft, Jessica Nimon, research communications managing editor for NASA’s International Space Station Program Science Office, talks about the impact of interacting with the public during Space Week 2013 in Austin, Texas.

Texas hosts Space Day at the Capitol in Austin every other year as part of Space Week. This year’s theme was “Human Exploration: the Journey Continues.” This was my second time representing the International Space Station Program Science Office to the students, members of the public and legislative staff who attended. I enjoy participating in such events because not only I can share the latest space station research and technology news, but it also gives me a chance to gauge perceptions from the audience I communicate with in my role as a writer and editor at NASA.

Keeping the exploration theme in mind, NASA’s International Space Station Program research and technology display shared a space with the agency’s Commercial Crew Program and Orion vehicle displays. Joining these exhibits in the lower level of the Capitol building’s rotunda were representatives from various commercial space companies, including SpaceX and Blue Origin. The in-the-round exhibit placement seemed symbolic of the partnerships taking place with NASA to continue and expand human space exploration.

Chelsey Bussey, International Space Station Program Science Office research scientist, answers a student’s questions during Space Day at the Capitol 2013 in Austin, Texas. (NASA/James Blair)

My colleagues, Scientific Communications Analyst Amelia Rai and Research Scientist Chelsey Bussey, helped tell the story of the amazing research, technology and educational opportunities and developments from our orbiting laboratory. We shared how the space station is a resource that goes beyond space exploration goals, reaching out to cross boundaries in areas of healthcare, pharmaceutical advancements and industry spinoffs. Some of my personal favorites to highlight include NeuroArm, a lifesaving robotic instrument for brain surgery developed using technology from the space station’s Canadarm, and advances made in vaccine development.

The inspiration shared at such events has the potential to touch not only the 3rd to 8th grade students targeted by Space Day, but also to inspire the imagination of new users with research goals for microgravity research. While speaking with the people visiting our exhibit, at least one scientist expressed interest in how he could use the space station as a platform for his research.

Amelia Rai, NASA scientific communications analyst, shares International Space Station research and technology facts with a visitor to Space Day at the Capitol 2013 in Austin, Texas. (NASA/Jessica Nimon)

One of the more frequent questions we received during the event had to do with NASA’s collaborative efforts with private businesses. Having our industry partners right next to us in the rotunda provided a great opportunity to share the way NASA does business. Visitors were surprised and excited to hear that NASA is working together with private companies to provide avenues for future exploration, as well as resupply and experiment sample return from the International Space Station.

Space Day followed on the heels of South by Southwest (SXSW), a multiday conference and festival highlighting music, film and technology, which also had a space-themed focus this year. Excitement for exploration was still abuzz all over Austin. Although we didn’t attend SXSW, Amelia, Chelsey and I did have our own follow-up activity by attending an Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) event on March 20 at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin. These students, who were not able to visit the Capitol for Space Day, were excited to have a more up close, personal connection with the space station.

Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield conducts an Amateur Radio on the International Space Station session in the Zvezda Service Module. (NASA)

Using a ham radio contact, which lasts for about 10 minutes, the 540 middle and high school girls were able to listen as their peers asked space-related questions directly to space station Commander Chris Hadfield, who answered from aboard the orbiting laboratory. The audience was so attentive you could hear a pin drop while Hadfield spoke!

Ana H. from the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin, Texas, asks a question for Commander Chris Hadfield to answer during an Amateur Radio on the International Space Station connection.(Catherine Serra-Fuentes)

Project Specialist Monica Martinez organized the ARISS event for the school and commented on the impact such an opportunity has on these young women. “The ARISS contact was an experience that truly wowed our entire student body, faculty and administrative team. The girls thought it was one of the best events of this entire school year and loved talking to Commander Hadfield. They were also so ecstatic to see that he had tweeted about our school right after the contact. Our students were inspired by his words and the overall experience.”

Students at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin, Texas, pose with NASA International Space Station Program Science Office representatives Jessica Nimon (fourth from left, back row), Chelsey Bussey (fifth from left, back row) and Amelia Rai (sixth from left, back row). (Catherine Serra-Fuentes)

The event was followed by a short space station presentation by Amelia, who shared space station facts and talked about some of the benefits for humanity that have already derived from related research and technology. Amelia’s talk was followed by a short question and answer session where the students’ interest in space-related topics and careers was evident, showing a bright future for human endeavors with space research and exploration.

Jessica Nimon, International Space Station Program Science Office research communications managing editor. (NASA)

Jessica Nimon has a background in the aerospace industry as a technical writer and now works with the International Space Station Program Science Office as the Research Communications Managing Editor. Jessica coordinates and 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.


Inspiring a Generation

The International Space Station Program Science Office would like to dedicate this entry of A Lab Aloft to the life and work of astronaut Sally Ride, who passed away July 23, 2012. In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger Cindy Evans remembers working alongside Sally and the inspirational legacy she leaves behind.

I was just thinking about Sally Ride last week, while my family and I were on vacation in Russia. One afternoon we decided to visit the spectacular Monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow. The impressive park that surrounds a soaring rocket features statues of some of the Russian spaceflight pioneers, such as Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. Reflecting on Valentina’s face quickly led to a family discussion of American space pioneers, including the first U.S. woman in space: Sally Ride.

Sally Ride was in the first group of astronauts to include women. Here she looks out of the space shuttle window to gaze at Earth from orbit. (Credit: NASA)

Of course, Sally is remembered for lots of things in addition to her first spaceflight mission. She was also a scientist and a champion of teachers, students and parents around the world because of her passion for education. It was this love of learning and the desire to share it with others that led to me getting to know Sally.

I met Sally in 1995 when she invited me to be part of her team to plan her space shuttle educational payload: KidSat. This was the pilot program for what would evolve into today’s EarthKAM, one of the most prolific education investigations on the International Space Station.

Sally’s concept for KidSat was simple: put an Earth-viewing camera on the space shuttle and let middle school kids take photos. Their target could be their own town, a place they are studying in history class, the Amazon rainforest, or the location of an event in the daily news. By letting kids control a camera from space, Sally knew they would be inspired as they learned.

Teachers used KidSat as a launching point to cover lessons on a wide variety of topics. They highlighted the basics of spaceflight, including gravity and orbits. Students applied KidSat to math and science, too. They learned the importance of precise calculations to make sure they could capture their targets. In viewing the final images, students covered Earth science and geography and honed their communications skills by describing their observations in writing. As a team-oriented task, KidSat reinforced the importance of working together to achieve greater successes.

When I was working with Sally in the mid-1990s, we were simply trying to see if KidSat could work. The first mission in 1996 was tested by teachers and students from only three middle schools: a rural school in Humbolt, Calif.; an inner-city school in San Diego, Calif.; and a magnet academy in Charleston, S.C. The small educational team included teachers from these schools and a few more.

Westbrook seventh-graders Emily and Jessica use a map and the Internet to determine the latitude and longitude of their next picture. (Credit: NASA)

Sally assembled a diverse team for KidSat, including education specialists from NASA’s education program, flight controllers from NASA’s Johnson Space Center mission operations, college students at the University of California, San Diego, database experts from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and a couple of interdisciplinary Earth scientists like myself to guide the science curriculum development with the small cadre of middle school teachers.

Every step of the way, Sally leaned on those teachers to make KidSat work. The teachers wrote the classroom activities and provided feedback on the spaceflight stuff (orbital dynamics for 6th graders—really?). They thought through the implications of conducting a mission in the classroom during the middle of the school year, which would include four days straight and midnight operations! The team also forecasted potential failure scenarios from a classroom perspective, such as: What if my dyslexic students transpose numbers? What if we can’t get Internet? What if it is cloudy?

This truly collaborative and interdisciplinary partnership that provided opportunities for KidSat continues today with space station’s EarthKAM. The inspiration and lessons spill over from science classes into other areas, such as art, math, English, and even gym!

Of course, both of Sally Ride’s Earth observation investigations were remarkably successful. KidSat grew during the first 3 flights of the program from 3 to 17 to 52 schools! Hundreds of schools have participated since that time, involving tens of thousands of students. Today, EarthKAM continues to inspire where KidSat left off. Pulling in thousands of participants with each operational opportunity, EarthKAM has reached more than 190,000 students to date.

Sally Ride’s legacy continues to inspire girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. (Credit: Sally Ride Science)

My reflection about Sally leads to the core of what she inspired and championed—innovative learning for middle school kids, and a celebration of our natural curiosity about Earth and the Solar System. Through her legacy, she will continue to inspire for generations to come and I am honored to have been part of her team.

Cynthia Evans, Ph.D., is Associate International Space Station Program Scientist for Earth Observations and Deputy Manager for Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office. Evans holds degrees in Earth Science and Geology, and has been active in Earth Observations from the space shuttle, the NASA-Mir Program and the space station. She has participated as a science team member in several Desert RATS analog missions, and manages the GeoLab workstation—a glovebox-based test article integrated into the Deep Space Habitat testbed. As a volunteer, Evans also taught several EarthKAM classes at local middle schools.



Ringing Out 2012 by Chiming in on International Space Station Achievements

In today’s A Lab Aloft International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson looks back at the year in review for research aboard the orbiting laboratory.

As the year comes to a close, I like to take a moment to look back at all the amazing accomplishments from the previous twelve months for the International Space Station. There are lessons to be learned and goals to be evaluated as part of planning for the new year. But this is also a time to enjoy achievements and strides made via this orbiting laboratory in research, technology and education.

Keeping a Helpful Eye on Earth

The vantage point of station offers not only an impressive view of our planet, but the chance to capture and study important aspects of the Earth’s atmosphere, waters, topography and more. The 2012 arrival of the ISS SERVIR Environmental Research and Visualization System, known as ISERV, will enhance the viewing capabilities from orbit used to support disaster assessment, humanitarian assistance and environmental management.

This year an externally-mounted station instrument contributed to the Environmental Protection Agency’s goal of monitoring and improving coastal health. The same Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean, or HICO, also assists the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, with scans to determine depth below murky waters, bottom type, water clarity and other water optical properties.

Assisting with disaster response became the secondary mission for the International Space Station Agricultural Camera, or ISSAC. This imager was originally intended for agriculture vegetation surveys to assist with crop and grazing rotation. When that primary science objective ended, the camera became part of the space station’s response efforts for global disasters as part of the International Disaster Charter.

Map of chlorophyll-a for Pensacola Bay derived from HICO data. Higher values (yellow and red) indicate high chlorophyll concentrations in the water that suggest algal blooms are present. Algal blooms can reduce oxygen levels in the water, leading to fish and other animal kills. Some algal blooms also contain organisms that produce toxins harmful to other life, including humans. (EPA)

Inspiring Future Generations

This year NASA’s continued support in educational areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) led to some exciting student-based activities and resources. With the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program, or SSEP, for instance, 15 investigations were selected from close to 800 proposals of student inspiration and design. The results from these studies will be shared at the national conference held each year in Washington DC.

The YouTube Space Lab competition provided another opportunity that caught the attention and imagination of students around the world. Two investigations were selected as winners from more than 2,000 video submissions and many tuned in to watch as the experiments were conducted by astronauts live on orbit.

You can read about all of the education activities available to students to participate in space station science in our recently published “Inspiring the Next Generation: International Space Station Education Opportunities and Accomplishments, 2000-2012.” This retrospective book details station activities involving more than 42 million students and 2.8 million teachers across 48 countries from 2000 to 2012.

Joseph Avenoso (left), Gage Cane-Wissing (right), and Adam Elwood (not pictured), presented their findings on bone loss in microgravity as part of the 2012 SSEP National Conference. (NCESSE/Smithsonian)

Technology Testbed

The space station plays an important role as a microgravity testbed for emerging technologies. The JEM-Small Satellite Orbital Deployer, or J-SSOD, for instance, operated for the first time in 2012, launching multiple small satellites into orbit. This new capability provides a reliable, safe and economically viable deployment method for releasing small satellites, in addition to enabling the return samples to the ground for analysis.

Another exciting technology tested on station is the Robotic Refueling Mission, or RRM, which may help support future space exploration using advanced robotics to service vehicles and satellites in orbit. This capability does not currently exist, but is essential to long-duration exploration missions of tomorrow.

JAXA astronaut Aki Hoshide preparing the JEM Small Satellite Orbital Deployer aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

Exciting Discoveries for Human Health and Science Disciplines

Findings from station investigations are impacting human health both here on Earth and in orbit. For instance, recently published results related to bone health showed that a combination of nutrition, Vitamin D supplements, and high-intensity resistive exercise help the crew to preserve bone mass density without the need for pharmaceuticals. These findings also apply to the development of treatments for osteoporosis patients here on Earth, an estimated 44 million in the United States alone.

Crew health was highlighted in vision studies in 2012, as well, with the publication of two results papers focused on the impact of microgravity on astronaut vision changes. Research found that significant vision loss in 20 percent of crew members may derive from a combination of the spaceflight environment and changes in metabolism, with an enzyme related to cardiovascular health potentially playing a role.

A discovery of “Cool Flames” caused excitement in the physical sciences community this year. These low-temperature flames ignite via chemical reactions from fuel vapor and air, burning invisible to the eye. This knowledge can help with improving fire safety in orbit, but also has implications for cleaner and more fuel efficient combustion in engines here on Earth.

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

Ringing in the New Year

Looking forward to 2013, there are still so many exciting things to learn in the various disciplines studied aboard station. Whether in biology and biotechnology, Earth and space science, human research, the physical sciences or even technology developments, there remains a huge potential for discovery. The advent of updated and new facilities planned for the station will help enable investigators in their research in these areas.

Along with the research taking place aboard station, we continue to see Earth benefits that derive either directly or as a spinoff of station science. I look forward to continuing to share these findings and stories with you in the coming year and through the lifetime of this amazing microgravity laboratory.

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


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.

Growing Future Scientists with Plant Signaling Space Study

In today’s A Lab Aloft guest post, International Space Station Plant Signaling study Principal Investigator Imara Perera, Ph.D., shares the importance of involving students in science today to groom them for careers in research tomorrow.

I find working with the International Space Station for plant growth studies inspiring, and it’s important to me to share my enthusiasm with the next generation of researchers. Most of the students that work with me in the lab come through some sort of internship program and get class credit for doing research. Students can also apply for research awards from North Carolina State University to fund their work.

My current project, Plant Signaling, generated a lot of interest when I spoke at the university biology club. This talk resulted in several volunteers who wanted to work in the lab, because everyone is excited about doing experiments in space.

The flight portion of the investigation went well. We have images from two experimental runs in the European Modular Cultivation System (EMCS) centrifuge, which the students help us analyze for measurements of plant growth. For the analysis, students measure the root lengths in flight photos to get an idea of the total amount of growth.

Freshman student Kalyani Joshi, analyzing images from the Plant Signaling investigation. (North Carolina State University)

One of the goals of this study is to look at the impact of microgravity on the Arabdopsis thaliana plant growth by comparing how the roots and shoots orient themselves. Seed samples for the study include a wild type and a transgenic line. Plants from the transgenic line are genetically modified to affect their ability to sense and respond to environmental changes.

When examining the images, the first thing we look at is how well the seeds grew. The germination was excellent, and because we have images from different time points—every six hours during five days of operations in orbit—we can compare between the different lines and between the different gravity settings for how the seedlings grew during that period of time.

Astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria works with European Modular Cultivation System experiment containers aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

We have many images from both the micro-g and 1g environment samples thanks to the setup of the EMCS. The EMCS has two chambers, which is nice because it includes two centrifuges. This allows you to do your 1g ground control in space at the same time you do the microgravity testing. This means you only have the one variable of microgravity, while all other aspects of the space environment are the same.

Usually for microgravity studies you do a ground control vs. a flight experiment; but, it’s not just the gravity that’s different. There are other things that you cannot measure or replicate from that environment, such as radiation, vibration or the presence of other gases. This is a very beneficial control if you want to get at just the difference between microgravity and 1g. In addition, by carrying out a ground reference control on Earth, we can get an idea of some of the other space effects that are not so well defined at this time.

View of the European Modular Cultivation System experiment container replace activity performed in the Destiny laboratory module of the International Space Station. (NASA)

We would like to do more advanced analysis to see if there is any difference in the microgravity vs. the 1g plants. We expect less organized growth in space compared to on the ground, however this is not obvious from looking at the images. We may need to analyze the images more closely, and we are looking at options to see whether or not the pattern of growth is different. As of now we’ve just looked at the total amount of growth and there does not appear to be major differences.

Flight samples returned to Earth with SpaceX Dragon on March 26, so once we get them we can analyze the genetics of the physical samples to understand their changes at a molecular level—specifically in how the plants sense the microgravity environment and how this influences their growth and development. To do that, we will carry out global transcription profiles of the plants, which is like taking a “snapshot” of all the genes that were expressed in the plant. This tells us how the plants are responding, because even though they may look the same, at a molecular level there may be different pathways that are up or down regulated—showing an increase or decrease in cell response—in the transgenic line compared to the wild type.

The image above shows seedlings from the Plant Signaling investigation aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

By comparing those two plant types, we hope to understand what signaling pathways are involved in plant responses, not just to microgravity, but also based on the space environment’s other factors. We have data from previous years of ground work where we looked at the response of these transgenic plants, and we know they are a little bit delayed and slow to respond to gravity stimulation. If you place a plant horizontally, after some time the shoots and roots reorient back to vertical. The transgenic plants have a harder time doing that, so we have an idea that this pathway is involved in sensing gravity and responding to it.

Just as experiments can produce surprising findings, I often find something unexpected from student participation in my research. Since I’m in a plant biology department, I usually get students that come to work with me with a strong biology background. But this study generated a lot of interest from students within bioengineering programs, so we had some interns who actually didn’t have that much of a biology emphasis, which turned out to be a learning experience both ways.

Students Will Smith (left) and Peter Svizeny (right) working with plants at the North Carolina State University lab. (North Carolina State University)

One student, Benjamin Cowen, was from the physical sciences, and he did some ground-based work using some of the prototype hardware that we use for the flight experiment. It was quite an inspiration for him, and now he’s looking to enter an astrobiology graduate program. It’s useful to have the different backgrounds, because people do not have the same preconceived ideas that we may have developed in biology studies.

I’ve had positive feedback from participating students, including some who have returned to continue working on the study. I had one local high school student, Kalyani Joshi, who came to talk to me before the investigation went up on the flight to the space station. Kalyani was excited about the study and came to volunteer and work in the lab. When she graduated from high school, she applied and was admitted to North Carolina State University. Now she’s a freshman and received some undergraduate research funding, so she’s going to continue to work in the lab. Kalyani’s been doing a lot of the measurements of the space images and really enjoys the project.

The patch design for the International Space Station Plant Signaling investigation. (NASA)

When we were preparing for the experiment, I had another student, Caroline Smith, who worked as my research associate. She is in graduate school now, but plans to come back to help analyze the flight samples. She’s really interested in the findings, as she was instrumental in setting up the experiment.

Research Associate Caroline Smith (foreground) works alongside Principal Investigator Imara Perera at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., assembling the Plant Signaling investigation. (NASA)

I’m highly committed to including students in the lab setting, having worked with half a dozen for this research project. I anticipate continuing to foster that collaboration. It will be fascinating to see not only what we learn when the Plant Signaling samples come in for analysis, but also to see what comes next for the students inspired by this study.

Imara Perera, principal investigator for the International Space Station Plant Signaling investigation shown here in the lab at North Carolina State University. (North Carolina State University)

Imara Perera, Ph.D., is a research associate professor in the Department of Plant Biology at North Carolina State University. Her primary research interests are in understanding the role of lipid-mediated signaling in plant responses to environmental signals and stress, with the long term goal of improving plant growth under unfavorable conditions. She has been involved in plant gravitational biology research since her postdoctoral work, and she has been a principal investigator on NASA-funded ground-based research since 2001. Currently, Perera is the principal investigator on a spaceflight project entitled “Plant Signaling in Microgravity” to characterize the molecular mechanisms of plant responses to microgravity that was conducted aboard the International Space Station in 2011. 


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.

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.


A Teacher’s View of the International Space Station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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