Smart Use of Science Space in Space

In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger Liz Warren, Ph.D., explains the flexibility in science capability on the International Space Station, thanks to the modular design of the research racks aboard the orbiting laboratory.

People are often shocked when they learn that the International Space Station is as large as a football field. They are also surprised to know that the interior volume is 32,333 cubic feet; that’s about the size of a five-bedroom house. Even though that is a very large volume, it pays to use ‘space’ smartly in space.

In order to be most efficient with the interior volume of the space station, the orbiting laboratory contains modular science facilities, usable by multiple investigators and experiment types. In fact, some of the facilities aboard the station are engineered for easy modification to meet the needs of different users. These ‘shared’ facilities enable efficient research utilization time aboard the station. Making facilities modular also allows for upgrades so that the space station stays on the cutting edge of science.

NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff, Expedition 17 flight engineer, works with an experiment within the Microgravity Sciences Glovebox. (NASA)

Inside the Destiny, Kibo and Columbus laboratories, the walls, ceilings and floors are lined with science “rack” facilities. These racks, each similar in size to a big refrigerator (about 79.3 in. high, 41.3 in. wide, and 33.8 in. deep), are curved in the rear so that they fit almost flush against the inside surface of the cylindrical space station laboratory modules. The racks themselves are modular for easy relocation within the station as needed.

Some racks are built for housing several small-sized investigations. These EXPRESS racks provide power, air and water cooling, data and exhaust, command and control for up to a dozen different investigations. EXPRESS stands for Expedite the Processing of Experiments to the Space Station, reflecting the fact that this system was developed specifically to maximize the space station’s research capabilities.

NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff, Expedition 17 flight engineer, works in the Kibo laboratory to move an EXPRESS rack during a relocation task. (NASA)

Other racks are specialized for specific disciplines such as combustion, fluids, materials, human research and Earth observation. There is also a glovebox that is suitable for handling and containing hazardous materials and several freezers to preserve science samples.

As a National Laboratory, the station science facilities built by NASA are available on a time-shared basis to other U.S. government agencies and private entities, such as commercial companies and universities, to pursue their own mission-driven research and applications. Shared use of international capabilities can also be arranged between NASA and the International Space Station partner agencies. Scientists that find they need a facility for their experiment that does not currently exist in orbit can work with their sponsoring organization to develop new hardware, which NASA will launch without cost to the scientist.

To highlight the capabilities of some of the space station’s science racks, Space Center Houston, the visitor center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, enlisted help from the International Space Station Program and Space City Films of Houston to produce a unique video display for an updated space station exhibit. The exhibit is designed to educate and excite visitors about the accomplishments and importance the station plays in our continued human presence in space and the research conducted there.

The International Space Station has a variety of multidisciplinary laboratory facilities and equipment available for scientists to use. The video here highlights the capabilities of select facilities. (NASA/Space Center Houston)

The video display is actually a large wall, onto which the video projects from the back for a vibrant, life-sized, interactive experience!

I assisted in the production of this video for visitors to Space Center Houston to enjoy, providing images, video and scientific content. Viewing the finished product for the first time on a recent visit was fulfilling, but I know there is more work to be done to communicate the value of space station research.

The International Space Station is a premier, world-class laboratory in low-Earth orbit that promises to yield insights, science and technologies, the likes of which we have only begun to comprehend. With the capabilities of our research racks and facilities, investigators can use microgravity to unlock fundamentals of combustion, fluids, physiology and more to improve life on Earth in addition to supporting future space exploration.

Liz Warren, Ph.D., communications coordinator for the International Space Station Program Science Office. (NASA)

Tuning In Scientists so the Public Will Not Tune Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waste Not, Want Not: Translating What We Learn About Living On Space Station For Life On Earth

Intoday’s entry, guest blogger Jeff Smith, Ph.D., shares his thoughts on thesustainable aspects of the International Space Station with the readers of ALab Aloft, pointing out how these carefully planned efforts in space can leadto greener living on Earth.

The International Space Station is an amazing place. It’sa research lab, an observatory, a complex machine and a home. But, it’s notjust any home or workplace; the station is the most remote and mostenvironmentally conscious home or office ever created. Every bit of materials,supplies and consumables must be brought from Earth at a cost of thousands ofdollars per pound. All the on-board power comes from renewable solar energy.Anything that can be re-used, re-purposed or recycled gets to stay; everythingelse gets tabulated, quantified, packed and either returned to Earth, or packedout aboard Progress or another space vehicle designated to burn up over thePacific Ocean. 

In space, it costs a lot to bring in supplies and packout the waste. It is also extremely important to always make sure there areenough supplies and enough power to keep everything running smoothly 24 hours aday, 7 days a week for a crew (or family) of six. There is no grocery store,pharmacy or hardware shop in space. If it’s not aboard, you can’t just go outand pick it up at the corner store. You can’t even open the windows to get moreair. If you run out, that’s it. 

As a result of these limitations, the space station hasbecome an incredible example of sustainability and sustainable practicesanywhere on Earth, or beyond. The technologies and methods being developed andused by the crew can directly translate to improved sustainability for homesand offices here on Earth. 

NASA astronaut Catherine (Cady) Coleman, Expedition 26flight engineer, is pictured with a stowage container and its contents in theHarmony node of the International Space Station.
(NASA Image ISS026E011334)

Supplies are stored in a number of locations andcarefully tracked so they can be brought out when required. Since the crew is living,working, eating, sleeping, exercising and breathing—just as you and I would doon Earth—those supplies get used pretty quickly. All that packaging, food andother consumables become waste. The waste is also carefully measured andstored.

Some materials and samples are returned to Earth; but themajority is stowed aboard Progress or other space vehicles and allowed to burnup in the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean. At first this might not seem likea “sustainable” practice, but the space station must track everything thatcomes in or goes out. With the high cost of boosting supplies into space, stationcrews and ground-support personnel take many steps to reduce, re-use andrecycle everything they can.

The unpiloted ISS Progress 41 supply vehicle departs fromthe International Space Station April 22, 2011. Filled with trash and discardeditems, Progress 41 remained in orbit a safe distance from the station forengineering tests before being commanded by flight controllers to descend to adestructive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.
(NASA Image ISS027E015444)

Air and water are currently recycled aboard the spacestation, but NASA has plans to improve these systems and do even more torecycle waste. These new and advanced space-based life support systemsinclude air revitalization, water recovery, and waste management, as well ascontrol systems for many other important factors, such as temperature, humidityand cabin pressure.

To reduce the high cost of lifting resources into orbit,space life support systems must be extremely small and lightweight. Since thereis little power to spare in space, they must also be very energy efficient.Space life support systems also need to be extraordinarily reliable andlow-maintenance, as malfunctions can lead to mission failure and repairs inspace are time consuming and demanding on the crew. Additionally, these systemscan increase self-sufficiency by regenerating vital resources from wastematerials.

These requirements for sustainable systems inspace—small, lightweight, energy-efficient, low-maintenance, and low waste—arethe same as those that can make systems work even better here on Earth. Thus,the capabilities developed to enable human exploration inspace can be potentially applied on Earth to make cleaner, more sustainableliving possible here today. NASA’s technical excellence and engineeringexpertise offer critical resources for jump-starting sustainable systemstechnologies for use in private and commercial sectors. With a strongcommitment to public/private partnerships and commercial technology transfer,NASA knowledge and technologies can help make sustainable living practical andaffordable for everyone.

NASA advanced life support systems, air (left), water(middle) and solid waste (right) processing units for life support can providefuture space habitats with small, low-power, extremely efficient recyclingsystems. These space systems can have Earth-based applications to improvesustainability where we live and work. 
(Credit: NASAAmes ResearchCenter)

Today, some of the sustainable technologies developed forspace are being brought down to Earth in the Sustainability Base at NASA AmesResearch Center. This 50,000 square foot office building is one of thecleanest, greenest facilities ever constructed. 

NASA’s Sustainability Base is unlike any other governmentbuilding every created. It incorporates space technologies and know-how, bringingInternational Space Station and other NASA energy/sustainability practices downto Earth in one of the greenest, most efficient buildings ever.
(Credit: NASAAmes ResearchCenter)

Construction of the Sustainability Base will be completedsoon, showing that NASA really does translate advanced sustainable technologiesfrom space down to Earth, affecting our homes and workplaces for a cleanergreener tomorrow. Other ongoing activities, outlined in the NASA Ames Greenspace Website, include sustainable practices,clean energy technology development and green aviation research. Thesetechnologies and methods, whether used aboard station or to accomplish otherNASA missions, can make a big contribution to improve sustainability andenvironmentally friendly practices here on Earth.   

Jeff Smith, Ph.D.
(Credit: NASA)

JeffSmith, Ph.D., is Chief of the Space Biosciences Research Branch at NASA’s AmesResearch Center. The principal mission of the Branch is to advance spaceexploration by achieving new scientific discoveries and technologicaldevelopments in the biosciences. Smith has worked for NASA since 1996.

We are Writing, but is the Public Reading?

In today’s A Lab Aloftpost International Space StationProgram Science Office Research Communications Specialist Jessica Nimon asksscience writing professionals, “Why do you think the public doesn’t seem toknow what NASA is doing on the International Space Station?”

I started writing science stories for the InternationalSpace Station Program Science Office over a year ago. During fiscal year 2010,I published or helped to promote the publication of 67 stories regardingresearch accomplished on the space station. Yet, in spite of the volume ofstories going out, I continue to meet people who are oblivious to what NASA isdoing with the space station.

With this in mind, I decided to tackle the question of whythe public was unaware of what NASA was doing. The opportunity to canvas agroup of science writing professionals from around the nation at the 2011 National Association of Science WritersConference was too good to pass up. On the plane out to the conference, betweenseminars and at networking receptions I put my question to editors, writers andpublic information officers from various publications and universities.

Science writers from around the United States listen to alecture on research that measures carbon levels in an area devastated by forestfires as part of the 2011 National Association of Science Writers Conference.
(Credit: Jessica Nimon)

First, perhaps I should explain the communications effortsof the International Space Station Program Science Office. Along with thevarious NASA Center Public Affairs Offices, we work towards the goal of informativestory publications on NASA’s space station research and technology Website.We also maintain a blog, called “ALab Aloft,” and put out weeklyscience updates. To spread the word of these efforts, we use the @ISS_Research Twitter account andthe International Space StationFacebook page to share links to our publications, as well as various facts andnotices, as they come out.

These efforts may not seem far reaching, but consider theinvestment return of compounding publication. In pure numbers, at the time I’mwriting this post, we have 11,438 followers on @ISS_Research. If NASA’s Twitteraccount retweets us, we potentially reach an additional 1,507,108 followers!Every follower can choose to forward on our tweets, sharing our storiesexponentially. This goes for the station Facebook page, as well, which hasclose to 40,000 likes. Then consider the various blogs and journalism sites onthe Internet that republish these space station research and technologystories—the possibility to reach the public is vast!

So why does the message seem to be only reaching a few? Why domany people I encounter still mistakenly think that the retirement of the SpaceShuttle Program meant the end of the space station? Some even wrongly believeNASA is closing up shop altogether. Here is what the science writingprofessionals at the conference had to say on the topic:

Audience Fatigue –Saturation on the topic

NASA makes the news on a fairly regular basis. Betweensatellites, climate studies, the space station, telescopes, lunar and Marsmissions, etc., there is plenty going on and it can be hard to keep track.Those trying to maintain pace with everything NASA touches could burn out fastand may focus their attention down to a specific area of interest or stopfollowing altogether.

Media Overload –Getting lost in the mix

With as many stories as NASA generates, just think of theglut the media as a whole produces! If people are awash in just one area, likeNASA, you can imagine they are likely burning out in general. With limits tohow many hours are in a day, many readers cherry pick their news based onheadlines, which means that the vast majority of stories published get buriedby other features.

Flashier Topics –Trumped by popular subjects

In the public’s media diet, not everyone will choose thefruits and vegetables of science topics when they have such easy access to thedesserts of celebrity and entertainment? Likewise, when breaking news occurs,it can plaster the pages of publication Websites for days, even weeks.Everything else published during such times risks being overshadowed.

Space shuttle Atlantis and its four-member STS-135 crew headtoward Earth orbit and rendezvous with the International Space Station on July,8, 2011.
(NASA Image

Information Silos –Audience interest funneled elsewhere

Specialized media sites and topic categories can make iteasier to follow up on the news that means most to a reader. The downside tothese avenues of information is the resulting tunnel vision that can develop. Itcan be a challenge for readers to take a liberal arts approach to their media inan effort to maintain a well-rounded awareness in the world they live in.

Lost Interest – Thestation took over a decade to build; society stopped caring

Paying attention to a topic over many years requires apassion that not everyone may share. One science writer commented that he hadcovered space shuttle launches from the beginning of his career through theretirement of the program. He saw the same reporter faces age along with hisown as they all continued to turn up for NASA press junkets. While the launchesthemselves were always exciting, he wondered how many of his readers continueda loyal following of the topic. As they also aged, did they tune out andrefocus towards topics directly applicable to their daily lives?

The bright sun greets the International Space Station fromthe Russian section of the orbiting laboratory.
(NASA Image S129E007592)

Conquest – A desirefor adventure in space, rather than utilization

Shuttle launches were exciting! There were rockets andflames and explorers flying into space. We still have launches to the space station,but they are now taking place off of American soil, which distances theexperience from the national public. The link between the shuttle and thestation was one that served to point eyes to the missions aboard the orbitinglaboratory, but getting readers to consider the daily operations of a sciencefacility as an adventure—even in the microgravity of space—can be a challenge.

Instant Gratification– A public used to instant results may not follow and wait

Many readers may not fully appreciate the time and varioushoops research has to go through before results publish. It is also possiblethey do not understand the dangers of the valleyof death in science studies. To follow the topic of space station research,the wait for results can be years or even decades. In this age of instantaneousinformation on the Internet, this delay can tally a cost in readership.

Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, Expedition 29 flightengineer, checks the progress of a new growth experiment on the BIO-5Rasteniya-2 (Plants-2) payload with its LADA-01 greenhouse in the ZvezdaService Module of the International Space Station.
(NASA Image ISS029E007686)

Research, however, cannot be rushed, so readers will have todevelop the virtue of patience. The bright side? Since investigations have beenongoing from the time the space station began, we are indeed now seeing resultsfrom early studies and can look forward to a steady influx of publicationshighlighting the discoveries of space science. Part of the excitement is the compoundingknowledge and the use capacity going forward for the facilitiesaboard the station, and perhaps serendipitous discovery.

The real question to ask ourselves now is what do we doabout this readership dilemma? We may bring the story to the public, but wecannot make them read. I’m curious to see if the audience of this entry hastheir own answers to offer. What would you like to see regarding news of researchand technology on the space station? How do you like to receive your news andwhat can we do to better engage the public?

Jessica Nimon, communications specialist for theInternational Space Station Program Science Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
(Credit: Jessica Nimon)

JessicaNimon worked in the aerospace industry as a technical writer for seven yearsbefore joining the International Space Station Program Science Office as theResearch Communications Specialist. Jessica composes Web features, blogentries, and manages the @ISS_Research Twitter feed to share space stationresearch and technology news with the public. She has a master’s degree inEnglish from the University of Dallas.

Meet a Teen with Space Dreams

In today’s post, guestblogger Abigail Harrison—aka, Astronaut Abby—shares her dreams of a career asan astronaut and the exciting ways she’s found to work towards her goal withthe readers of A Lab Aloft.

Myname is Abigail Harrison and I am a 14-year-old aspiring astronaut from Minneapolis,Minn. I have wanted to be an astronaut since I was 7 years old. For the pastcouple of years I have been working to make my dreams a reality and sharing myexperiences through my blog, hope to someday be the first person to walk on Mars.

Recently,I witnessed a mind-blowing NASA education event that took place last August atthe Northern Star Boy Scout Council’s Base Camp facility at Fort Snelling, Minn.I was lucky enough to watch an InternationalSpace Station downlink, which is a live video connection between theastronauts aboard the space station and students here on Earth. Participantsasked the crew questions about food, living and working conditions, and thescience done in space. The astronauts spoke highly of their internationalcompatriots and I was really inspired by the cooperation between everyoneaboard.

Avideo still from the live downlink on August 9, 2011, with NASA astronauts RonGaran and Mike Fossum.
(Credit: NASA)

Whileattending this live downlink, I was amazed that there were nearly 400 kids in theaudience. Seeing the wonder on the many young faces as astronauts, who were simultaneouslyorbiting the Earth, answered their questions was phenomenal. I truly believethat moments like this can change lives, as it did for myself and likely everystudent in that room.

Seeinginstances of awe like I did at the downlink motivates me to pursue my own dreamof being an astronaut. I hope that I can someday inspire others, too. Myfriends, who were with me, were likewise motivated—not to be astronauts, asthat’s not their dream, but to be great in their own chosen paths, such ascardiovascular surgery, paleontology and mathematics. Whatever goal you have,it feels so much closer to coming true when you experience others living theirdreams in reality, like the crew is doing in space. It’s amazing!

Iknow that NASA has made a profound impact on me. I work harder in school sothat I can follow my aeronautic ambition. Although not everyone is interestedin a career in aerospace, NASA is still a great inspiration for almost anyone. Theiremployees demonstrate a high work ethic and determination to get the job done.They are incredible role models.

AbigailHarrison takes a test drive in a model of the Manned Maneuvering Unit, or MMU, as part of her experience at Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. in 2011.

Throughmy own experiences with my blog and my twitter account—@astronautabby—I have found thatthe people who work with NASA tend to be very helpful to fans like me. I thinkthis is part of what makes NASA so great, their community outreach. Theemployees are truly interested in encouraging students to find a desire tolearn. One example I have of amazing NASA employees is Susan Freeman, a spacestation engineer whom I met on Twitter. She was a tremendous help to me on ahistory day project, providing me with a personal phone interview.

Eversince I started my blog, nearly a year and a half ago, I have received commentsand messages from kids throughout the country and around the world. Many of themexpress similar interests to mine: science, math, engineering and astronomy,with a common goal of space travel. The international comments that I receiveoften consist of congratulations on my dreams and a reminder of how fortunate Iam to be a part of a culture where math, science and space travel are so highlyregarded and encouraged.

Weare lucky to live in a country with a space program that focuses on not onlyexploring space, but also on educating our youth. I agree whole-heartedly withall of these students in that we are incredibly fortunate that NASA providesthe amazing opportunities and learning experiences that it does. Some of theseprograms are ones that I have participated in. These include, but not limitedto Space Camp, high altitude ballooning and the space station live downlink.

AbigailHarrison simulates landing the space shuttle at Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. in 2011.

Tolocate programs like these near you, you can check out NASA’s Website, the newspaper, your school orany science groups such as a museum or robotics group near you. Gettinginvolved in NASA programs is a great step, but there are also a lot of otherinteresting science and aerospace groups out there. A couple of my favorites include:

  • Girls in Engineering, Mathematics and Science, or GEMS
  • Guys in Science and Engineering, or GISE
  • Scouts of America
  • MathCounts
  • Mad Science Group
  • Science Bowl
  • State astronomy leagues
  • The Civilian Air Patrol, or CAP
  • ZERO ROBOTICS (an annual robotics and programming competition, with final rounds led by astronauts aboard the space station.)

Onemore way that you can get connected is online, much like I am doing right now.Blogging and tweeting is a great way to connect with scientists and studentsall over the world. For instance, if you want to learn more about the researchand technology done on the space station, you can follow their Twitter account:@ISS_Research. It doesn’t takevery much time and is an easy way to build a network of people who can answerany questions you might have.

NASAand the space station provide inspiration to people everyday. NASA is a hugesupporter of education and continues to advance our society by motivating andencouraging kids to continue becoming scientists, engineers and inventers. Sowhy miss out on all the exciting opportunities they have to offer? Go for itand get involved! Follow your dream and it just might take you to the stars.


Abigail Harrison is ateen who hopes to someday be an astronaut. She enjoys math and science andparticipates in Girls in Engineering Math and Science, or GEMS. She is also amember of her school’s first-ranked Science Bowl team and of the MinnesotaAstronomical Society. Abigail has a blog called AstronautAbby, which she usesto share her love of aeronautics with others.

When Finding Nothing Means Discovering Something

In today’s blog, Dr. Sara Zwart shares with thereaders of A Lab Aloft her thoughts and experiences as a scientist, includinghow sometimes data showing nothing can actually indicate something!

It’salways exciting to make new scientific discoveries. But though it may soundcounter intuitive, sometimes it can be just as important to find nothing. When looking at researchresults, a lack of change can actually indicate that you have found something, which can lead tounanticipated, but amazing discoveries. This has happened twice in the pastyear at NASA’s Nutritional Biochemistry Laboratory as part of the NutritionalStatus Assessment experiment, or Nutrition.

Thegoal of the Nutrition study is to understand what changes in an astronaut’shealth while they live aboard the International Space Station. Improvedknowledge in how humans react to living in space for long durations can helpprepare NASA for future exploration to Mars, as well as help in understanding howwell current efforts to counteract the negative effects of microgravity work.These countermeasures include exercise and a carefully planned diet, among otherthings.

Forthis study, astronauts collect blood and urine samples during flight, as well onthe ground during the routine pre- and postflight testing. Before they fly, crewmembers train on how to take blood from each other or from themselves, and theyalso can practice collecting urine, which can be tricky in microgravity!

Groundtraining helps to prepare the crew for sample collection for the NutritionalStatus Assessment experiment, or Nutrition. (NASA Image JSC2006E27274)

Uponreturn to Earth, crew member samples are analyzed for a broad range ofchemicals and biochemicals, from nutrients to bone and muscle markers tohormones and other compounds. One of the nutrients we study is vitamin K, whichis a crucial vitamin for blood clotting, and it also has an important role in maintainingbone health. 

Earlystudies from the space station Mir provided evidence that vitamin K status maybe lower during space flight, and researchers suggested that vitamin K shouldbe investigated as a potential countermeasure for bone loss. Those earlystudies on Mir involved only one or two crew members, and a food system differentfrom the one we use today on station. 

Acrew member works with test samples in the Human Research Facility 2 (HRF-2)Refrigerated Centrifuge as a part of the Nutritional Status Assessment(Nutrition) experiment in the Columbus laboratory of the International SpaceStation. (Credit: NASA)

ForNutrition, we measured vitamin K status from markers in the blood and urine in15 station crew members at five different time points during their mission. Wefound no evidence for decrements in vitamin K status. In other words, vitamin Kis still important for health, blood and bones, but there is no evidence thatmore would be better.

Thesetypes of “negative” findings are important. In this case, we learned that thecurrent space food system is sufficient to maintain vitamin K status inastronauts. What’s further, at this time there is no basis for recommendingvitamin K supplements to prevent bone loss that occurs during space flight. 

ANASA astronaut places samples into the Minus Eighty Laboratory Freezer for ISS(MELFI-1).
(Credit: NASA)

Hormonescan be measured in the crew’s blood and urine samples, providing valuableinformation on a number of the body’s systems. One hormone that we measured aspart of the Nutrition study was testosterone. This is an important hormone inthe body for building up and maintaining bone and muscle mass. 

Someearlier studies suggested that there may be lower levels of testosterone inastronauts during space flight, which may contribute to some of the observed boneand muscle loss. As part of this study, we measured the blood levels of testosteroneat five different time points during space flight to test this hypothesis.Again, 15 station crew members provided samples, however the analysis showedthat no changes to testosterone occurred during flight. 

Oncemore, these negative findings provided important information in working tounderstand how the human body adapts to microgravity exposure. This is especiallytrue when we consider ways to counteract some of the known negative effects ofweightlessness, including bone and muscle loss. By narrowing the causes ofthese concerns to human health in space, we get closer to identifying the rootcauses and providing significant countermeasures.

Sara Zwart, Ph.D., and hercolleague Scott Smith, Ph.D., lead NASA’s Nutritional Biochemistry Lab atJohnson Space Center. The testosterone research discussed above was publishedin the Journal of ClinicalEndocrinology and Metabolism (epub:doi:10.1210/jc.2011-2233), and the vitamin K work was published in the Journalof Bone and Mineral Research (26:948-54,2011). In addition to ground-research studies, Zwart and Smith lead two spacestation experiments, NutritionalStatus Assessment and ProK, in which they investigate the roles of animal protein and potassium inmitigating bone loss.

Welcoming New Management to Space Station National Laboratory

The Center for the Advancement of Science In Space, knownas CASIS, introduced itself this fall to the community of existing National Labpartners as the new non-profit organization that will manage the National Labon behalf of NASA. CASIS was founded specifically to fulfill the statutoryrequirement from Congress that a non-profit entity be engaged by NASA tostimulate, develop, and manage non-NASA U.S. use of the space station. On theNASA side, we are excited to start meeting our new CASIS colleagues as transitionwork begins.

The primary mission of CASIS is threefold:

  • Maximize the value of the space station to the nation through both research and development and STEM education activities.
  • Stimulate use of the station by other agencies, academia, and private firms.
  • Develop tools and techniques to communicate the value of the work done on the station and increase the return on the taxpayer investment.

CASIS intends to accomplish this mission by building astrong, interconnected community, which ties together investigators at anylevel of progress down a particular research pathway, provides both private andpublic sources of funding, and engages experts in science and economics who canadvise the community on technical matters and provide an independent valuationof a particular line of research.

These pathways will connect basic and applied research tothe resulting mission and market applications. The goal is to shorten theoverall cycle time by evaluating projects in terms of the bigger picture andwith an understanding of their added value. As a non-profit, CASIS can alsobring in visionary, speculative, and commercial funding sources, whereappropriate, in the research process by recruiting backers who are seeking thevalue the project provides.

The International Space Station (NASA Image)

CASIS will sponsor both a Science Collegium and anEconomic Collegium to examine the scientific feasibility and economic value ofproposals brought forward to the non-profit, using a value-added approach tocomplement scientific review, as well as proven algorithms for economicvaluation. These valuation models will be benchmarked against real world datafrom existing National Lab partners before they are formally implemented.

All of these various elements will come together in whatCASIS calls, the “Marketplace,” where researchers can seek funding andpartnerships, implementation partners can offer their expertise with flighthardware and integration services, investors can look for promisingopportunities, and all the various participants can negotiate innovativepartnerships and collaborations with the help of CASIS.

Through its initial seed funding from NASA, as well aspartnerships with private investors and other government agencies, CASIS willsponsor annual grant solicitations designed to bolster research lines,education programs, and technology development projects assessed by the Scienceand Economic Collegiums as having particular merit and value. This willcontinue over the 10-year cooperative agreement between NASA and CASIS, whichhas a five-year extension option.

The CASIS concept of operations will further develop overthe next year as the organization grows and the Collegiums form. The transitionwill include CASIS progressively taking on more of the payload developmentsupport and research prioritization roles, while the International SpaceStation National Lab Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center facilitates thehandover with existing partners. 

Learn more and keep up-to-date with this promising newcollaborative model between CASIS and NASA at:

Presentations from the CASIS Kickoff Meeting can be foundat:

The Center for theAdvancement of Science In Space, known as CASIS, official logo.
(CASIS Image)

Justin Kugler, strategic relationships managerfor the International Space Station National Lab Office, worked with CASISleaders in developing this initial blog. Stand by for more details as CASISestablishes their organization for enabling new research on the space station. 

Destination Station Brings the Space Experience Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Touching Lives via International Space Station Benefits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Lab for Science, and for Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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