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


Remembering Dr. Bob Phillips

In today’s A Lab Aloft we remember Dr. Bob Phillips, who served as the chief scientist for Space Station Freedom, helping to pave the path for future research in orbit.

While I did not have the pleasure of working directly with Dr. Bob Phillips, he helped blaze a trail for research in space that played an important part in what eventually became the International Space Station (ISS) Program.

A doctor of veterinary medicine with a Ph.D. in physiology and nutrition, Bob started his career with NASA in 1984. Part of Spacelab Life Sciences (SLS) 1, which launched aboard space shuttle Columbia’s STS-40 mission in 1991, Bob had planned to serve as an astronaut payload specialist, but was grounded due to a minor medical condition. Instead, he played a key role as the principal radio contact between the crew and ground while they conducted the first mission dedicated to microgravity biomedical research.

Bob followed the SLS-1 mission with a three-year stint as chief scientist of Space Station Freedom, which evolved into today’s International Space Station. As the current space station program scientist, I can’t help but look back at Bob’s accomplishments and be inspired in my own goals and endeavors for research in orbit.

Mark Uhran, former assistant associate administrator for the International Space Station, recalls the contributions made by Bob during his tenure. “During the space station design phase, Bob Phillips was a pivotal voice in mediating between science and engineering to develop research requirements that were practical and achievable. He served as both chief scientist and as a member of the Space Station Utilization Advisory Subcommittee, where his pragmatic approach was invaluable in resolving a final design for what later became the ISS.”

Robert W. Phillips (Credit: Colorado State)

I recently spoke about Bob’s contributions to NASA with my colleague Jennifer Rhatigan, Ph.D., who was a leader in space station science during the station’s assembly and established the International Space Station Program Science Office. Jennifer, who served with Bob on a number of committees, remembered him not only as a scientist, but also as a gentleman who was a pleasure to work with.

“Bob brought a focus on science in the early days of the space station design (during the Freedom program),” Jennifer shared. “He recognized that science needs had to be part of the design and maintained that focus through the many early de-scopes and design changes. The space station science community of today is lucky there were people like Bob looking out for their needs 25 years ago.”

Bob continued his career with NASA and into retirement with a focus on outreach and education. According to his NASA Quest profile, Bob espoused a belief in lifelong learning and continued scientific endeavors.

“I don’t feel that I have any goals yet to accomplish, except to continue to accomplish and pursue new and interesting questions and challenges. I have retired several times and look forward to continuing to be a productive scientist educator. I am having too much fun to really quit.”

Bob passed away on Feb. 26, leaving behind a rich legacy including a book he wrote to communicate with the general public the importance of biomedical microgravity research, titledGrappling with Gravity: How Will Life Adapt to Living in Space?”

When I think about where we are now with research aboard the space station after more than a year of full utilization, I am still in awe of the accomplishments that are shared by those who contributed past, present and future to the station’s success. The flexible and adaptable laboratory we have today was built on the foundation of hard work and dedication from people like Bob Phillips and the way he helped to put science into an engineering marvel.

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

SAGE Wisdom for Atmospheric Research

In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger Kristyn Damadeo shares the history of the SAGE investigation, scheduled for future use on the International Space Station. This technology can help researchers to better understand Earth’s atmosphere makeup, especially the health of our ozone layer.

The International Space Station houses some unique experiments and soon it will be home to an exciting new Earth science mission: SAGE III, the Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment III.

SAGE III mounts externally to the space station and is a mission to study Earth’s atmosphere sponsored by the NASA Science Mission Directorate and led by NASA Langley Research Center. It will be the first Earth-observing instrument of its kind aboard station, taking accurate measurements of the amount of ozone, aerosols—tiny particles—water vapor and other key components of Earth’s atmosphere.

The SAGE Legacy

SAGE III is the first of its kind to operate on station, but the SAGE family of instruments has been taking atmospheric measurements for more than 30 years. SAGE III is the fourth generation in its family operated by NASA.

The artwork above belongs to the SAGE III instrument, which is part of a family of SAGE technology developed to help research Earth’s atmosphere. (NASA Image)

The first SAGE instrument was flown on a satellite in 1979. SAGE I was a sun photometer that used solar occultation—a measurement technique using the sun as a backlight—to gather information on aerosols and important stratospheric gases in the atmosphere. SAGE I collected valuable data for nearly three years, until the power system on the satellite failed.

With SAGE I came the start of a global database for stratospheric aerosols, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide that is still used in the study of global climate. While SAGE I was active, it provided crucial input into the understanding of global, seasonal and inter-annual variability in climate and, in particular, trends in stratospheric ozone.

SAGE I was followed by SAGE II in 1984. SAGE II data helped to confirm human-driven changes to ozone and contributed to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which banned the use of chemicals that harm the ozone layer. SAGE II lasted 21 years on orbit, allowing us not only to determine the initial extent of ozone changes, but also to measure the effectiveness of the Montreal Protocol. SAGE II saw ozone stop decreasing and begin to recover during its time on orbit.

Engineers at NASA Langley work in a clean room with the SAGE III instrument. (NASA Image)

Then in the late 1990s, SAGE III was developed by Ball Aerospace and Technology Corp. The first of the instruments was launched in 2001 on a Russian satellite, METEOR-3M. The second instrument was stored for a future flight of opportunity. The third was removed from storage and prepared for flight on the space station. The mission will enable researchers to fill an anticipated gap in ozone and aerosol data in the second half of this decade.


SAGE III will study Earth’s protective ozone layer from aboard station. Ozone acts as Earth’s sunscreen. When ozone starts to break down, it impacts all of Earth’s inhabitants. Humans, plants and other animals are exposed to more harmful rays from the sun. This can cause long-term problems, such as cataracts and cancer in humans or reduced crop yield in plants.

When SAGE III begins making measurements from the space station in late 2014, some models predict that stratospheric ozone should have recovered by 50 percent. The precise pattern of ozone recovery measured by SAGE III will help improve the models and refine our understanding of the atmosphere.

Particles in the upper Earth’s atmosphere cause the blue layer shown in this image of a sunrise taken from aboard the space station. SAGE III will measure these atmospheric gases from a similar perspective. (NASA Image)

Measurement Technique

SAGE III takes its measurements using solar and lunar occultation. Occultation is a technique for pointing and locking onto the sun or the moon and scanning the limb—thin profile—of the atmosphere as the sun or moon rises or sets. SAGE III will operate mostly autonomously and the data will be transmitted to the ground through the space station’s communications systems.

The space station provides the perfect orbit from which to take measurements of the composition of the middle and lower atmosphere. Our location aboard station also gives us a great view for our solar/lunar occultation technique.

Back in Action

SAGE III is scheduled to launch to the space station aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon in mid-2014.

The SAGE III suite consists of a sensor assembly that has pointing and imaging subsystems and an ultraviolet/visible spectrometer; an European Space Agency- provided hexapod pointing system and a nadir viewing platform. The Canadian Space Agency-provided robotic arm will robotically move SAGE III from the Dragon trunk and install it on the Earth-facing side of the EXPRESS Logistics Carrier-4, or ELC 4, storage platform. 

The graphic above depicts the SAGE III instrument, which will collect data to help researchers better understand Earth’s atmosphere. (NASA Image)

The research results of the space station-mounted SAGE III will provide insights that will help humans better understand and protect Earth’s atmosphere. Only by understanding these changes will we be able to mediate future impacts on our environment. Much more data and research is needed to better understand and quantify our impact on our world’s climate system.

The SAGE program has a long heritage and is one of NASA’s longest running Earth-observing programs. Continuous long-term data collection is necessary to understand climate. Once it is on the space station, SAGE III will help to extend a long record of atmospheric measurements for the continued health of our Earth. The observations of SAGE III from station are crucial for providing a better understanding of how natural processes and human activities may influence our climate.

SAGE has been pivotal in monitoring ozone and making accurate measurements of the amount of ozone loss in Earth’s atmosphere. Today, the SAGE technique is still the best for the job. Although new technologies have come along to measure ozone, none are as thorough as solar occultation. Through this dataset, SAGE on the station will enhance our understanding of ozone recovery and climate change processes in the upper atmosphere. We also extend the scientific foundation for further sound decisions on environmental policy, both nationally and internationally.

Kristyn Damadeo is the Education and Public Outreach Lead for SAGE III on the International Space Station at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. She has previously worked as a science writer and a newspaper reporter, specializing in environmental reporting. Damadeo has a degree in Communication Arts from Ramapo College of New Jersey.

Learning to Control Colloids with International Space Station Research

In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger Donald Barker explains the complex world of colloids and how studying them aboard the International Space Station helps us understand and use them better here on Earth.

Colloids are fascinating. They are part of our daily lives, found in everything from our bodies to the products we purchase at the convenience store. Manufacturers use colloids and their unique structure and properties for wine making, coloring glass, and fabric softeners. You will even find them in your daily glass of milk!

So what exactly is a colloid? In our daily lives we generally think of traditional forms of matter: solids, liquids, gasses. Colloids, however, exist around and near the boundaries of these states—not quite being one or the other. Colloids generally take one of the following forms: aerosols, emulsions, gels, sols, foams or films.

Colloids form when particles disperse throughout a solvent, usually a liquid, depending on the purpose of the mixture. Colloidal particles are too small to be seen with ordinary optical microscopes. The size of the particles is somewhere between atoms and molecules, roughly 10 to 1,000 nanometer (or 1 micrometer). At such minute scales, physical interactions seem to work in mysterious and magical ways. This critical particulate size range is exactly where it needs to be in order to make it unlikely that they will settle out of their mixture; this property is why they are so useful.

For researchers interested in colloids, the International Space Station provides a unique laboratory environment to examine their properties. On Earth, gravity-induced settling or sedimentation changes or destroys the structure of a colloid over time. In microgravity, scientists have a stable setting where they can observe the particle interactions and structures while changing various environmental parameters, such as temperature and pressure.

Researchers are directly interested in the interactions occurring between the surface of the colloidal particles and their solvent. The mixture behaves in different ways, based on both the size of the colloid particles and their interactions with the solvent. Ongoing colloid investigations make use of space station facilities like the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG), the Fluids Integrated Rack (FIR) and the Light Microscopy Module (LMM).

Don Pettit, Expedition 30 Flight Engineer, working with the Microgravity Sciences Glovebox (MSG) in the U.S. Laboratory. (Credit: NASA)

Understanding the behavior of colloids allows scientists to create models and process that can be used to enhance food and chemical preservation, evenly distribute ingredients used to produce glues, jellies and gelatins or even to control the movement of light in optical devices and materials. Controlling colloidal mixtures can help global industries create better, more reliable products and processes.

Astronaut T.J. Creamer working at the Light Microscopy Module, or LMM, facility aboard the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Colloid studies occur regularly on the space station and one of these investigations is the Advanced Colloids Experiment-1, or ACE-1. The ACE-1 containment device holds up to 20 sample disks that, in turn, each hold up to 10 wells of colloidal particles. Astronauts mix the samples in each disk and then observe them using the LMM. The crew member takes pictures for downlink to investigators for analysis on the ground, where the investigators monitor and record colloidal structural changes and particle interactions.

The goal of ACE-1 is to understand how colloids move over time in the microgravity environment. By seeing how these particles naturally aggregate or cluster without the pull of gravity, scientists can learn how to control them. Essentially, they are looking to see how nature grows at the particle level, forming order out of disorder. Researchers hope to see how well their theoretical understanding compares to the world of everyday observations.

Scanning electron microscope, or SEM, images of a mixture of 3.8 micron diameter “seed” particles together with the bulk colloid—0.33 micron diameter Polymethylmetachrylate, or PMMA, spheres. Recent International Space Station colloid studies show a cycle of replication, as large crystals generate smaller ones that separate and continue to grow and produce. (Credit: P.M. Chaikin and A.D. Hollingsworth, New York University)

Another set of colloid studies aboard station is the Binary Colloidal Alloy/Aggregation Test, or BCAT investigation. The BCAT-6 study is the latest in a series of related experiments run on the station. It uses a sample growth module that holds 10 couvettes—small test tubes, each with a different colloid solution mixture. Observations begin following the stirring of each sample. Manual and automated time-lapse photographs record the separation over time.

Objectives of the BCAT suite of investigations include studying the dynamics between phase separation and crystallization in the solution, as well as how order arises out of disorder in microgravity.

These images show the BCAT sample growth module (left) and a close up of a BCAT-5 sample (right) showing structural changes in the mixture aboard the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Another station investigation is the Selectable Optical Diagnostics Instrument – Aggregation of Colloidal Suspensions, or SODI-Colloid. This is a series of experiments using cell chambers that hold individual samples that are measured optically using a Near-Field Scattering (NFS) technique within the MSG.

Understanding how the particles making up colloids react, move, arrange and form crystals as the temperature reaches the critical point can help with the development of materials for devices using electromagnetic waves and signals to manipulate optics, such as plasma TVs.

This image shows a false color NFS image during aggregation showing the distribution of particles on the smallest of scales. (Credit: S. Mazzoni, ESA)

A very different colloidal mixture—a magnetic one—is studied in Investigating the Structure of Paramagnetic Aggregates from Colloidal Emulsions-3, or InSPACE-3. This series of microgravity studies focuses on mixtures with magnetizable particles of varying shape (spheres to ellipsoids) exposed to an alternating magnetic field.

These kinds of fluids are considered to be “smart” materials, which transition into a solid-like state or gel when exposed to a magnetic field. Understanding how to control and produce colloidal materials of this kind may help in the engineering of vibration dampening systems, enhanced earthquake structural designs, robotic systems, tunable dampers, and brake and clutch systems.

This image shows the evolution of colloidal structure within an applied alternating magnetic field. (Credit: N. Hall, NASA)

On Earth, colloids tend to collapse, change form, or sink, depending on particle size, shape, composition, fluid solvent mixture or environmental conditions; all highly dependent on the effects of gravity. This is why the space station provides an ideal laboratory setting for researchers to tease out the underlying physical properties of colloidal solutions. As we better understand the special and fascinating properties of colloids, researchers will be able to devise better technologies and products for use back here on Earth.

Donald C. Barker (Credit: NASA)

Donald C. Barker is a scientist with the International Space Station Program Science Office. Previously Barker served as a lead systems engineer, flight controller and researcher at the Johnson Space Center. He holds a double Bachelor of Science degree in Physics and Psychology from Colorado State University, Master of Science degrees in Physics, Psychology, Mathematics and Space Architecture, and he is currently pursuing a Doctor in Philosophy in Planetary Geology at the University of Houston.

Flights of Flames for Fire Safety in Space

In today’s A Lab Aloft guest blogger, Sandra Olson, Ph.D., reveals some of the mysteries of how flames burn in microgravity, as well as how flame studies on the ground and aboard the International Space Station help with fire suppression and safety in space.

Whether dropping through a hole in the ground as part of a drop test or zipping through space aboard the International Space Station, flames behave in fascinating ways in microgravity! In the Zero Gravity Research Facility, or ZGRF, at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, I get to study solid fuel combustion behavior first hand. ZGRF is a historic landmark and the deepest drop tower in the world with a freefall of 432 feet. Drop test experiments, like the one pictured below, look at material flammability during the brief, 5.18-second period of microgravity achieved as the sample package falls.

During a Zero Gravity Research Facility tour, Facility Manager Eric Neumann (far left) shows International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson (front center) and her colleagues one of the drop packages used in the facility. The top of the white vacuum drop shaft is in the background. (NASA/Marvin Smith)

The drop test was remotely run from the ZGRF control room. Controllers activated the miniature wind tunnel apparatus to establish a spacecraft ventilation flow environment, then ignited the material and dropped the experiment. Once the sample releases into freefall, the experiment is completely automated. The drop vehicle lands in the catch-bucket at the end of the 5.18 second test.

Experiment images (left) and catch-bucket facility images (right) appear on the ZGRF control room screen. (NASA/Marvin Smith)

We have performed many drop tests studying how materials burn in microgravity compared to how they burn in normal gravity, or 1g. What we have found is that many materials actually burn better in the spacecraft flow environment than in 1g. This is because on Earth the buoyant flow—created when less dense materials rise within greater density environments—is strong enough to blow the flame out with oxygen reduction. In low ventilation, however, the slow flow provides the oxygen at an optimum rate, so the flame can survive to lower oxygen levels than in 1g. To learn more about the concepts of microgravity and combustion in the space environment, watch this “NASA Connect” video.

A flame burning in microgravity at the end of a 5.18-second drop from the Zero Gravity Research Facility. The material for this test was cotton fabric burning in 5 centimeter per second air flow, which is the typical International Space Station atmosphere. Crew clothing is often made of cotton. (NASA)

Enhanced flammability in space was recently proven in longer duration burn experiments aboard the space station as part of the Burning and Suppression of Solids, or BASS, investigation. For this study, the crew of the space station gets to play with fire. As a co-investigator, I get to observe via video on the ground and directly talk to the crew as they ignite a flame in the controlled area of the Microgravity Science Glovebox, or MSG, filming the behavior of the burn.

After his recent return to Earth, Astronaut Don Pettit, who worked on the BASS flame study in space, testified to a Senate subcommittee about the investigation and the importance of combustion experiments in microgravity.

“If you look at fire, fire and its either discovery or learning how to tame fire is what literally brought us out of the cave and allows us to have our civilization in terms of what we know now,” said Pettit. “Fire gives us our electricity. Fire allows us to have vehicles, airplanes and cars, and machines. It literally turns the wheels of our civilization…space station now offers us the ability to dissect deeper down into what the processes are in combustion… by looking at it in an environment free from gravity, free from the gravitational-driven convection. And this allows us to look at things and figure out what’s going on at a level that you could never see without taking it to space…and what we found is that things are more flammable than what we thought.”

(Left) Astronaut Joe Acaba runs BASS in the Microgravity Science Glovebox, or MSG. (Right) Astronaut Don Pettit holds up a burned acrylic sphere to show the science team on the ground how a fine layer of soot coats the wake region of the material, while the front part of the sphere looks like a meteorite with the surface marred with many craters. (NASA)

These experiments so far have confirmed that when the air flow is turned off, the flame extinguishes rapidly as it runs out of oxygen, with no fresh air flow. The MSG provides an enclosed work area, sealed to contain fluids, gasses and equipment for the safe running of combustion experiments. The crew views the burning material through the front window. The flame can be seen through this window in the picture with Joe Acaba (above). You also can see Don Pettit working on a previous run of BASS aboard station in this video.

This finding reaffirms the space station fire alarm protocol to turn off any forced air flow in the event of a fire alarm. Surprisingly, though, when the astronauts used a small nitrogen jet built into the flow duct for fire suppression testing, the flame did not go out when the air flow was turned off, if the nitrogen jet was on. In fact, the flame appeared to get brighter. Researchers intend to continue to study this unexpected discovery in which the nitrogen jet was able to entrain air all by itself, as the finding has important implications for gaseous fire suppression systems like the
CO2 suppression system currently employed on station.

Acrylic sphere burning as part of the Burning and Suppression of Solids, or BASS, investigation aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

BASS results also catch the attention of future spacecraft designers. One of the sample materials burned in BASS is acrylic, also called Plexiglas. This material is under consideration for spacecraft windows because of its excellent strength, mass and optical properties. However, it also burns quite well in the space station air environment. BASS payload summary reports mentioning acrylic have spurred a number of recent inquiries to the investigator team about the flammability of this material. After all, you don’t want your spacecraft windows to catch on fire!

A wax candle flame in very low air flow is nearly spherical with an inner sooty layer near the wick, and an outer blue layer. This blue is due to chemiluminescence, which is when a chemical reaction emits light. (NASA)

The BASS investigation has direct applications to spacecraft fire safety and astronaut wellbeing. A combustion experiment, BASS was jointly designed by scientists and engineers at NASA and the Universities Space Research Association, or USRA. BASS operations are scheduled to begin again aboard the space station in the spring of 2013.

The best part of my job as a researcher is the thrill of discovering new phenomena unique to microgravity. It is exciting to work with something as beautiful and powerful as fire, especially in these unique microgravity environments. The fire images have inspired me to create art images from them. 

2009 Art “Fire’s Ribbons and Lace”
The delicate and fractal nature of charring cellulose is amplified here in repeated magnified images of a flame spread front over ashless filter paper. (Sandra Olson)

2011 Art “Flaming Star”
Microgravity flames converging toward the center of the starburst ‘implode’ against an outflow of wind, creating a diffusion flame ‘supernova.’ (Sandra Olson)

The more we understand the behavior of flames with given materials and conditions, the better prepared we will be to harness their potential and contribute to fire safety in future space exploration. What’s next will depend on what we discover from these ongoing tests, building on the knowledge already gained from these important combustion studies.

Sandra Olson, shown here with the microgravity wind tunnel drop apparatus.

Sandra Olson, Ph.D., is a spacecraft fire safety researcher at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, as well as the project scientist and co-investigator for the BASS investigation. She has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and a M.S. and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering. She has worked at NASA since 1983, most of that time studying microgravity combustion.   


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.

Remodeling Research for Astronaut Bone Health

In today’s A Lab Aloft blog post, guest blogger Scott M. Smith, Ph.D., reflects on the recent publication of results on human health space station research regarding the beneficial connections between bone density, diet and exercise.

This month, September 2012, marks the publication of a paper in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research documenting how crew members that ate well, had good vitamin D status, and exercised hard maintained their bone mineral density. There are several remarkable things in and about this paper that I would like to share in this blog.

From a science perspective, this marks the first documentation of protecting bone mineral density during space flight. It’s amusing that I have already gotten several questions about whether or not we can tell if it was the exercise or the nutrition that made the beneficial difference. The answer is no, we can’t. 

I suspect some folks would like to think it is just the exercise. I am quick to point out, however, that while I am somewhat biased as a nutritionist, I believe that all aspects were critical to the success of the program. There are plenty of non-NASA studies showing that inadequate nutrition leads to bone loss. I’ve also seen online summaries of research giving vitamin D the lead role—I guess it all depends on your perspective.

Regardless, nutrition (including and beyond vitamin D) and exercise are both very important. We are not going to set up experiments to determine if limiting one of these factors has a negative effect on bone, given that would clearly be the wrong thing to do for the crew of the International Space Station.

NASA astronaut Don Pettit, Expedition 30 flight engineer, is pictured near a snack floating freely in the Unity node of the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

There has been immediate reaction to the Benefits for Bone from Resistance Exercise and Nutrition in Long-Duration Spaceflight: Evidence from Biochemistry and Densitometry paper. Some people feel that we can now proclaim spaceflight-induced bone loss a fixed problem and move on. This is clearly not the case, however, as what we found is that bone seems to be remodeling. In other words, bone breakdown still increases, but what happened here is that bone formation tended to increase as well, which appears to help maintain bone mineral density.

A big question remains: is the bone as strong after flight as it was before flight? Follow-on studies are underway to help answer this. Nonetheless, it is better to maintain bone mineral density with a question about strength, than to not maintain bone mineral density—which is where we’ve been up to now. We also hope to optimize both exercise protocols, for example using the Sprint Investigation aboard station, and nutritional aspects of bone health, as seen with the SOLO and Pro K studies. You can read more about these topics in my earlier blog entry on omega-3 fatty acid: Of Fish, Astronauts, and Bone Health on Earth.

NASA astronaut Mike Fossum, Expedition 29 commander, performs a SPRINT leg muscle self scan in the Columbus laboratory of the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Another striking thing about this paper was the team. We had two of NASA’s bone experts, Linda Shackelford and Jean Sibonga; one of NASA’s muscle/exercise experts, Lori Ploutz-Snyder; and nutrition experts from NASA and ESA, Sara Zwart, Martina Heer, and myself. Getting all teams to come together to work on this paper required a fair amount of choreography, including agreements on presentation, interpretation and description of the data.

As an aside, in the late 1990’s Dr. Shackelford led an effort to conduct bed rest studies with resistance exercise here on the ground. She published results that mirror what we found in the flight study. Bed rest is a model of space flight, and results in a different magnitude bone loss, but nonetheless it provides evidence useful in assessing flight studies. This is a perfect example of why we test things on the ground first, but then also test them in flight. We want to be sure to know what happens in actual space flight.

Another unique aspect of this paper is the time it took to pull everything together. It was early this year, on January 26, Sara Zwart and myself were sitting in the office trying to assess what data from the Nutrition investigation we should look to try to publish next. I mentioned that we had not published any of the bone marker data, and perhaps we could look at ARED/iRED differences. ARED is the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device aboard station that the crew uses to simulate free weight exercises on orbit, while the iRED is the Interim Resistive Exercise Device used for upper body strength development.

NASA astronaut Dan Burbank, Expedition 30 flight commander, exercises, using the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device, or ARED, in the Tranquility node of the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Sara and I met very early, around 1 the next morning, at the Telescience Center—one of the back rooms in Mission Control. We were waiting for the crew aboard station to awaken so astronaut Don Pettit could collect his FD30 blood sample for the Nutrition and Pro K studies. Sara mentioned that she’d looked at the blood and urine bone marker data, and there didn’t appear to be major differences between the groups: resorption (bone breakdown) wasn’t different, and formation trended up, but wasn’t overly striking. I asked Sara if she’d looked at the bone densitometry (DEXA) data to see what happened with bone and body composition, and she said no, but she would. She logged in to our lab database, and about 30 minutes later turned and said, “I take it back—there’s something there!”

I told Sara I would start working words, and she should start working tables. By 9:30 the morning of the January 27, 24-hours after we first discussed it, we had a 17-page draft of the manuscript, which included 3 tables of data and complete statistical analysis. It took us about a week (and some sleep) to clean up the draft, and we then sent it out to the coauthors to start the process of bringing in their expertise and adding in details. This was especially important regarding the exercise aspects and the bone measurement details, which elude us nutrition types, along with overall interpretations.

Essentially taking eight months from concept to publication, the journey for this paper is simply incredible! We’ve never had a scientific paper go from essentially the first look at the numbers to print this quickly before, and, well…you never count on something like this to happen again.

Cover of the September 2012 edition of the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research where the Benefits for Bone from Resistance Exercise and Nutrition in Long-Duration Spaceflight: Evidence from Biochemistry and Densitometry paper on astronaut bone health published. (Credit: JBMR)

Scott M. Smith leads NASA’s Nutritional Biochemistry Lab at Johnson Space Center. He completed his doctorate in nutrition at Penn State and conducted postdoctoral research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Human Nutrition Research Center in North Dakota. Smith leads experiments, both on the ground and in space, aimed at improving astronaut nutrition. Smith’s two space station experiments include Nutritional Status Assessment and Pro K.  The Pro K study is designed to investigate the roles of animal protein and potassium in bone loss.


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. 


Comparing Platforms: Suborbital and International Space Station Research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(NASA Image S134E007532)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Tara Ruttley
(NASA Image)

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

Alan Stern
(ISPCS 2010)

What Kind of World Do You Want?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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