Tag Archives: Guest Bloggers

Space Station Espresso Cups: Strong Coffee Yields Stronger Science

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, International Space Station researcher, Mark Weislogel, Ph.D., boils down why brews served in microgravity will percolate better science than coffee, thanks to the Space Cup.

*UPDATE: The Space Cup was named one of “The Most Cleverly Designed Objects of 2015” by WIRED Magazine!*

SA (European Space Agency) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti - dressed in a Star Trek Voyager uniform - takes a sip of espresso from the new Capillary Beverage investigation, also known as Space Cup while looking out of the Cupola window.

European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti – dressed in a Star Trek Voyager uniform – takes a sip of espresso from the new Capillary Beverage investigation, also known as Space Cup while looking out of the Cupola window. Credits: NASA

You may have heard the “caffeine buzz” around the Internet about the ISSpresso machine that recently launched to the International Space Station. It would be out of this world indeed to have a cup to go along with it. So we designed, fabricated, tested, and flight qualified one. In fact six such cups are now on the space station and ready for action. With real science backing the design, our microgravity coffee cup will do more than lift espresso to astronauts’ lips — it will also provide data on the passive movement of complex fluids as part of the Capillary Beverage investigation. The results will confirm and direct math models that help engineers exploit capillary fluid physics (capillary fluidics) to control how liquids move by designing containers specific to the task at hand. Whether getting the last drop of fuel for a rocket engine or delivering the perfect dose of medication to a patient, there are real Earth benefits behind the brew.

In 2008, astronauts aboard the International Space Station demonstrated the pouch method of drinking yesterday’s coffee and today’s coffee, while the Space Cup will serve the coffee of tomorrow — providing real science for fluid physics research. In the front, left to right, crew members Michael Finke and Chris Ferguson, with Eric Boe and Donald Pettit in the back. (NASA)

In 2008, astronauts aboard the International Space Station demonstrated the pouch method of drinking yesterday’s coffee and today’s coffee, while the Space Cup will serve the coffee of tomorrow — providing real science for fluid physics research. In the front, left to right, crew members Michael Finke and Chris Ferguson, with Eric Boe and Donald Pettit in the back. (NASA)

On Earth, gravity is responsible for making bubbles rise and liquids fall. Such mechanisms vanish in the weightless environment of orbiting spacecraft. In fact, in microgravity there is no concept notion of floating or sinking, or up or down. Other forces such as surface tension that are normally overwhelmed by gravity on Earth rise to dominate liquid behavior.

In a spacecraft, if the effects of surface tension are not understood, liquids (e.g., water, fuel) can be just about anywhere in the container that holds them. Similarly, the gas (e.g., oxygen, nitrogen) in such containers can freely range, too. You’re in for a challenge if you want to find where these fluids are and use them. Even if you just want to drink them. This is why in space you’ll only see astronauts drinking from bags with straws so that they can completely collapse the bag to assure the liquids come out. From a practical safety perspective, the bags also provide a level of containment.

When my laboratory heard of ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and the Italian Space Agency’s espresso machine investigation (ISSpresso) going to space, it got us thinking about that beautifully complex drink and how it would behave differently — especially whether the coffee would develop a crema or not. Currently, we don’t believe so because the bubbles that form during the espresso brew process won’t naturally rise to the surface due to absence of buoyancy in the microgravity environment. Other weaker forces often masked by gravity are present and will likely play an unearthly role in what happens, making the espresso fun to observe. It will be a different kind of fun altogether to get real science out of the process at the same time.

In a normal cup of espresso, carbon dioxide bubbles release and collect to form a crema. Some of the bubbles adhere to the walls of the cup, while the remainder rise and stratify due to their size in layers we refer to as foam. Steam rises above the surface of the crema in part condensing in an advancing front on the inside surfaces of the cup. The cup cools by natural convection and the aromatics waft at rates determined by buoyancy. These processes are completely induced by gravity!

When the influence of gravity is greatly reduced, as it is aboard orbiting spacecraft, not much of this stuff is going to happen. This will be unusual for the astronauts. Even the smell of the coffee diffusing through the crema is driven by natural convection currents in the air, which are absent in the microgravity environment. So the simple, every day fluid physics taking place in your daily coffee are highly dependent on gravity. From taste to smell, we anticipate what may even be a disappointing cup of coffee in space. But only the astronauts will know, and we will have to take their word for it in the hopes of one day trying this for ourselves.

Touching your lips to the rim of the Space Cup establishes a capillary connection allowing the drinker access to the entire contents. Sip-by-sip or in one big gulp, the cup’s contents may be imbibed somewhat normally in space, as on Earth. (A. Wollman, IRPI)

Touching your lips to the rim of the Space Cup establishes a capillary connection allowing the drinker access to the entire contents. Sip-by-sip or in one big gulp, the cup’s contents may be imbibed somewhat normally in space, as on Earth. (A. Wollman, IRPI)

You can imagine how many variables are at play for the drinking experience from a human factors perspective, but gravity influences many of these, too. Sinus drainage, saliva migration, time aloft, and others are reasonable microgravity-related parameters affecting one’s response to the drinking experience in space. We designed the Space Cup with the central objective of delivering the liquid passively to the lip of the cup. To do this we exploit surface tension, wetting conditions, and the special geometry of the cup itself. We have yet to learn the human-cup interaction in microgravity. The cup design forces the drinker’s nose directly over the fluid contents. But since the aromatics do not rise, one might expect a rather concentrated dose upon the first whiff. Maybe this won’t be a big deal since astronauts report a reduced sense of smell while in space, due to somewhat clogged sinuses. This is presumably due to the headward fluid redistribution that occurs in spaceflight.

We were highly motivated to make the cup transparent so we could observe all of the fluid physics going on in the process. It may sound nerdy, but that’s what we do—we study microgravity fluid physics in hopes of designing more reliable fluid systems for future spacecraft, and more effective fluid systems for applications on Earth.

Touching your lips to the rim of the cup establishes a capillary connection, almost like the wicking of water through a paper towel, allowing the drinker access to the entire contents. My colleagues and I have been doing research aboard station for more than 10 years. During the course of hundreds and hundreds of experiments, we’ve been developing the mathematical predictive tools and computational tools for such passive capillary fluidic processes. Now we are in a place to develop designs for systems in space — systems with promises of high reliability because they perform their function passively, without moving parts. Examples include things like urine treatment and processing, and systems to close the water cycle helping to enable truly long duration crewed space exploration. These same tools also help us with fuel systems, cooling systems, water processing equipment for plant and animal habitats, and much more.

Perfecting these systems can also help us prevent disasters in orbit or on long-duration missions such as the journey to Mars. For example, the primary oxygen supply systems on many spacecraft use electrolysis. If the system gets a single air bubble lodged within its tubing, it can shut down until the bubble is found and removed. To get a sense of working with these types of systems in space, you need an understanding of capillary phenomena from studies, believe it or not, like Capillary Beverage.

The Space Cup’s specific design uses known geometry, gathered in prior International Space Station research, to direct fluids to the lip of the user. (Credit: M. Meyer, IRPI)

The Space Cup’s specific design uses known geometry, gathered in prior International Space Station research, to direct fluids to the lip of the user. (Credit: M. Meyer, IRPI)

While fun, this study has plenty of design research behind it. Many of the aspects of our fluid physics research in microgravity are present in this simple cup demonstration — the effects of wetting, the effects of geometry, and the effects of fluid properties, especially surface tension. The results could provide information useful to engineers who design fuel tanks for commercial satellites, for instance. If you can find all your fuel, you can save costs and maximize the mission duration.

With this cup we can also study complex fluids that we have not previously addressed. For example, just adding sugar or milk to tea is expected to radically change the performance of the process of how the fluids move. We’ll approach this systematically aboard the space station. We’re starting off with water, then clear juice, then tea, tea with sugar, etc., including complex drinks like cocoa, a chocolate breakfast drink, and even a peach-mango smoothie. Undissolved solids, dissolved gasses, foams, free bubbles, surfactants, varying viscosities, temperature effects and more — all in little transparent 3D printed cups used by astronauts to drink on the space station. This progression from simple to complex beverages will give us a wealth of data — data which we aim to apply not just in space, but on Earth, too.

The astronaut(s) will set up the experiment near the galley, position the cup, camera, and lighting for orthogonal views (views at right angles), and a variety of experiments will be performed using the HD video as our quantitative data source. For example, when the astronaut fills the cup, the filing process is research. When the astronaut drains the cup, the draining is research. The static and dynamic interface shapes tell us everything we need to know, from wetting conditions to stability, to visco-capillary interaction. This is the exciting part for us! We see the profile of the interface, we watch particles and bubbles as flow tracers, we get velocities and volumetric drain rates, and all as functions of what the astronaut is doing — enjoying a cup of coffee! Astronaut Kjell Lindgren is planning to take up plenty of his own espresso during Expeditions 44/45. We have plenty to look forward to.

International Space Station Expedition 44/45 crew members Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui enjoying food tasting at NASA’s Habitability and Environmental Factors Office in Houston. Lindgren plans to take his own espresso grounds with him into orbit to enjoy as part of the Capillary Beverage study. (NASA/Bill Stafford)

International Space Station Expedition 44/45 crew members Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui enjoying food tasting at NASA’s Habitability and Environmental Factors Office in Houston. Lindgren plans to take his own espresso grounds with him into orbit to enjoy as part of the Capillary Beverage study. (NASA/Bill Stafford)

With this cup, most everything is taken care of passively by the shape of the cup. There isn’t a straight line in it. There are no moving parts. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the fluid systems on spacecraft worked like that? We know it would result in less worry on the ground. The simpler things are, the more robust their function and the less time is needed for maintenance.

Check out this video about our first version of a zero-g coffee cup.

What we are learning here is not just for space. All the design tools we are developing are applicable to small fluidic systems on Earth, too. For example, portable point-of-care medical diagnostic devices exploit capillary flow to passively move a very small sample of blood to any variety of regions on a testing chip. That makes it possible to diagnose infectious diseases in places where there is no power or where power is unreliable. It also reduces the time between sample collection and diagnosis and, therefore, initiation of treatment. We will report more on this connection in the future.

The next time you brew a cup of your favorite coffee, imagine what it might be like to take a sip from the Capillary Beverage cup aboard the International Space Station while watching the Earth go by. Then consider the fluids research off the Earth, that can make a difference right here on the Earth.

Mark Weislogel, Ph.D. (Portland State University)

Mark Weislogel, Ph.D. (Portland State University)

Mark Weislogel, Ph.D., is senior scientist and vice president of IRPI LLC and professor Mechanical Engineering at Portland State University. He was founded in microgravity fluid physics while employed at NASA’s  Glenn Research Center. Whether in the private sector or academia, Weislogel has since continued to make extensive use of NASA ground-based low-gravity facilities and has completed investigations aboard space shuttles, the Russian Mir Space Station, and the International Space Station. He led the design of the Dryden Drop Tower, which has conducted over 4,000 drop tests and continue at a rate of over 1,000/year. Current efforts are directed to research, development, and delivery of advanced fluid systems for spacecraft.

Health Research off the Earth, For the Earth

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Today’s A Lab Aloft was posted by Ellen Stofan and Julie Robinson on April 17, 2015.

The International Space Station is a unique laboratory for performing investigations that affect human health both in space and on Earth. Since its assembly, the space station has supported research that is providing a better understanding of certain aspects of both fundamental and applied human health, such as the mechanisms causing aging and disease. Several biological and human physiological investigations have yielded important results, including improved understanding of bone loss and rebuilding, and development of new medical technologies that have impacted lives right here on Earth.

From studying the behavior of cells to developing potential improvements in clinical settings, a variety of health research arrived at the space station today aboard the sixth SpaceX contracted resupply mission. The Dragon spacecraft delivered research equipment for biology, biotechnology, human research, as well as additional research and supplies to the station. These new and ongoing investigations continue to assist researchers in pursuing scientific and medical knowledge not possible under the weight of gravity on Earth.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying the Dragon resupply spacecraft on the sixth commercial resupply services mission to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 4:10 p.m. EDT on April 14. (NASA/Tony Gray)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying the Dragon resupply spacecraft on the sixth commercial resupply services mission to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 4:10 p.m. EDT on April 14. (NASA/Tony Gray)

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and his identical twin brother Mark will participate in a series of human health studies as part of the recently begun One-Year Mission aboard the space station. The data collected comparing the twins, Scott on the space station, and Mark living on Earth, will enable researchers to determine how cognitive function, metabolic profiles, gastrointestinal microbiota, immune system and genetic sequences are affected by different factors attributable to the environmental stress of spaceflight. Results could potentially be used as the first steps to understand how to help develop new treatments and preventive measures for health issues on Earth.

Another investigation will study how and why some astronauts experience eye changes that can affect their vision during missions aboard the station. There are several factors that may cause this problem during spaceflight. This research will improve scientists’ understanding of this phenomenon and how changes in the brain and eye shape affects vision. It could also help people on Earth suffering from conditions that increase swelling and pressure in the brain.

NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins and European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano perform ultrasound eye imaging as part of the Fluid Shifts investigation during Expedition 37 on the International Space Station. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins and European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano perform ultrasound eye imaging as part of the Fluid Shifts investigation during Expedition 37 on the International Space Station. (NASA)

Studying cells in space is another important area of health research on the station. Research in microgravity provides an important novel tool to better understand the mechanisms that cause cellular functions such as cell division, gene expression and shape. Looking at cells in space provides unique insights, because in the absence of Earth’s gravity, cells grow with a similar structure as they do in the body. Scientists can use this knowledge to improve diagnosis and therapies.

A type of bone cell, called osteocytes, will arrive at the space station on today’s cargo delivery as part of a project funded under the Biomedical Research on the International Space Station (BioMed-ISS). This initiative is a collaborative effort among the National Institutes of Health, the ISS National Laboratory and NASA. The investigation team, led by Dr. Paola Divieti Pajevic, Assistant Professor at Boston University and the Director of the bone cell core at Massachusetts General Hospital, will analyze the effects of microgravity on the function of osteocytes. The study will provide better understanding of the mechanisms behind bone disorders on Earth, such as osteoporosis.

The three colorful bioreactors where mouse bone cells grow within a 3D material for the Osteo-4 investigation aboard the International Space Station. (Divieti Pajevic Laboratory)

The three colorful bioreactors where mouse bone cells grow within a 3D material for the Osteo-4 investigation aboard the International Space Station. (Divieti Pajevic Laboratory)

Additional investigations also may yield results that can potentially improve patient health in clinical settings on Earth. Scientists may be able to develop methods for combating hospital-acquired infections, a chronic problem in clinical settings, by researching bacterial growth in a microgravity environment. Moreover, by studying protein crystallization in space, scientists may be able to improve crystallization technology that can change the way drugs are used for treating various human diseases.

The programs outlined here illustrate only a fraction of the space station’s potential as a groundbreaking scientific research facility. The International Space Station National Laboratory, as designated by the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, is a unique scientific platform that continues to enable researchers to put their talents to work on innovative experiments that could not be done anywhere else. Use of the space station’s singular capabilities as a permanent microgravity platform with exposure to the space environment is improving life on Earth; fostering relationships among NASA, other federal entities, and the private sector; and advancing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

We may not know yet what will be the most important discovery gained from this orbiting laboratory, but we already are doing significant research on the International Space Station that could greatly benefit human health. Through advancing the state of scientific knowledge of our planet, looking after our health, and providing a space platform that inspires and educates health, science and technology leaders of tomorrow, these benefits will drive the legacy of the space station as its research enhances the quality of life here on Earth.

Ellen Stofan is the Chief Scientist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA/Jay Westcott)

Ellen Stofan is the Chief Scientist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA/Jay Westcott)

NASA’s International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D. (NASA)

 

 

Women in Space Part Two, What’s Gender Got To Do With It?

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger Liz Warren, Ph.D., looks at the differences between male and female astronaut physiology on long duration space missions.

I hate to break it to you, but men are not actually from Mars and women are not really from Venus. This silly saying illustrates a question that researchers, however, are serious about studying. With International Women’s Day around the corner, I thought it the ideal time to address the question: Is there a difference between the sexes as the human body adapts to microgravity?

You may remember reading the earlier blog that I wrote about celebrating “firsts” for women space explorers. The sky is certainly no longer the limit for females interested in exploration, science or any other career they wish to pursue. In fact, if you’re following our current mission, you already know we have two women living and working on the International Space Station.

ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and Roscosmos cosmonaut Yelena Serova live and work aboard the International Space Station as part of the current crew. (NASA)

Roscosmos cosmonaut Yelena Serova and ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti live and work aboard the International Space Station as part of the current crew. (NASA)

In the fall of 2015, Sarah Brightman will be the 60th woman to fly in space. As we approach longer durations in human spaceflight, such as the one-year mission and the journey to Mars, it is important to tease out all aspects of how humans handle life in microgravity to ensure crew safety. The answers may also hold insights for human health even if you never leave the ground.

Our current crew aboard the space station includes ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut of Italian nationality, Samantha Cristoforetti, and a Roscosmos cosmonaut of Russian nationality, Yelena Serova. While serving aboard the orbiting laboratory for about six months, they each perform experiments in disciplines that range from technology development, physical sciences, human research, biology and biotechnology to Earth observations. This research helps in benefitting our lives here on Earth and enables future space exploration. They also engage students through educational activities in addition to operational tasks such as equipment maintenance and visiting vehicle tasks.

Russian cosmonaut Elena Serova, Expedition 41 flight engineer, works with hardware for the ОБР-8 Khimiya-Obrazovanie (Chemistry-Education) experiment in the Glove Minibox. Image was taken in the Rassvet Mini-Research Module 1 (MRM1) of the International Space Station. (NASA)

Russian cosmonaut Elena Serova, Expedition 41 flight engineer, works with hardware for the ОБР-8 Khimiya-Obrazovanie (Chemistry-Education) experiment in the Glove Minibox. Image was taken in the Rassvet Mini-Research Module 1 (MRM1) of the International Space Station. (NASA)

It’s important to acknowledge the contributions women in space make to both exploration and research. For instance, on Feb. 3, a prestigious tribute went to another woman space explorer, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Chiaki Mukai. She was conferred the National Order of the Legion of Honour, Chevalier. Mukai flew aboard space shuttle missions STS-65 and STS-95, and is currently the director of the JAXA Center for Applied Space Medicine and Human Research (J-CASMHR). The work these trailblazers accomplish also includes their role as research subjects themselves.

Female space explorers are skilled professionals, representing the best humanity has to offer, executing complex tasks in an unforgiving environment. Their sex differentiates them only so far as biology determines—which is exactly the topic covered in a recent compendium titled “Impact of Sex and Gender on Adaptation to Space.” The results were published in the November 2014 issue of the Journal of Women’s Health.

Samantha Cristoforetti taking images of the Earth from the International Space Station’s cupola. (NASA)

Samantha Cristoforetti taking images of the Earth from the International Space Station’s cupola. (NASA)

Space exploration is inherently dangerous, and as we look to longer duration spaceflights to Mars and beyond, NASA wants to make sure we are addressing the right questions to minimize risk to our astronaut crews. Based on a recommendation by the National Academy of Sciences, NASA and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) assembled six scientific working groups to compile and summarize the current body of knowledge about the different ways that spaceflight affects the bodies of men and women. The groups focused on cardiovascular, immunological, sensorimotor, musculoskeletal, reproductive and behavioral implications on spaceflight adaptation for men and women. NASA and NSBRI created a diagram summarizing differences between men and women in cardiovascular, immunologic, sensorimotor, musculoskeletal, and behavioral adaptations to human spaceflight.

Thus far, the differences between the male and female adaptation to spaceflight are not significant. In other words, mission managers planning a trip to Mars, for example, can do so without consideration of the sex of the crew members. However, many questions remain unanswered and require further studies and more women subjects in the human-health investigations. There is an imbalance in data available for men and women, primarily due to fewer women having flown in space.

As a physiologist, I am intrigued by several of the differences described in the journal. An area that interests me in particular is cardiovascular physiology. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cardiovascular disease—including heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure—is the number one killer of men and women across America. Many studies have shown that healthy habits including good nutrition and exercise are important for maintaining a healthy heart here on Earth. Those habits are even more important for astronauts on the space station.

Of the findings described in the journal, one is that women astronauts tend to suffer more orthostatic intolerance upon standing after return to Earth. Related to this finding, women also appear to lose more blood plasma during spaceflight. Possibly connected to the inherent differences in the cardiovascular system between men and women, male astronauts appear to suffer more vision impairment issues in space than women, although the difference is not statistically significant due to the small number of subjects—meaning more research needs to be done.

NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, Expedition 36 flight engineer, conducts an ocular health exam on herself in the Destiny laboratory of the Earth-orbiting International Space Station. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, Expedition 36 flight engineer, conducts an ocular health exam on herself in the Destiny laboratory of the Earth-orbiting International Space Station. (NASA)

Another difference between men and women in spaceflight is worth noting, and that is the radiation standard. While the level of risk allowed for both men and women in space is the same, women have a lower threshold for space radiation exposure than men, according to our models.

This is an exciting time in human space exploration. We are addressing questions today that will lead to safer journeys off our planet. This month, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will embark on the first joint U.S.-Russian one-year mission to the space station. Most stays on station are six months in duration, but planners anticipate a journey to Mars to be closer to 1,000 days. This first one-year mission is a stepping stone in our travels beyond low-Earth orbit. NASA anticipates to continue one-year long missions, and women will be part of these crew selections.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly (left), Expedition 43/44 flight engineer and Expedition 45/46 commander; and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, Expedition 43-46 flight engineer, take a break from training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston to pose for a portrait. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly (left), Expedition 43/44 flight engineer and Expedition 45/46 commander; and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, Expedition 43-46 flight engineer, take a break from training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston to pose for a portrait. (NASA)

In the meantime, what we learn about our bodies off the Earth has benefits for the Earth. In part one of this guest blog, I stated that, “in space exploration and in science, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.” I am thrilled to think of what we are about to learn from the one-year mission, as well as the continued research on and by both men and women in orbit. What an exciting time for humanity!

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

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

Liz Warren, Ph.D., is a physiologist with Barrios Technology, a NASA contractor supporting the International Space Station Program Science Office. Warren has a doctorate in molecular, cellular, and integrative physiology from the University of California at Davis, completed post-doctoral fellowships in molecular and cell biology and neuroscience, and has authored publications ranging from artificial gravity protocols to neuroscience to energy balance and metabolism.

Partnerships Powering Student Investigations Launch to Space Station

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In today’s A Lab Aloft we hear from William Wells Jr., aSTEAM Village SSEP Kansas City program director, as he shares the difference made in the lives of students when schools work together to support education opportunities. These students literally reach for the stars with the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program when they send their studies to the International Space Station.

Many U.S. students lack foundational skills and knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM, or with art added STEAM) as a result of the absence of authentic learning activities in STEM subjects. They have little to no exposure to highly competent role models in STEM fields and limited opportunities to think critically, solve problems, research, publish and hypothesize.

Through the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program (SSEP), which is led by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE), Benjamin Banneker Charter Academy of Technology in Kansas City, Missouri, engaged with other public and private school districts through aSTEAM Village, and I am honored to serve as the SSEP Kansas City program director. I work to fulfill the aSTEAM Village mission of helping to level the playing field for students in the Kansas City area. Our goal is to ensure all students are exposed to 21st-century knowledge through an expanded learning strategy in before/after-school and regular classroom environments using STEAM curriculum.

SSEP Mission 5 launch delegation posing in from of the Antares rocket that successfully carried the selected experiment ‘Oxidation in Space” to the International Space Station in July 2014. (aSTEAM Village)

SSEP Mission 5 launch delegation posing in from of the Antares rocket that successfully carried the selected experiment ‘Oxidation in Space” to the International Space Station in July 2014. (aSTEAM Village)

Through this in-depth program, our community’s students are presented an opportunity to be immersed in a high-profile community science competition. The objective is for students to submit an experiment that they hope will be selected to ferry to the International Space Station. Aboard the orbiting laboratory astronauts will perform the student experiment in microgravity. Meanwhile, the students conduct the ground truth of the study here on Earth. This is a real space program and not a simulation!

Astronaut Luca Parmitano getting ready to activate specific SSEP mini-labs aboard the International Space Station. The SSEP Falcon I Experiment Payload box is open. (NASA)

Astronaut Luca Parmitano getting ready to activate specific SSEP mini-labs aboard the International Space Station. The SSEP Falcon I Experiment Payload box is open. (NASA)

I was speaking recently with Marian Brown, Ed.D., superintendent for Benjamin Banneker Charter Academy of Technology, who shared with me the difference she has noticed in students attending aSTEAM Village partner schools through their participation with SSEP.

“We are so pleased that teachers and mentors have embraced the struggle to immerse and engage students in every facet of real science to ensure all students are provided the chance to explore the scientific method, as well as experience science firsthand. More importantly, we have observed an increase in our students’ capacity for hard work, perseverance and resilience. In addition, this program and partnership will help alter the path of children’s lives by fostering creative thinking, real-world problem-solving and true innovation for urban revitalization.”

I was not surprised that Dr. Brown’s thoughts were echoed in a conversation I recently had with Kristen Marriott, a middle school STEM teacher who has been involved with SSEP in three missions at two different aSTEAM Village partner schools: Della Lamb and Crossroads Academy. Marriott believes that the best thing about the program is watching the students problem solve and work collaboratively.

“They start the project as individuals but end up as a group, working through difficulties and limitations together. I have been amazed with the variety of experiments the students have proposed. We truly have a generation of STEM leaders making their way through school at this time.”

Eamon Shaw and Nicole Ficklin with astronaut Dr. Don Thomas at the NCESSE National Conference (Lisa Shaw)

Eamon Shaw and Nicole Ficklin with astronaut Dr. Don Thomas at the NCESSE National Conference. (Lisa Shaw)

I think it’s safe to say there is plenty of evidence to support Marriott’s assertion. Two teams from another aSTEAM Village community partner, St. Peter’s School, had two flights selected, Mission 5 and Mission 6, which Robert J. Jacobsen, the school’s science teacher and SSEP coordinator said, “provided not only St. Peter’s, but the Kansas City community, a sense of achievement and pride.”

It has been fun watching the students reap the rewards of their diligent work and effort, from brainstorming and proposing ideas to presenting their projects at the NCESSE 2014 National SSEP Conference in Washington. The student researchers, grades 5-8, discovered the need to be flexible yet manage their time and energy. They learned to value review boards, both at the local and national level, and the important input that they had to offer. The student teams also mastered answering questions from the media (and what a wonderful job they have done). We have seen the enthusiasm of the student teams involved with both Missions 5 and 6 act as a motivating force for the Mission 7 teams who have just completed their proposals to be evaluated by the local review board.

Through mostly local funding, SSEP also provided the opportunity for the Mission 5 finalists and first-time SSEP participants from the Kansas City area to get a life-altering VIP tour of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The aSTEAM Village students, from six different public, charter and private schools, had the opportunity to learn, explore and enjoy an experience of a lifetime in the Chincoteague, Va., and Washington, D.C., areas.

SSEP_WallopsB

SSEP Mission 5 Launch Delegation visiting the NASA Wallops Flight Facility. (aSTEAM Village)

For several of the students, it was the first time they had ever left the immediate Kansas City area. The highlight of our trip was the visit to the flight facility center where the flight project manager made it his point to host the tour. He spent several hours with the students, teachers and chaperones. What came forth was the utmost and genuine enthusiasm and passion for science and engineering that the individuals and teams of the flight facilities displayed. This experience was so important and it definitely left an unforgettable impression upon both the students and us adults in the Kansas City delegation.

I have been truly amazed to see the realization of the vision of NCESSE director, Jeff Goldstein, Ph.D., and his message to educators, students and parents that, “the world is a classroom.” It is an honor to serve as SSEP Kansas City program director as this program not only has all of us mentors, students and parents looking to the skies and beyond, but it also without question, has inspired the next generation of scientists, technologists and engineers. More importantly, it is infusing the confidence in the student researchers that indeed they can become whatever they want to become, because at a very early age of their life they can truthfully say that participation in SSEP has made them a part of America’s space program.

SSEP Kansas City students from Banneker, St. Peter's and Academie Lafayette come together in the Banneker Lecture Hall to view the launch of the selected Mission 6 experiment with student researchers Holden O'Keefe, Nicole Ficklin and Eamon Shaw. The original experiment was lost in the catastrophic failure of Orbital Science Corp.’s Antares rocket shortly after liftoff on October 28. Holden, Nicole and Eamon's experiment will re-launch on SpaceX’s upcoming resupply mission to the space station. (Paula Holmquist)

SSEP Kansas City students from Banneker, St. Peter’s and Academie Lafayette come together in the Banneker Lecture Hall to view the launch of the selected Mission 6 experiment with student researchers Holden O’Keefe, Nicole Ficklin and Eamon Shaw. The original experiment was lost in the catastrophic failure of Orbital Science Corp.’s Antares rocket shortly after liftoff on October 28. Holden, Nicole and Eamon’s experiment will re-launch on SpaceX’s upcoming resupply mission to the space station. (Paula Holmquist)

Seeing these kids take to STEM, NASA can rest assured that SSEP will produce their next wave of talented explorers and leaders. They’ll be ready for hire when NASA ushers our nation deep into the galaxy and beyond over the next century. I know from my experience with these bright and enthusiastic student scientists that they’ll take us great places!

SSEP and its passionate team are a wonderful gift to the younger generation. We need people to challenge the young minds. They indeed are the future. Go, SSEP!

William Wells Jr., aSTEAM Village SSEP Kansas City program director. (Alison Barnes-Martin)

William Wells Jr., aSTEAM Village SSEP Kansas City program director. (Alison Barnes-Martin)

William Wells, Jr., is a seasoned tech professional and entrepreneur who leverages his knowledge and expertise to inspire the next generation of STEAM professionals as the aSTEAM Village SSEP Kansas City program director. He has successfully formed collaborations among a diverse coalition of schools to bring unique STEAM-related programming to hundreds of K-8 students through the aSTEAM Village. Wells currently serves as the lead robotics and computer science instructor at Benjamin Banneker Charter Academy of Technology. He has been named the National and Local Black Engineer of the Year and attended the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and Kansas City Kansas Community College.

 

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in the U.S., and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with NanoRacks LLC, working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory. SSEP is the first pre-college STEM education program that is both a U.S. national initiative and implemented as an on-orbit commercial space venture.

Rodent Research Ramps Up Aboard the International Space Station

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In today’s A Lab Aloft International Space Station Assistant Program Scientist Kirt Costello, Ph.D., lays out what’s new in rodent research in orbit. The updated facility and planned studies will advance capabilities for microgravity life science and biology research.

In this blog we often talk about the “why” reasons for the research that we are doing on the International Space Station, but sometimes it’s also important to talk about “where” NASA gets the ideas. Specifically, where do the concepts and research announcements come from? How does NASA know that the science being selected fits the needs of the country in its quest to get the most beneficial use of the space station’s national laboratory?

Today’s discussion is on the new space station Rodent Research Facility and the objectives that NASA is trying to meet by making this system available to both researchers seeking safe exploration of space and those seeking improvements in health here on Earth. Many of these investigations directed specifically at improving life on Earth come through the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) as the manager of the space station’s national laboratory resources.

Image of the Mouse Immunology (MI) Animal Enclosure Modules (AEM). (NASA)

Image of the Mouse Immunology (MI) Animal Enclosure Modules (AEM). (NASA)

NASA has been conducting rodent research in space for many years. The majority of those investigations focus on clinical questions about how we keep our astronauts healthy in space for longer periods. They also address very basic life science questions about how animal physiology changes in a weightless environment. Prior to and during the time of station assembly, the Space Shuttle Program hosted the Animal Enclosure Module (AEM) studies. The AEM flew 28 missions conducting research, such as the Commercial Biomedical Testing Module or CBTM investigations. The AEM system was well suited to the Space Transportation System (STS), allowing researchers important access to their rodent subjects both before flight and during post flight recovery.

With the end of the shuttle program, it was clear that the use of newly designed transportation vehicles would necessitate redesign efforts for AEM use aboard station. Conducting such investigations not on the vehicle, but aboard the station would enable longer-duration studies. The change from a few weeks to a few months in microgravity increases the potential research returns, but also requires some changes in the design of the hardware.

NASA’s Rodent Habitat module, seen here with both access doors open, is the next generation replacement to its predecessor, the Animal Enclosure Module (AEM). (NASA/Dominic Hart)

NASA’s Rodent Habitat module, seen here with both access doors open, is the next generation replacement to its predecessor, the Animal Enclosure Module (AEM). (NASA/Dominic Hart)

The importance of continuing rodent research aboard the space station is laid out by the National Research Council (NRC) in their 2010 Decadal Study Report, “Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration Life and Physical Sciences Research for a new Era.” In that study’s section on animal and human biology a third of the recommendations specifically called out the use of mouse or animal model organisms as the mechanism to proceed with research on the orbiting laboratory. These recommendations focus on muscle and bone loss, the testing of drugs for osteoporosis, changes to the animal immune system, the effects of aerosol exposures to the lungs and multi-generational and developmental studies.

To accomplish the wide array of research that the NRC proposed, some improvements were made to the AEM system to update the workhorse that had served well during the shuttle years. Improvements include features such as upgraded longer lasting filters, changeable food trays and support systems within the microgravity science glovebox (MSG) facility. These changes allow for studies to focus on the effects of microgravity exposure over much longer time frames. While the AEM of the shuttle era only housed rodents for up to 17 days, the new facility on space station can maintain an investigation for months.

NASA astronaut Nicole P. Stott, STS-133 mission specialist, is photographed using a camcorder to record Mouse Immunology-2 investigation in one of the orbiter Discovery’s middeck lockers. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Nicole P. Stott, STS-133 mission specialist, is photographed using a camcorder to record Mouse Immunology-2 investigation in one of the orbiter Discovery’s middeck lockers. (NASA)

Part of what makes rodents ideal test subjects is the fact that they reach maturity and age much quicker than humans. The typical rodent lifetime is about 2.5 years versus about 72 years for the comparable human. The capability to support rodents for up to 180 day stays is in development for the space station. During stays that long, researchers can begin to investigate questions that deal with developmental biology and extended exposure to microgravity. A half a year stay for a rodent might be the equivalent of a 14 year exposure to a human.

Updates to the old system also add both white light and infrared cameras for observing rodent conditions and behaviors. This capability allows researchers on the ground to closely monitor their studies. It also requires less crew time, as the observations can be done remotely, which in turn frees up that crew time to get more science done aboard the space station.

The first flight of the new Rodent Research Facility is on the upcoming SpaceX-4 mission to the space station. During this flight, designers will validate all of the initial performance goals for the rodent research hardware. The facility also will get a head start on some of the NRC decadal recommended goals with the CASIS sponsored portion of the Rodent Research-1 investigation. This study will include 10 of the 20 mice flying in the two habitats, and is in partnership with the commercial pharmaceutical company, Novartis.

A view of the SpaceX Dragon Commercial Resupply Services-3 (CRS-3) spacecraft grappled by the Canadarm2 Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS) during Expedition 39. (NASA)

A view of the SpaceX Dragon Commercial Resupply Services-3 (CRS-3) spacecraft grappled by the Canadarm2 Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS) during Expedition 39. (NASA)

The test subjects will live aboard the space station for about 21 days. The CASIS mice will include five wild type—or typical—and five transgenic MuRF-1 knockout mice. Researchers will compare results from these two groups and the ground control counterparts to determine whether this genetic knockout impacts muscle atrophy and muscle sparing—where tissue is conserved—in those mice.

While the inaugural flight of the new rodent habitat system is right around the bend, the rodent research project team at NASA’s Ames Research Center is already hard at work. They are planning more complex investigations and improving the system to accommodate longer durations and more experimental aims for researchers. Rodent research will become a routine part of space station for the decade to come.

For me, personally, it’s been a great experience working with these teams to get this facility ready for flight. I’m excited by all the possibilities for the new research avenues that this opens for NASA and CASIS researchers. I’m humbled by the effort that has gone into this capability, and I hope you all will tune in during the mission to follow along with the accomplishments of the team.

Kirt Costello completed a Ph.D. in Space Physics and Astronomy at Rice University in 1998. Kirt is the Assistant International Space Station Program Scientist for National Research. In this position he works with the International Space Station Chief Scientist, NASA research organizations and CASIS to advise on the objectives and priorities of science being prepared to fly to the space station.

AMS Amassing Answers to the Questions of the Universe

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In today’s A Lab Aloft our guest blogger is Trent Martin, the NASA project manager for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer instrument. Martin shares the challenges and excitement of seeking to unravel the mysteries of the universe.

Can a single data point make a difference? When speaking of the collected billions of data points since the inception of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-02 (AMS-02) to the International Space Station (ISS), the answer is yes. Every data point leads us closer to unveiling the answers to the questions of the universe.

A handful of those unique data points were the topic of the keynote speech delivered by AMS principal investigator Professor Samuel Ting at this year’s ISS Research and Development Conference in Chicago. Approximately 90 percent of the universe is not visible and is called dark matter. Collisions of “ordinary” cosmic rays produce positrons. Collisions of dark matter will produce additional positrons. This excess of positrons has been seen in the AMS data. While more data is needed, this specific handful of points tells us something we didn’t know before about our universe. It adds to our current knowledge and guides us on our path to answers in the areas of dark matter and more.

Professor Samuel Ting answers questions while attending the 2014 International Space station Research and Development Conference in Chicago, where he was a keynote speaker on the topic of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. (NASA/Bill Hubscher)

Professor Samuel Ting answers questions while attending the 2014 International Space station Research and Development Conference in Chicago, where he was a keynote speaker on the topic of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. (NASA/Bill Hubscher)

In May, 2011 as the space shuttle Endeavor sat on the pad ready to launch the AMS-02 to the space station, it carried the hopes and dreams of 600 physicists, engineers and technicians from 60 institutes in 16 countries who had worked for nearly 1.5 decades to build the most sophisticated magnetic spectrometer ever to be put into space. Led by Ting, a Nobel Laureate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the detector is designed to cull through galactic cosmic rays searching for the origins of the universe, evidence of dark matter, evidence of naturally occurring anti-matter and other cosmic phenomena.

In the words of Ting, “the most exciting objective of AMS is to probe the unknown; to search for phenomena which exist in nature that we have not yet imagined nor had the tools to discover.” AMS-02 provides that set of tools.

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-02 (AMS-02) operating aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-02 (AMS-02) operating aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

It is exciting to have the chance to continue to collect data to close the gap on these types of questions. The AMS-02 will run aboard station for the next decade—a timeline granted by the station extension to 2024, but also thanks to a design change just prior to the launch to the space station. This was at the time of an earlier station extension to 2020, at which point the original cryogenic magnet was swapped for a permanent magnet. Had we kept the original magnet, the AMS-02’s life expectancy for operations on orbit would already be at a close—and we’d be left with questions unanswered. Instead, the final selection of a permanent magnet enabled our continued quest towards discovery today.

Let’s take a closer look at how AMS-02 works to help us seek those answers. If you asked a high-energy experimental physicist to provide a wish list of every instrument they would like to see on some theoretical detector, they would likely provide a list that is identical to the six instruments that make up the AMS-02. Since the detectors are so complex and include over 300,000 data channels, providing for easily replaceable systems in space was nearly impossible. Instead, the systems were designed and built with a significant amount of redundancy. Multiple detectors measure charge, momentum, and energy of a passing particle. Although each detector measures in a different way, it provides us redundant and confirming measurements. The electronics for the detectors are also redundant. In most cases, the electronic systems have four-fold redundancy. This makes for a reasonably secure fail-safe, most would agree.

Operations on the station began within hours of the AMS-02 installation on the S3 truss. Since May 2011, there has been very little time when AMS-02 was not collecting data. The amount of information has been somewhat unexpected. AMS-02 has measured more than 52,000,000,000 particles. In fact, we measure at a rate of 16,000,000,000 particles per year. We were expecting more like 11 billion particles per year. This improved rate of return means more data points in each communication for ground teams to analyze.

In addition to the external instrument, which is the largest payload aboard station, the AMS-02 employs a laptop that is dedicated to the instrument’s operations from the interior of the orbiting laboratory. This internal system acts as a crew interface to AMS-02 and provides a backup system in the event of a long-term loss of data from the space station to the ground. This is an important capability for our search for antimatter because it only takes one of the billions of events to see an antimatter particle.

View of Don Pettit, Expedition 30 Flight Engineer, holding the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) laptop in the U.S. Laboratory of the International Space Station. (NASA)

View of Don Pettit, Expedition 30 Flight Engineer, holding the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02) laptop in the U.S. Laboratory of the International Space Station. (NASA)

The search for anti-matter is actually quite challenging. I think of it like this, during the spring in Houston, there are many rain showers. If we assume it is a very rainy day in the large city of Houston, it would be like someone asking you to look at all of those clear rain drops and find one drop that is colored red! As we look at the billions of data points, we are seeking a drop in a rainstorm of information.

A view of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-02 (AMS-02)  as mounted aboard the exterior of the International Space Station. (NASA)

A view of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-02 (AMS-02) as mounted aboard the exterior of the International Space Station. (NASA)

The AMS-02 science data points are stored on NASA computers as soon as the information reaches the ground at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. It is stored again as soon as it reaches Geneva. Teams of scientists work daily to analyze the data coming from the AMS-02. Typically these teams are broken into two groups to ensure that the analysis is independently analyzed. The teams meet about once per month to go through their results, work on papers, and identify new areas of interest. AMS-02 publications can be found here.

Thanks to the extremely high data rate and the precision of the AMS-02 detectors, the data is providing significantly improved tolerance bands on the measured data when compared to other detectors. In the past hundred years, measurements of charged cosmic rays by balloons and satellites have typically contained approximately 30 percent uncertainty. AMS-02 will provide cosmic ray information with closer to one percent uncertainty.

Nobel Laureate Samuel Ting, principal investigator for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, speaks about the first published results of AMS-02 during a 2013 press conference at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. (NASA/James Blair)

Nobel Laureate Samuel Ting, principal investigator for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, speaks about the first published results of AMS-02 during a 2013 press conference at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. (NASA/James Blair)

There is a lot of excitement that surrounds the findings from this instrument. The first paper published by AMS-02 was published in Physical Review Letters. The paper was highlighted in a Viewpoint appearing in the April 2013 issue of Physics. Being chosen for Viewpoint is a very selective process. According to the editor in chief of American Physical Society, “The APS published a total of about 18,000 articles last year, but only around 100 Viewpoints will appear each year. This places your paper in an elite subset of our very best papers.”

Based on the data coming from AMS-02, the space station has become a unique platform for precision physics research. During this orbiting laboratory’s lifetime, we expect to obtain 300 billion events. It is my hope and belief that somewhere buried in those 300 billion events we will find a better understanding of the origins of the universe.

Trent Martin, NASA project manager for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer at Johnson Space Center in Houston. (NASA/Robert Markowitz)

Trent Martin, NASA project manager for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer at Johnson Space Center in Houston. (NASA/Robert Markowitz)

Trent Martin is currently the associate director of engineering for advanced development at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, in addition to serving as the AMS NASA project manager. Martin has a bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas and an MBA from the University of Houston at Clear Lake. He has worked at Johnson since 1995.

Orchestrating Space Station Science – A Day in the Life of a POD

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, International Space Station Payload Operations Director Stephanie Buskirk Dudley shares a behind-the-scenes look at work on the ground leading up to and supporting research in orbit.

Right now, at this very minute, there are hundreds of investigations going on above your head. This research ranges from growing plants to burning different kinds of materials. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, astronauts aboard the International Space Station are living and working in the most sophisticated laboratory ever built. And it’s my job to keep track of all that research and ensure that the orbital lab runs like a well-tuned orchestra.

I am one of 23 payload operations directors (PODs) in the Payloads Operations Integration Center (POIC) at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Together, we are responsible for planning the crew’s work schedules down to 5-minute increments, ensuring research stays on track and liaising between the astronauts performing experiments and the investigators conducting the research. It is a lot like conducting a symphony. At any given time we could have 10, 20 or 50 different things happening in orbit, in the POIC and in the five similar control rooms around the world. It’s a thrilling, high-intensity job that leaves me exhausted at the end of the day. There are times I don’t get a chance to eat or even run to the bathroom; but I love it. I really do have the coolest job, and when my shift is over, I look back and say, “Wow. Look what we accomplished!”

The Payload Operations Integration Center at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. (NASA/Emmett Given)

The Payload Operations Integration Center at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. (NASA/Emmett Given)

We have three shifts working around the clock every day of year—including holidays and weekends—supporting space station research. We have research that requires astronauts’ participation, but we also have studies that we control from the ground. This ground-controlled research frees up the astronauts’ time to do other research or maintenance on the station. It also allows us to do research while the crew is asleep. Since we have research going on all day and night, our schedules vary between the day, afternoon and midnight shifts.

Our work begins long before we show up for our shift. In fact, we start planning any given day on the space station about 12 months in advance. We need to consider a number of logistics when planning for the crew to run an experiment. For example, we need to factor the amount of power needed, the thermal output and gaseous exhaust produced, limitations of specific systems, spatial conflicts and bandwidth for video and data, as well as the set number of video channels needed to observe and record the experiment. And that’s just naming a few things we worry about. Sometimes, a year just doesn’t seem enough.

Expedition 38 Flight Engineer Mike Hopkins of NASA sets up the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) for the Burning and Suppression of Solids (BASS-II) investigation in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. BASS-II explores how different substances burn in microgravity with benefits for combustion on Earth and fire safety in space. (NASA)

Expedition 38 Flight Engineer Mike Hopkins of NASA sets up the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) for the Burning and Suppression of Solids (BASS-II) investigation in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. BASS-II explores how different substances burn in microgravity with benefits for combustion on Earth and fire safety in space. (NASA)

Even with all that planning, we still have to deal with the unforeseen and be prepared to adapt. Just like in our homes on Earth, things need to be repaired aboard the station. If the toilet breaks, for instance, that becomes the highest priority for the crew, and research gets pushed to the backburner until the facilities are fixed. My fellow PODs and I understand. The exercise equipment also is a high priority in orbit since the crew members must work out for two hours a day to keep their bones and muscles healthy.

Expedition 36 Flight Engineer Karen Nyberg of NASA gets a workout on the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) in the Tranquility node of the International Space Station. (NASA)

Expedition 36 Flight Engineer Karen Nyberg of NASA gets a workout on the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) in the Tranquility node of the International Space Station. (NASA)

So, how do we balance all these constraints, logistics and demands? With lots of preparation and a well-trained team. I actually begin reviewing plans about a week prior. I will check to see if the investigations have been conducted in the past and ask myself how did we do them before and what’s different this time. I will refresh my training on the old and new studies, payload regulations, flight rules and any planning constraints that may impact the day’s activities for both the crew and the ground teams.

This research helps me be prepared for anything. Let’s say I’m working the day shift–my favorite shift because the crew is still awake. They have been working all morning, and I need to be up-to-speed on what they’re doing even before I get to work. If I get to the POIC and find the crew is ahead of schedule, I can adjust the timeline accordingly. Likewise, if they are behind schedule or an investigation hasn’t gone according to plan that morning, I need to be prepared for that as well. The research I’ve done the previous week helps greatly.

I am also briefed when I arrive at work. The day shift begins at 7 a.m., but I’m usually there about a half hour before to review the stack of papers the midnight shift has left me. After reading the daily logs and familiarizing myself with what went on overnight, I scan the handover sheet. This document details what’s going on with the crew, provides information related to specific payloads and lists items the previous shift was unable to complete. The outgoing PODs work hard to ensure that incoming PODs have everything they need, and the previous POD will always include notes that will help the incoming POD.

International Space Station commentator Lori Meggs interviews Katie Presson, a payload operations director in the Payload Operations Integration Center, or POIC, at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. (NASA/Emmett Given)

International Space Station commentator Lori Meggs interviews Katie Presson, a payload operations director in the Payload Operations Integration Center, or POIC, at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. (NASA/Emmett Given)

Armed with the latest information, I have a conference call with the morning flight director in Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston as well as my counterparts from NASA’s International Space Station partners. In that call, I get more information about what happened before I arrived and how the day is scheduled to go. I also provide a report to the morning flight director on what our shift will look like. This includes issues my team and I are tracking, crew and research statuses and anything else that might be out of the ordinary. Once everyone has spoken and the flight director is confident we’re all on the same page, we officially transfer from the midnight shift to the day shift.

Once the shift transfers, I literally take the outgoing POD’s seat and lead my team for the day. From this point until the day shift hands over the reins to the afternoon shift, I am responsible for all the research on the space station NASA is conducting. When you think about it, that’s a pretty incredible thing! If things go well, I have an awesome sense of accomplishment. If, on the other hand, things don’t go so well, I am the person the flight director calls for answers.

Stephanie Buskirk Dudley working during a shift as an International Space Station payload operations director at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. (NASA/Fred Deaton)

Stephanie Buskirk Dudley working during a shift as an International Space Station payload operations director at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. (NASA/Fred Deaton)

Fortunately, I have a solid team working with me in the POIC, and we’re all focused on making sure the space station is producing the best research possible. Depending on the shift, the team ranges from five to 10 people, as well as two to four addition folks who are responsible for managing the POIC facility. They ensure we have power to run the computers that crunch the data coming down from the station day and night.

Image from the Payload Operations Integration Center's 12th anniversary, from left, Kevin Barnes, payload rack officer; Rick Rodriguez, Stephanie Buskirk Dudley and Katie Presson, all payload operations directors; Penny Pettigrew, payload communications manager; Carol Jacobs, payload operations director; and Ola Myszka, operations controller. (NASA/Emmett Given)

Image from the Payload Operations Integration Center’s 12th anniversary, from left, Kevin Barnes, payload rack officer; Rick Rodriguez, Stephanie Buskirk Dudley and Katie Presson, all payload operations directors; Penny Pettigrew, payload communications manager; Carol Jacobs, payload operations director; and Ola Myszka, operations controller. (NASA/Emmett Given)

Like a band where each member has a specific instrument, everyone on the team has a specific responsibility. The PAYCOMs, what we call the payload communications managers, are vital to ensuring the research gets done properly. If the crew has a question about the study they are working on, the PAYCOMs have the answers. They are the voice of the POIC. It’s not an easy job either; the PAYCOM must be able to understand the research well enough to explain the investigator’s hypothesis to the crew and describe the actions the astronaut is to perform. Although it’s a demanding job, it also has its perks. The PAYCOMs get to speak regularly with the crew. Some might find this intimidating, but our PAYCOMs really enjoy it.

The operations controllers (OC) are responsible for helping all of us stay on track. Without the OCs, the timelines could fall apart, and the past 12 plus months of planning would have been in vain. The OCs try to stay ahead of the astronauts and anticipate what tools or resources might be needed. This way, everything will be on hand when it’s needed, and we won’t have to slow down to find the right information. The operations controllers are also responsible for any safety issues that might arise. Safety is our number one priority, and the PODs rely heavily on the OCs to make sure we stay safe.

NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins works with the Department of Defense Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites-Resonant Inductive Near-field Generation System (DOD SPHERES-RINGS). (NASA)

NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins works with the Department of Defense Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites-Resonant Inductive Near-field Generation System (DOD SPHERES-RINGS). (NASA)

Another member of the team is the payload rack officer (PRO). This position definitely has the best acronym, and it’s apropos because the men and women who are PROs really are pros! The PROs are responsible for sending the commands to the space station that enable the research. They ensure there is enough power to run the experiment, thermal controls are set properly, adequate venting is provided, communications links are established and other logistics needed to allow the research to be conducted. They also manage the command link, which allows investigators all over the world to operate their studies on the station. Thanks to computers and the Internet, it probably surprises no one that these days scientists conducting investigations aboard the space station could be located anywhere in the world. Researchers from countries such as Belgium, Canada, France, Italy, Norway, Spain and Switzerland operate and command research everyday with the help of our PROs.

It’s no small task to get the scientific data to these researchers in far off countries. The data management coordinators (DMC) are responsible for providing the data, including video when available, to the scientists on the ground. They route the information from the various science facilities on the station to the POIC, and our ground systems teams get the data to the researchers. The DMCs must negotiate limited bandwidth and manage our up- and downlink capabilities. For instance, if the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS)—an investigation looking into dark matter and one of our biggest data users—started to get behind on downlinking data, a DMC would adjust demands to free up bandwidth for AMS from other studies that are perhaps ahead of schedule or of a lower priority.

Inside the Payload Operations Integration Center (POIC), Data Management Coordinator (DMC) Candace Jones manages the onboard data and video systems to ensure scientists around the world receive their experimental results. (NASA/Emmett Given)

Inside the Payload Operations Integration Center (POIC), Data Management Coordinator (DMC) Candace Jones manages the onboard data and video systems to ensure scientists around the world receive their experimental results. (NASA/Emmett Given)

One of the greatest challenges for most of us is remembering where we left things. Imagine how much harder it is to keep track of objects when they can float away instead of just dropping to the floor if you let go. The responsibility of remembering where everything is falls to the stowage engineer. Personally, I think they have the greatest challenges of everyone on the team, especially when new hardware arrives at the station. Stowage information is only as good as the information the crew gives us. We tell the crew where to find tools and materials and where to return them; however, if the crew doesn’t secure the objects properly, they could float away. It’s the stowage engineers who are tasked with finding the missing objects. This is a pretty stressful task from 250 miles away, but our stowage engineers are experts at finding missing objects and knowing where to store things. They keep the station a tight ship.

Expedition 30 Commander Dan Burbank (left) and Flight Engineer Don Pettit of NASA stow camera equipment in a container in the Harmony node of the International Space Station. (NASA)

Expedition 30 Commander Dan Burbank (left) and Flight Engineer Don Pettit of NASA stow camera equipment in a container in the Harmony node of the International Space Station. (NASA)

Each shift has an increment scientist representative (LIS rep) who helps us make priority calls on operations. They are the science experts in attendance and can make a call on how to adjust an investigation if things aren’t running as smoothly as planned. If the LIS reps don’t know the answers, they get in touch with the principal investigators or payload developers immediately. If things are not going right or running longer than the schedule allows, the LIS reps help determine the best course of action.

If it becomes necessary to adjust the schedule, the timeline change officer (TCO) helps make those changes. We don’t always change the timeline because of problems. Sometimes unexpected results occur, and the investigator wants to spend a little more time to understand what’s happening. When it becomes necessary to extend or shorten the schedule for one reason or another, it is the TCOs who process the paperwork to get the timeline changed and manage all the residual effects of the change.

NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio works on the Antibiotic Effectiveness in Space-1 (AES-1) investigation during Expedition 38 aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio works on the Antibiotic Effectiveness in Space-1 (AES-1) investigation during Expedition 38 aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

So much is going on all day, every day that it can seem like a cacophony of investigations, data transmissions and research questions. It is my job as a POD to manage the various aspects of the day and bring harmony to the clamor of science in the POIC. I love what I do. I love being the conductor of this amazing orchestra of research.

Stephanie Buskirk Dudley (NASA/Emmett Given)

Stephanie Buskirk Dudley (NASA/Emmett Given)

Stephanie Buskirk Dudley is an International Space Station payload operations director at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. She has a Bachelor of Science in engineering science, a Master of Science in biomedical engineering and a Master of Engineering in industrial and systems engineering from the University of Florida. She previously worked at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida as an analytical engineer on the space shuttle solid rocket boosters.

International Space Station’s Place in the Global POV of the World Science Festival

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger Tara Ruttley, Ph.D., NASA International Space Station associate program scientist, shares her experience from the 2014 World Science Festival.

I think I’m finally recovering from the amazing whirlwind that was the World Science Festival. From May 28 to 31, NASA had the exciting opportunity to participate in the event held in New York City. The festival, created by physicist Brian Greene, is an annual city-wide series of events that include smaller panels, interactives, demonstrations and presentations, all with the goal of sharing fascinating and cutting-edge science with the public.

Kids and adults alike got a kick out of the NASA mobile exhibit during the World Science Festival. (Tara Ruttley)

Kids and adults alike got a kick out of the NASA mobile exhibit during the World Science Festival. (Tara Ruttley)

My role was to coordinate and present the science happening on the International Space Station (ISS) with attendees in a World Science Festival style. This means “Go Big!” The kinds of exchanges that happen in environments like this have dual benefits for the agency. The public gets informed about the work that NASA does—and we really hope they get inspired and motivated—and NASA gets to learn just what the public thinks about us, for better or worse.

When given the challenge last fall to prepare for NASA’s participation in the festival, the first thing I did was identify some of the most passionate, excited space station scientists. I then invited them to showcase their work among the many World Science Festival activities sprinkled throughout the week in June. Of course our very own International Space Station Program Science Office was ready to share our investigations with the masses. There were so many great researchers and experiments that came to mind that I wanted to share with the visitors to the event.

Considering the array of schedule constraints and correct alignment of the cosmos, I was finally able to put a team together to represent space station research at the event. I recruited space station fluid physicist Mark Weislogel from Portland State University, who talked with audiences about his wild findings on fluid behavior in microgravity. I also asked aerospace engineer Nancy Hall, who brought her drop tower out for public interaction from NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio. Then I also recruited Alvar Saenz-Otero and his award-winning MIT SPHERES team, who had demonstration units used for the Zero Robotics: ISS Programing Challenge for the public to try out.

At left, Alvar Saenz-Otero, Ph.D., and his team present the Zero Robotics: International Space Station Programing Challenge to the public at the World Science Festival in New York. (Tara Ruttley)

At left, Alvar Saenz-Otero, Ph.D., and his team present the Zero Robotics: International Space Station Programing Challenge to the public at the World Science Festival in New York. (Tara Ruttley)

From NASA’s Human Research Program, Andrea Dunn attended and demonstrated the space station’s new Force Shoes investigation. Team members from NASA’s Human Research Program based at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston showed visitors how liquid recycling happens in space. They explained the importance of hydration for astronauts and those of us here on Earth.

Speaking of NASA astronauts, Sandy Magnus, Mike Massimino, and Mike Hopkins made appearances to talk about their space science experience with eager listeners. The Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, John Grunsfeld, also joined in to discuss the actual science behind the movie “Gravity.”

NASA astronaut Mike Massimino meets a young fan at the 2014 World Science Festival. (World Science Festival)

NASA astronaut Mike Massimino meets a young fan at the 2014 World Science Festival. (World Science Festival)

This was quite a unique series of events with an assortment of participants representing the research we have done, continue to do and plan to do for the next decade aboard the space station. As we scientists were celebrated for our love of discovery—BONUS!—we got to share that enthusiasm with a massive crowd. For self-proclaimed science geeks like me, it was utopia!

For months leading up to the big week, our space station teams were hard at work to deck out the NASA mobile exhibit to look like the inside of the space station. We also included displays of some of the most stunning science footage ever taken aboard the station. We really wanted the public to experience what the astronauts feel in orbit—Ok, I admit the addition of a microgravity component itself would have been really cool, if we could create such a thing. I believe we achieved our goal of conveying the importance of the types of science we do on station to advance both human exploration of space and to improve our lives on Earth.

A young visitor to the NASA mobile exhibit interacts with a display of a research rack as it would appear aboard the International Space Station. (Tara Ruttley)

A young visitor to the NASA mobile exhibit interacts with a display of a research rack as it would appear aboard the International Space Station. (Tara Ruttley)

Once inside the exhibit, NASA scientists were on hand to answer questions from visitors like: What happens when we light fires in space? Why do astronauts lose bone mass at a rate equivalent to Earth-based osteoporosis? Why do we study fluid behaviors in space? Do fish get confused when swimming in space?

All of these questions can be answered along the same theme: we’re learning about new behaviors, relationships and processes we’ve never even discovered before on Earth. In so doing, we apply that knowledge to existing systems on Earth and in space to constantly improve our very existence. During the week of the World Science Festival, we must have answered hundreds of questions as we interacted with upwards of 150,000 people interested in space station science!

And, inevitably, yes, we did get the common question we’ve come to expect: how do you go to the bathroom in space? The NASA exhibit even came prepared with a demonstration unit of the Waste Management Center (WMC)—that is, a space potty! For display purposes only, of course.

A visitor to the NASA exhibit at the World Science Festival experiences the Waste Management Center (WCS) “potty” on display during the event. (Tara Ruttley)

A visitor to the NASA exhibit at the World Science Festival experiences the Waste Management Center (WCS) “potty” on display during the event. (Tara Ruttley)

Potty talk aside, the public cares about the science we conduct on the space station. They ask many of the common questions surrounding science in space, and they also ask new questions, which leads us all to think about “what if…” ideas that we may just try out in space one day. One thing’s for certain, when we support science outreach events like these, the people we meet usually have as big an impact on us as we do on them. And for that, many thanks for your inspiration!

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Tara Ruttley, Ph.D. (NASA)

Tara Ruttley, Ph.D., is associate program scientist for the International Space Station at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Ruttley previously served as the lead flight hardware engineer for the ISS Health Maintenance System and later for the ISS Human Research Facility. She has a Bachelor of Science in biology and a Master of Science in mechanical engineering from Colorado State University and a doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Texas Medical Branch. Ruttley has authored publications ranging from hardware design to neurological science and holds a U.S. utility patent.

A PECASE for Space and Skeletal Biology Research

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, Joshua S. Alwood, Ph.D., shares his postdoctoral research into the impact of microgravity and ionizing radiation exposure on bone health – work that led to his receiving the 2012 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

I am honored to be a recipient of a 2012 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). This award is based on the cumulative body of work achieved during my postdoctoral fellowship at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., while working with my advisor Ruth Globus, Ph.D. and on my contribution to experiments that flew on International Space Station assembly flights STS-131 and STS-135 with collaborator Eduardo Almeida, Ph.D.

Ellen Stofan, Ph.D., NASA's Chief Scientist presents Josh Alwood, Ph.D., the 2012 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) award. (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Ellen Stofan, Ph.D., NASA’s chief scientist presents Josh Alwood, Ph.D., the 2012 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) award. (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

The big question motivating our studies is, how does spaceflight cause bone loss in astronauts? While weightless, astronauts lose about one percent bone mineral density per month. To put this into context, this is about 10 times faster than osteoporosis typically progresses on Earth. The longer the mission, particularly outside Earth’s protective magnetic fields, the greater the doses of ionizing radiation astronauts will accumulate, which may also negatively impact the skeleton.

NASA astronauts Tracy Caldwell, STS-118 mission specialist, and Charles Hobaugh, pilot, working with the Commercial Biomedical Testing Module 2 investigation aboard space shuttle Endeavour. (NASA)

NASA astronauts Tracy Caldwell, STS-118 mission specialist, and Charles Hobaugh, pilot, working with the Commercial Biomedical Testing Module 2 investigation aboard space shuttle Endeavour. (NASA)

In our ground-based research, we asked the following questions: how do the conditions of simulated weightlessness and ionizing radiation exposure affect the skeleton, and are the results any different when these conditions are combined? Our results suggest that each condition causes bone loss on its own, though at differing rates and severity. Together, weightlessness and radiation exposure cause bone loss to worsen beyond either treatment alone. These results have to do with the behavior of different types of bone cells. Combined, the balance of bone formation and bone resorption—breaking down—define a normal process called bone remodeling, which the body uses to maintain a healthy skeletal structure throughout life.

Following radiation exposure, there is a rapid stimulation of bone resorption—this can lead to a net loss of skeletal tissue caused by a specific cell called an osteoclast. We quantify this by measuring the number of osteoclast cells on the surface on the bone and their level of activity through specific proteins secreted into circulation. At the tissue level, we use X-ray imaging and computed tomography to build and quantify three-dimensional models of the skeleton. This rapid resorption is concentrated, yet it appears to be short-lived. At the doses we’ve investigated, it doesn’t get worse after the initial burst.

X-rays of mouse bones from the CBTM study showing a ground control (left), as treated with Osteoprotegerin in microgravity (middle), and with no drug treatment during spaceflight (right). (L. Stodieck, Bioserve and T. Bateman, University of North Carolina)

X-rays of mouse bones from the Commercial Biomedical Testing Module (CBTM) study showing a ground control (left), as treated with Osteoprotegerin in microgravity (middle), and with no drug treatment during spaceflight (right). (L. Stodieck, Bioserve and T. Bateman, University of North Carolina)

In contrast, structural changes caused by simulated weightlessness gradually appear. Simulated weightlessness activates bone resorption by the osteoclasts and additionally reduces bone formation by inhibiting a second cell type called an osteoblast.

Exposure to space radiation affects osteoblasts as well. Our research shows that at the estimated doses potentially accumulated over a three-year Mars mission, long-lasting effects to the osteoblast-lineage cells occur. This may result in abnormal bone remodeling in the long-term. To this end, we determined that spongy bone—found on the inside of some bones—recovered less efficiently following radiation exposure vs. recovery from simulated microgravity.

Osteocyte lacunae from the ground-based control (left) and after 15 days of spaceflight (right). Space-flown lacunae appear larger, indicative of osteocytic remodeling. (Blaber, et al, PLoS One, 2013)

Osteocyte lacunae from the ground-based control (left) and after 15 days of spaceflight (right). Space-flown lacunae appear larger, indicative of osteocytic remodeling. (Blaber, et al, PLoS One, 2013)

The second component of the PECASE acknowledges my work with the Biospecimen Sharing Program for shuttle flight STS-131. Along with Almeida, the project investigator, I used a new application of a high-resolution (30 nanometer) X-ray transmission microscope at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory to analyze bone health following 15 days of spaceflight.

We scanned the bones and processed the images for three-dimensional tomographic analyses. As a result, we were able to quantify changes in the bone’s osteocyte cells. In a unique mechanism of bone loss, osteocytes actively remodel and enlarge their living spaces, known as lacunae, in response to spaceflight. This is an additional mode of bone resorption that occurs during spaceflight at the bone’s surface.

My research employs a basic biology approach with the overriding motivation to enable human exploration of space. In other words, the goal is to expand the envelope of mission durations, the distance from Earth that missions can access, and to mitigate the skeletal consequences following radiation exposure for astronauts. My colleagues and I use a basic approach to uncover the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie skeletal changes in the space environment. Eventually we can use this knowledge to develop countermeasures to better manage astronaut skeletal health.

On Earth, this research has applications towards improving our knowledge of bone diseases such as osteoporosis. It may also help people living sedentary lifestyles, providing positive impacts to their health. The sedentary environment is somewhat similar to weightlessness. The take-home message: use your skeleton or lose it. The ability to work on advancing an area of biology that may help humans both in space and on the ground is truly its own reward.

Fluorescent image of femur diaphysis from ground control placebo treated mouse, indicating greatly decreased bone formation. (NASA)

Fluorescent image of femur diaphysis from ground control placebo treated mouse, indicating greatly decreased bone formation. (NASA)

I was inspired to enter this area of research from childhood experiences. I grew up in Florida and witnessed space shuttle launches in my front yard. This really captivated my attention towards space. As I got older, I learned about the skeleton and how it is a living structure that adapts to its mechanical environment. For example, joggers experience forces equivalent to about three times their body weight. Those two factors overlapped in my extracurricular readings on astronauts and the changes in their bodies during weightlessness. That connection propelled me to focus on science and engineering in my education, and further to study the skeleton. I am driven to continually learn new things, which prompted me to enter graduate school and become an independent researcher.

NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, STS-133 mission specialist, using a camcorder to record Mouse Immunology-2 investigation in one of the space shuttle Discovery’s middeck lockers. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, STS-133 mission specialist, using a camcorder to record Mouse Immunology-2 investigation in one of the space shuttle Discovery’s middeck lockers. (NASA)

Although I do not have an immediate investigation going to the space station, I am applying for opportunities through NASA’s Space Biology Project. It’s an exciting time to be part of NASA’s research program. In the meantime, I continue to develop hypotheses worth studying aboard the space station and generating preliminary evidence while working in my lab on the ground. My goal is to eventually take my science into orbit or beyond.

The work cited in this PECASE Award was made possible by key funding organizations, including NASA Space Biology; grants to Globus from the National Space Biomedicine Research Institute; the U.S. Department of Energy and the NASA Space Radiation Project Element; and grants to Almeida from the NASA Bion-M1 Biospecimen Sharing Program and the National Institutes of Health / National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.

Josh Alwood in the Bone and Signaling Lab at NASA's Ames Research Center. (NASA /Dominic Hart)

Josh Alwood in the Bone and Signaling Laboratory at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. (NASA /Dominic Hart)

Joshua S. Alwood, Ph.D., is a senior scientist with CSS-Dynamac working at the Bone and Signaling Lab at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. Alwood earned his Ph.D. in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Stanford University, as well B.S. degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Florida.

Crystallizing Opportunities With Space Station Research

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, Dr. Larry DeLucas, a primary investigator for International Space Station studies on protein crystal growth in microgravity, explains the importance of such investigations and how they can lead to human health benefits.

We have many proteins in our body, but nobody knows just how many. Consider that the human genome project is more than 20,000 protein-coding genes, and many of these genes or portions of those genes combine with others to create new proteins. The human body could have anywhere from a half million to as many as two million proteins—we’re not sure. What we do know, is that these proteins control aspects of human health and understanding them is an important beginning step in developing and improving treatments for diseases and much more.

A protein crystal is a specific protein repeated over and over a hundred thousand times or more in a perfect lattice. Like a row of bricks on a wall, but in three dimensions. The more perfectly aligned that row of bricks or the protein in the crystal, the more we can learn of its nature. Today there are more than 50,000 proteins that have been crystallized and the structures of the three-dimensional proteins comprising these crystals have been determined. Unfortunately many important proteins that we would like to know the three-dimensional structures for have either resisted crystallization or have yielded crystals of such inferior quality that their structures cannot be determined.

Crystals of insulin grown in space (left) helped scientists determine the vital enzyme's structure with much higher resolution than possible with Earth-grown crystals (right). (NASA)

Crystals of insulin grown in space (left) helped scientists determine the vital enzyme’s structure with much higher resolution than possible with Earth-grown crystals (right). (NASA)

Once we have a usable protein crystal—one that is large and perfect enough to examine—the primary technique we use to determine the protein molecular structures is x-ray crystallography. When we expose protein crystals to an x-ray beam, we get what’s called constructive interference. This is where the diffracted x-rays coming from the electrons around each atom and each protein come together, providing a more intense diffraction spot. We collect hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of diffraction spots for a protein. The more perfectly ordered the individual protein molecules are within the crystals, the more intense these spots. The higher signal to noise ratio in these strong spots creates an improved resolution of the structure, allowing us to map the crystal in detail.

Well-ordered protein crystal x-ray diffractions create sharp patterns of scattered light on film. Researchers can use a computer to generate a model of a protein molecule using patterns like this. (NASA)

Well-ordered protein crystal x-ray diffractions create sharp patterns of scattered light on film. Researchers can use a computer to generate a model of a protein molecule using patterns like this. (NASA)

Using computers, we take those diffraction spots and mathematically determine the structure of where every atom is in the protein. For example, in most protein structures we can’t even see the hydrogen atoms. We guess where they are because we know the length of a hydrogen bond. So if we see a nitrogen atom from an amino acid that we know has a hydrogen linked to it, and then at a hydrogen-bonding distance away we see an oxygen atom, then we can make an educated guess that the hydrogen is pointed towards that oxygen atom, so we position it there.

While we can grow high-resolution crystals both in space and on the ground, those grown in space are often more perfectly formed. That’s the main advantage and reason we’ve gone to space for these studies. In many cases where we could not see hydrogen crystals on the ground, we then flew that protein crystal in space and let them grow in microgravity. Because of the resulting improved order of the molecules laying down in the crystal lattice, we were able to actually see the hydrogen atoms. Usually to see the hydrogen atoms, you are talking about getting down to a resolution of one angstrom, which is not easy to do—it would take 10 million angstroms to equal one millimeter!

Another example of protein crystals grown in space (right), which are larger and more perfect than those grown on the ground (left). (JAXA)

Another example of protein crystals grown in space (right), which are larger and more perfect than those grown on the ground (left). (JAXA)

We also can look at bacteria and virus protein structures to identify how to target those proteins with drugs. Having this information is very important to pharmaceutical companies and universities. That structure provides a road map that is critical for the understanding of the life cycle of the bacteria or virus.

We’ve only done a fraction of the more important complex protein structures–I’m referring to membrane proteins and protein-protein complexes. Protein complexes are often composed of two, three or more proteins that interact together to form new macromolecular complexes that are often important in terms of disease and drug development. Membrane proteins are the targets for about 55 percent of the drugs on the market today. Scientists have determined the three-dimensional structures for less than 300 membrane protein structures thus far. However, there remain thousands more for which the structures would help scientists understand their important roles in chronic and infectious diseases.

When we see a specific region in a protein and we know exactly where every atom is, chemists can design drugs that will interact in those regions. We can take some of the drugs they design that work, but maybe not as well as we would like. We then grow new crystals of the protein with the drug attached to the protein to see exactly how it’s bound to the protein. That lets other scientists—modelers—determine very clearly how the drug interacts with the protein, information that enables them to design new, more effective compounds. This whole process is called structure-based drug design.

The International Space Station provides a unique environment where we can improve the quality of protein crystals. During the days of protein crystallization studies on the space shuttle, one of the most frustrating aspects of the microgravity experiments was the length of time it took to produce a usable crystal. This is actually part of why space-developed crystals are better—they grow much more slowly. On the shuttle you only had 10-12 days for a study, but aboard the space station you have as long as you need.

As an astronaut and scientist, I personally flew a record 14-day flight in 1992 where we studied 31 proteins. I was looking at results and planning to set up new experiments, changing the chemical conditions to optimize the crystallization. The rule for my sample selection was that the proteins had to nucleate—that means to begin to grow a crystal—and grow to full size in three days. Once I got up there, however, by the third day nothing had nucleated. I was worried, but then on the fourth day I could see little sparkles where crystals had started to grow in about half of the proteins. By mission end I was really only able to optimize the crystal growth for six of the proteins. How much longer it takes a crystal to nucleate and grow to full size was a dramatic discovery.

Astronaut Larry DeLucas, payload specialist, handles a Protein Crystal Growth (PCG) sample at the multipurpose glovebox aboard the Earth-orbiting space shuttle Columbia. (NASA)

Astronaut Larry DeLucas, payload specialist, handles a Protein Crystal Growth (PCG) sample at the multipurpose glovebox aboard the Earth-orbiting space shuttle Columbia. (NASA)

With constant access to a microgravity lab, such as the space station, I am confident that we can improve the quality of any crystal. With protein crystals it is important to note that just because we get a better structure with higher resolution, it doesn’t at all mean it’s going to lead to a drug.

The ability to grow good crystals typically involves a great deal of preparation on the ground where we first express and purify and grow the initial crystals. But if space can give you higher resolution, there’s no drug discovery program that’s going to take a lower resolution option. From the time you determine that structure and chemists work with it, the typical time frame to develop a drug is 15 to 20 years and the cost is around a billion dollars. Identifying the structure of the protein crystal is only the first step. Many times even with the structure a project goes nowhere because the drugs they develop end up being unusable. There are so many aspects to drug discovery beyond the opening act of structure mapping.

If crystals and the structure of a target protein are available, pharmaceutical and biotech companies certainly prefer to use that structure to help guide the drug discovery. After the first 18 months they’ve developed the drug candidates, they may not need to use the crystal structure again for say 10 years. During that time they are doing clinical trials and pharmacology. The majority of the money it takes to get a drug approved by the FDA is after the initial phase. If you break down what they say is about a billion dollars to develop a drug, the portion needed to get the structure up front will range from half to two million dollars—a small fraction of the whole process.

View of Expedition 28 Flight Engineer Satoshi Furukawa with the JAXA Protein Crystal Growth (PCG) investigation aboard the International Space Station Japanese Experiment Module (JEM). (NASA)

View of Expedition 28 Flight Engineer Satoshi Furukawa with the JAXA Protein Crystal Growth (PCG) investigation aboard the International Space Station Japanese Experiment Module (JEM). (NASA)

For the upcoming Comprehensive Evaluation of Microgravity Protein Crystallization investigation we focused on two things. First, we selected proteins that are of high value based on their biology. Having this information of their structure can lead to new information about structural biology—how proteins work in our body. The other major requirement for the candidates for selection was that the proteins had to have already been crystallized on Earth, but the Earth-grown crystals were not of good quality.

We are flying 100 proteins to the space station on SpaceX-3, currently scheduled for March 2014. Twenty-two of these are membrane proteins, 12 are protein complexes, and the rest are aqueous proteins important for the biology we will learn from their structures. The associated disease was the last thing we considered, as we were looking at the bigger picture of the biology. That being said, for the upcoming proteins flying you can almost name a disease: cystic fibrosis, diabetes; several types of cancer, including colon and prostate; many antibacterial proteins; antifungals; etc. There are even some involved with understanding how cells produce energy, which I suspect could lead to a better understanding of molecular energy.

Not long ago a Nobel Prize was awarded for the mapping of the ribosomes complex protein structure. This key cellular structure will also fly for study aboard the space station, because the resolution was not all that great using the ground-grown crystals. We now have the chance to learn more about how the ribosomes actually makes proteins and clarify the whole process. This is just one of the exciting projects flying in relation to protein crystal growth.

Crystallized structure of a nucleosome core particle that was grown aboard the Mir space station. (NASA)

Crystallized structure of a nucleosome core particle that was grown aboard the Mir space station. (NASA)

This space station experimentation is a double blind study. This means that all the experiment chambers are bar coded for anonymity. We also will have exact controls done with the exact same batch of proteins prepared at the same time. The crystals will grow for the same length of time, as they are activated simultaneously in space and on the ground. When the samples come down, we will perform the entire analysis not knowing which are samples grown in space versus Earth. Only one engineer will have the key to the bar codes. When we’re completely done with the analysis, then he will let us know which were from space or ground. This will allow our study to provide definitive data on the value of space crystallization.

We also wanted to ensure that our analysis looked at a sufficient number of samples, statistically speaking, to provide conclusive data. How many data sets we collect per crystal sample will depend on the quality of that crystal. Statistically the study will be relevant in terms of how many proteins we fly, as well as how many crystals we evaluate from space and ground to make the comparison.

Astronaut Nicole Stott works with the high-density protein crystal growth (HDPCG) apparatus aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

Astronaut Nicole Stott works with the high-density protein crystal growth (HDPCG) apparatus aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

The microgravity environment is so beneficial because it allows the crystals to grow freely. Without the gravitational force obscuring the crystal molecules, as seen on Earth, the crystals can reveal their full form. We are giving all of these protein crystals the chance to grow to their full size in a quiescent environment. This is a very important investigation, not only because of the high number of proteins we are flying, but the statistical way we will evaluate them. Based on the results of the study, we will know if PCG in space is worth continuing.

Once the crystals come back to Earth, it will take at least one year to complete the full analysis. However, we will likely know that we’ve got some exciting results within the first three months. To publish something, it will be at least a year to complete the analysis, as we will have about 1,400 data sets to analyze. These results will determine the future of microgravity protein crystallization.

Larry DeLucas, O.D., Ph.D. (University of Alabama at Birmingham)

Larry DeLucas, O.D., Ph.D. (University of Alabama at Birmingham)

Larry DeLucas, O.D., Ph.D. is Director for the Center of Structural Biology and a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. DeLucas flew as a payload specialist on the United States Microgravity Laboratory-1 flight, Mission STS-50, in June1992. His work is currently funded through NASA and the National Institutes of Health.

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