Tag Archives: Mission Highlights

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.

2014 Retrospective a Look Forward as the Space Station Comes into its Own

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In today’s A Lab Aloft International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D., looks back on 2014 to highlight some of the year’s milestones and research achievements.

As I take a moment to reflect on the accomplishments of the past 12 months, I can’t help but think of how they relate to where we’re going next with the International Space Station. From the crew capabilities to research goals, from NASA’s plans for continued exploration to the benefits for humanity from station studies, there are some key areas that stand out from 2014.

Expedition 41 crew portrait on the International Space Station. From left: ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst, Roscosmos cosmonauts Elena Serova, Maxim Suraev and Alexander Samokutyaev, and NASA astronauts Reid Wiseman and Barry Wilmore. (NASA)

Expedition 41 crew portrait on the International Space Station. From left: ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst, Roscosmos cosmonauts Elena Serova, Maxim Suraev and Alexander Samokutyaev, and NASA astronauts Reid Wiseman and Barry Wilmore. (NASA)

During the last year there has been so much demand for research on the space station—including investigations that require crew time—planners really have had to push the schedule. We deferred some preventative maintenance, scaling back on some filter changes, for instance, to adjust operations for increased crew time for research. That’s allowed us to get as much as 47 hours a week averaged in a six-month period. This number is the total for the three U.S. astronauts, rather than the original standard of 35 hours for science. When you think about it, that’s almost half again as much research as the designed schedule.

This is a great performance of balancing time aboard station, though we won’t always be able to hold to that. This is why we still need to go to seven crew members. The crew dedicating time to tend to investigations helps us to optimize the research coming out of space station, as well. Currently we house six crew members in orbit aboard the space station, and some of you may know that this is one person short of the craft’s design to sleep seven. This is because our Soyuz “lifeboat” can only return six crew members in an emergency. The advent of commercial crew will allow us to expand by that extra crew member, as the new vehicles can ferry four. This is a future goal that we all look forward to:  a full house.

The crew was particularly busy during the latter part of 2014 with a huge new capability for biological research using model animals. This also was driven by user demand to launch rodents—meaning mice and rats, though so far we’re starting with mice on the space station. We now have a system that can launch rodents aboard the SpaceX Dragon vehicle. The animals can live aboard station for a long period of time in special habitats, and then either be processed on orbit or eventually returned live. This system was important to get online this year, because we had a large number of users in medical research and pharmaceuticals interested in using space station as a test bed for their studies.

NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore setting up the Rodent Reseach-1 Hardware in the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore setting up the Rodent Reseach-1 Hardware in the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

There are many discoveries that have affected human health that were dependent on the use of animals as what we call “model organisms,” from the discovery of insulin to the that of tamoxifen to treat breast cancer to kidney transplants. This doesn’t mean these organisms are going to grace the cover of a magazine, but rather that they provide a model for humans to help us understand disease processes. By watching how they respond to research, we can in turn learn how to fight those diseases.

The use of model organisms in laboratories on Earth and aboard the International Space Station can lead to insights for researchers into human health. (NASA/Julie Robinson)

The use of model organisms in laboratories on Earth and aboard the International Space Station can lead to insights for researchers into human health. (NASA/Julie Robinson)

Having the ability to fly mice to space for long-duration studies is a huge advance. Fulfilling this capability was our response to the Decadal Survey recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences. We have years of research already lined up hoping to get access to these mice. To optimize the potential for discovery, we combine as many experiments together on this precious resource as possible.

This is an exciting area of study, as just a handful of mice have flown in the past—both on space station assembly flights and one flight in a system called mice drawer system. Even so, those findings account for a significant number of our highest profile publications from space station research. With access twice per year, we now have this type of study as a routine capability. This means we can expect to see a huge ramp-up in high-impact research in biomedical areas.

Another big change this year has been the space station maturing as a platform for Earth science. My colleagues in Earth sciences at NASA have called this the year of the Earth, because they’ve had five related instruments go into space this year. That’s a record, and two of these are on the space station, a first!

Artist's rendering of NASA's ISS-RapidScat instrument (inset), which launched to the International Space Station in 2014 to measure ocean surface wind speed and direction and help improve weather forecasts, including hurricane monitoring. It wasinstalled on the end of the Columbus laboratory. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Johnson Space Center

Artist’s rendering of NASA’s ISS-RapidScat instrument (inset), which launched to the International Space Station in 2014 to measure ocean surface wind speed and direction and help improve weather forecasts, including hurricane monitoring. It was installed on the end of the Columbus laboratory. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Johnson Space Center

Moving forward we’re going to see a couple instruments a year go up until the space station’s current external sites are primarily full, likely in 2017. We now need to study whether to grow our capabilities to support more Earth sciences instruments, as well as astrophysics and heliophysics studies.

It’s really thrilling to see these initial instruments come to station and begin operations right off the bat. The first of these, ISS-RapidScat, was bringing hurricane data home within three hours—this was less than a week after installation. The instrument measured the sea-surface winds and was used to look at Typhoon Vongfong in Japan. How quickly scientists can use these data and incorporate findings into use for us on the ground can provide real benefits. The results can give valuable information that people need to know to protect their lives and property, making it an important advance to have available aboard station.

Next is the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS), an imager that looks at clouds and aerosols for climate research. CATS will be followed by a number of instruments that are either brand new to science or that fill a gap from similar satellites to provide cross calibration. Our understanding of the Earth is going to improve thanks to the research from all of these instruments.

Supertyphoon Vongfong as seen by the crew of the International Space Station on Oct. 9, 2014. (NASA)

Super typhoon Vongfong as seen by the crew of the International Space Station on Oct. 9, 2014. (NASA)

One of the areas that congress has encouraged us to pursue is the development of commercial applications and commercial research on the space station. To this end, they declared the space station U.S. segment a national laboratory in 2005. In 2011 we selected CASIS, the Center for Advancement of Science in Space, to manage that national lab side for use by researchers that are not funded by NASA. These scientists may be funded by other government agencies or the private sector or nonprofit organizations.

This year CASIS grew substantially with the advent of their ARK-1 and ARK-2 suites of investigations aboard station. Also in 2014, the first National Institutes of Health (NIH) investigator of the space station national lab era launched her immunology research study. There are other NIH studies to come, including one that looks at bone loss. CASIS also brought large initiatives in protein crystal growth, Earth sciences, stem cells and materials science to continue to advance commercial research aboard the space station.

I recently spoke with Brian Talbot, marketing and communications director with CASIS, and he shared his thoughts with me on the accomplishments of the organization for the past year. “The continued growth of CASIS as an organization in 2014 speaks to the limitless opportunities commercial and academic researchers see aboard the space station. Through funded solicitations in proven areas of space-based research to innovative and non-traditional commercial users, CASIS is moving ever closer towards its goal of fully utilizing of the national lab for Earth-benefit inquiry.”

When I talked about crew time, you may have noticed that it was broken down by U.S. and Russian segments and crew members. While this division is useful for tracking purposes, it’s important to mention how we are blurring those boundaries. This international laboratory brings collaborations together through research that transcend relations on the ground. The space station exemplifies a global partnership at its best.

One thing that has driven us to continue advancing our partnership is the announcement of the joint one-year expedition. Since the 2013 announcement, we have made advances in finalizing our research goals in preparation for the 2015 launch. This extended expedition will have an astronaut and a cosmonaut both stay aboard the space station for 12 months, instead of the current six-month standard. It’s been decades since astronauts were in space that long. With the leaps in our medical technology, the one-year stay will help us to better understand what happens to the human body on long-duration flights. These studies also may help answer related concerns for health here on Earth.

Selected crew members for the one-year mission aboard the International Space Station, U.S. Astronaut Scott Kelly (pictured left) and Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko (pictured right). (NASA)

Selected crew members for the one-year mission aboard the International Space Station, U.S. Astronaut Scott Kelly (pictured left) and Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko (pictured right). (NASA)

I’m really excited about how that international collaboration across all of our partners has evolved. We’re combining more investigations, we’re releasing open data for the entire global scientific community to work with and we’re joining crew member resources to optimize all of these activities. Whether it’s microbial sampling, taking care of plants or making specific observations of the human body, our crew members are working together on what is truly an international station in space.

Early this year, John Holdren, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy for the Obama administration, announced their support of extending the space station to 2024. We have worked through the impacts that this has for space station research and this extension gives us 90 percent more external research and close to 50 percent more pressurized research—those studies taking place in the cabin. 2024 is very important to what we can achieve with this global microgravity resource of the space station.

When we have scientists already in line wanting to do investigations, having more time to get those studies done and even to do follow-on research opens up the discovery potential. This also provides more time for research markets to develop independently. Just like on the ground, when someone wants to study a certain area, they contract a lab to do the experiments. Someday, when space station is gone, we want scientists to have continued access through this emerging market of microgravity research in space. This longer duration for station to remain as a platform helps to open up those opportunities for researchers around the world. This is the world’s chance to continue the mission of discovery off the Earth for the Earth.

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

Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D., is NASA’s International Space Station Chief Scientist, representing all space station research and scientific disciplines. Robinson provides recommendations regarding research on the space station to NASA Headquarters. Her background is interdisciplinary in the physical and biological sciences. Robinson’s professional experience includes research activities in a variety of fields, such as virology, analytical chemistry, genetics, statistics, field biology, and remote sensing. She has authored more than 50 scientific publications and earned a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Utah State University, as well as a Doctor of Philosophy in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology from the University of Nevada Reno.

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.

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.

From Fluids to Flames: The Research Range of Space Station Physical Science

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger Fred Kohl, Ph.D., International Space Station Physical Sciences Research project manager at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, talks about some of the physical science investigations that take place in microgravity aboard the space station.

Extremes are part of exploration, whether you’re talking about space travel or probing new areas of discovery to expand knowledge in a given science. So it is appropriate that the extreme environment of the International Space Station provides an ideal location to study physical sciences, from flames to fluids.

Removing gravity from the equation aboard this Earth-orbiting laboratory reveals the fundamental aspects of physics hidden by force-dependent phenomena where a fluid phase (i.e., a liquid or gas) is present. Such experiments, which investigate the disciplines of fluid physics, complex fluids, materials science, combustion science, biophysics and fundamental physics, use the station’s specialized experiment hardware to conduct studies that could not be performed on the ground.

The main feature differentiating the space station laboratory from those on Earth is the microgravity acceleration environment that is stable for long periods of time. Conducted in the nearly weightless environment, experiments in these disciplines reveal how physical systems respond to the near absence of buoyancy-driven convection, sedimentation, or sagging. They also reveal how other forces, which are small compared to gravity, can dominate the system behavior in space. For example, capillary forces can enable the flow of fluids in relatively wide channels without the use of a pump.

Other examples of observations in space include boiling in which bubbles do not rise, colloidal systems containing crystalline structures unlike any seen on Earth, and spherical flames burning around fuel droplets. Also observed was a uniform dispersion of tin particles in a liquid lead melt, instead of rising to the top as would happen in Earth’s gravity.

These findings may improve the understanding of material properties, potentially revolutionizing development of new and improved products for use in everything from automotives to airplanes to spacecraft. With so much to learn in the area of physical science and so many investigations, I would like to highlight several studies ongoing, upcoming or recently looked at aboard the space station.

Constrained Vapor Bubble-2 (CVB-2)

Studying mixed fluids in microgravity for CVB-2 provides data to further optimize the performance of wickless heat pipes. These pipes weigh less and have reduced complexity as compared to the more common construction with a wick. The CVB-2 study examines the overall stability, fluid flow characteristics, average heat transfer coefficient in the evaporator, and heat conductance of a constrained vapor bubble under microgravity conditions as a function of vapor volume and heat flow rate.

Findings from this research may lead to more efficient ways to cool electronics and equipment in space, while also applying to advances in Earth technologies such as air conditioning and refrigeration systems. Laptop computers also use this type of heat pipe technology to cool their electronics in order to prevent overheating.

Expedition 23 Flight Engineer T.J. Creamer works to setup Light Microscopy Module (LMM) and Constrained Vapor Bubble (CVB) hardware in the Fluids Integrated Rack (FIR) in the Destiny U.S. Laboratory. (NASA)

Expedition 23 Flight Engineer T.J. Creamer works to setup Light Microscopy Module (LMM) and Constrained Vapor Bubble (CVB) hardware in the Fluids Integrated Rack (FIR) in the Destiny U.S. Laboratory. (NASA)

Advanced Colloids Experiment (ACE)

ACE studies colloidal particles in space for use in modeling atomic systems and engineering new systems. These particles are big enough—in comparison to atoms—to be seen and recorded with a camera for evaluation. Conducting this study aboard the space station removes gravitational jamming and sedimentation so that it is possible to observe how order rises out of disorder, allowing researchers to learn to control this process. This could lead to greater stability and longer shelf life for products on Earth, such as paints, pharmaceuticals and other products based on colloids. Recently we launched additional hardware, consisting of a magnetic mixer and a drill kit, to use in mixing the samples for future ACE experiments.

The magnetic mixer and drill kit (pictured here before launch) will assist with mixing samples for Advanced Colloidal Experiments (ACE) aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

The magnetic mixer and drill kit (pictured here before launch) will assist with mixing samples for Advanced Colloidal Experiments (ACE) aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

Capillary Flow Experiment-2 (CFE-2)

The CFE investigation is a suite of fluid physics flight experiments designed to study large-length scale capillary flows and phenomena in low gravity. Testing will probe dynamic effects associated with a moving contact boundary condition, capillary-driven flows in interior corner networks, and critical wetting phenomena in complex geometries. The sample fluids flow in specific directions influenced by the shape of unique cylindrical containers called Interior Corner Flow (ICF) vessels.

For CFE-2 there are 11 units of fluids for astronauts to test. This research and the resulting math models based on the data findings helps with the design of more efficient fuel systems for spacecraft. This is because the engineers will be able to design the shape of the tank to take advantage of the way fluids move in microgravity. On Earth these findings may contribute to models to predict fluid flow for things like ground water transport, as well as the afore mentioned cooling technology advances for electronics.

Expedition 36 Flight Engineer Karen Nyberg conducts a session with a Capillary Flow Experiment (CFE) Interior Corner Flow vessel in the Harmony node of the International Space Station. CFE observes the flow of fluid, in particular capillary phenomena, in microgravity. (NASA)

Expedition 36 Flight Engineer Karen Nyberg conducts a session with a Capillary Flow Experiment (CFE) Interior Corner Flow vessel in the Harmony node of the International Space Station. CFE observes the flow of fluid, in particular capillary phenomena, in microgravity. (NASA)

Flame Extinguishment Experiment – Italian Combustion Experiment for Green Air (FLEX-ICE-GA)

The objective of this investigation is to observe and characterize evaporation and burning of renewable-type fuel droplets in high-pressure conditions. Test runs for this study recently took place in the Combustion Integrated Rack (CIR) aboard station. Research conducted in the CIR facility includes the study of combustion of liquid, gaseous and solid fuels. The CIR is made up of an optics bench, combustion chamber, fuel and oxidizer control, and five different cameras for performing combustion experiments in microgravity.

Researchers can use the results of these experiments to develop and validate thermo-chemical and chemical kinetics computer models of renewable liquid fuels for combustion simulation in engines. This helps with the design of the next generation of fuels and advanced engines. The computer models may reduce costs to industries and benefit the general public by accelerating the adoption of renewable fuels that are environmentally friendly.

NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn servicing the Combustion Integrated Rack (CIR) aboard the Destiny module of the International Space Station. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn servicing the Combustion Integrated Rack (CIR) aboard the Destiny module of the International Space Station. (NASA)

Supercritical Water Mixture (SCWM)

The SCWM investigation will help researchers look at phase change, solute precipitation, and precipitate transport at near-critical and supercritical conditions of a dilute salt/water mixture. When water is taken into its supercritical phase—a temperature higher than 705 degrees Fahrenheit and a pressure higher than 3,200 psia—it becomes highly compressible and begins to behave much like a dense gas. In its supercritical phase water will experience some rather dramatic changes in its physical properties, such as the sudden precipitation of inorganic salts that are normally highly soluble in water at ambient conditions.

The primary science objectives of the SCWM investigation are to determine the shift in critical point of the liquid-gas phase transition in the presence of the salt, determine the onset and degree of salt precipitation in the supercritical phase as a function of temperature, and to identify the predominant transport processes of the precipitate in the presence of temperature and/or salinity gradients.

On Earth water reclamation from high-salinity aquifers, waste handling for cities and farms, power plants, and numerous commercial processes may benefit from the SCWM findings. A good understanding about the behavior of salt in near-critical and supercritical conditions also would assist designers of the next generation of reactors. With the knowledge gleaned from SCWM, they could possibly design systems that would operate without incurring large maintenance problems.

Sample cell filled with a dilute aqueous solution of sodium sulfate for the Supercritical Water Mixture (SCWM) investigation. (NASA)

Sample cell filled with a dilute aqueous solution of sodium sulfate for the Supercritical Water Mixture (SCWM) investigation. (NASA)

With the still relatively new frontier of microgravity research, there are many questions to pose and angles to consider. The scientists that pursue the answers using the laboratory we have available 200 miles above us are embarking on a journey of discovery that I dare say will yield some amazing findings. As Albert Einstein said, “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.”

Fred Kohl is the International Space Station Physical Sciences Research project manager at Glenn. Since the mid-1980s, he’s been involved in the advocacy, definition, development and conduct of more than 250 experiments in ground-based facilities and aboard the space shuttles, Mir space station and the International Space Station in the disciplines of fluid physics, complex fluids, combustion science, fundamental physics, materials science and acceleration environment characterization. Before joining the microgravity program, he conducted research in high-temperature materials chemistry and high-temperature materials corrosion related to aircraft engine applications. He holds a B.S. in chemistry from Case Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in chemistry from Case Western Reserve University.

Could You Choose Just One? Looking Beyond the Top Ten Space Station Research Results Countdown

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In today’s A Lab Aloft entry International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D., concludes her countdown of the top research results from the space station.

I’ve shared with you my top ten research results from the International Space Station in this blog series, and this is only the middle of the mission. With the space station scheduled to continue operating until at least 2020—and likely beyond—we continue with investigations that present us with more interesting facts and findings. Even as you read this entry, hundreds of investigations are active in orbit.

Whatever missions we look to tomorrow—including travel to an asteroid and Mars—they absolutely depend on the success of the space station. That is because the station was developed to return benefits and discoveries to us here on Earth. How we use the space station, both in our success as an industry and in returning benefits back to our nations and our economies, impacts everybody. If we don’t all take ownership to share this story, it makes our stakeholders look at our future ideas and say, “well yeah, that’s great for you, but what’s in it for the rest of the country.”

The International Space Station seen against the backdrop of the Earth, as photographed by the STS-130 crew aboard space shuttle Endeavour. (NASA)

The International Space Station seen against the backdrop of the Earth, as photographed by the STS-130 crew aboard space shuttle Endeavour. (NASA)

I was originally challenged to pick a set of top 10 research results by the organizers of an aerospace industry meeting, the International Astronautical Congress. Now I would like to challenge not only the members of the aerospace community, but all of those reading this blog who may one day benefit from this orbiting laboratory—that means you. Please take home one of these top ten research facts to share with your family, friends and colleagues. There are many more benefits and results than just those I highlighted, but it’s a good place to start.

Of the examples I gave you in this series, be ready to own the one that you choose. If you are talking with a government official, the press, your students, your family, that stranger sitting next you to on a plane, whomever you encounter, be prepared to share. The space station is our pinnacle of human spaceflight, it is our example of international cooperation and it is doing outstanding things in science yesterday, today and tomorrow. You don’t have to be a scientist to share the wonder and the value of the science we are doing there with others.

To make the difficult choice of a top 10 possible, there are a lot of things I didn’t include in the list. Sometimes, these were more technology spinoffs than research results. I also didn’t include the specific knowledge being gained for the purposes of future exploration—that could be another top 10 by itself. The use of space station ultrasound techniques in saving lives of women and their unborn children around the world, for instance. New remote ultrasound practices are being tested in developing nations, but this was a pure spinoff—no additional research needed—which is why it did not make my list. I also did not touch on the space station technology used today for air purification in daycares or the fresh water technology from station. Again, I did not select these primarily because they are pure spinoffs.

WINFOCUS and Henry Ford Innovation Institute members, Dr. Luca Neri and Alberta Spreafico work with Kathleen Garcia from Wyle Engineering to help train Dr. Chamorro from the rural community of Las Salinas, Nicaragua, using the ADUM and tele-ultrasound applications. (WINFOCUS/Missions of Grace)

WINFOCUS and Henry Ford Innovation Institute members, Dr. Luca Neri and Alberta Spreafico work with Kathleen Garcia from Wyle Engineering to help train Dr. Chamorro from the rural community of Las Salinas, Nicaragua, using the ADUM and tele-ultrasound applications. (WINFOCUS/Missions of Grace)

These examples are equally impactful and perhaps even more quickly connected to saving lives here on Earth. I encourage you to learn more by visiting our resources as we continue to share new developments, findings and benefits from space station research. Why limit this topic to so few as just ten; quite frankly, why limit the conversation to just the aerospace industry?

Amazingly enough, people you know have not heard about the space station, so we all need to take responsibility for sharing this message. There are some great resources we’ve put together as a partnership for you, so you won’t have to just remember the words you read here. You can look at the space station benefits for humanity website, which has been translated into multiple languages. You also can keep up on all the great things going on by following space station research on nasa.gov, revisiting this A Lab Aloft blog and by following our Twitter account: @ISS_Research.

I’d like to close by pointing out how sharing a view of the space station over your town can have a big impact on the people in your own orbit. My husband does not work in aerospace; he’s in the insurance industry. I remember one time there was going to be a great overpass of the space station in Houston, and I suggested to him that he go up on top of his building to see it. He sent an email around his office as an invitation and he ended up on the roof of the building with his colleagues and a senior executive. Together they watched this amazing space station pass. While looking up, the executive leaned over to my husband and said, “that was really neat! I had no idea we had people in space.”

One of our “people in space,” NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg works with the InSPACE-3 colloid investigation in the Microgravity Science Glovebox. (NASA)

One of our “people in space,” NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg works with the InSPACE-3 colloid investigation in the Microgravity Science Glovebox. (NASA)

The fact is that leaders in the world of business outside of aerospace are not paying attention to what we are doing. Science policy position and analysis can have scant information about what is really going on and what we are accomplishing. In the din of public policy debates, it is sometimes hard for us to get people hear about the good news. Two things that we really need to share with everyone are that the space station is up there with humans working on orbit, and that it is bringing back concrete benefits for use here on Earth. These returns make our economies stronger, make our individual lives better and save peoples’ lives. That really is the core of space exploration and why we do it.

Here, again, are my top ten space station research results in review.

10. Preventing the loss of bone mass in space through diet and exercise

9. Understanding mechanisms of osteoporosis and new ways to treat it

8. Hyperspectral imaging for water quality in coastal bays

7. Colloid self assembly using magnetic fields for development of nanomaterials

6. A new process of cool flame combustion

5. Pathway for bacterial pathogens to become virulent

4. Forty-three million students and counting

3. Dark matter is still out there

2. Robotic assist for brain surgery

1. New targeted method of chemotherapy drug delivery with breast cancer trials now in development

Thank you for sharing!

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

Top Space Station Research Results Countdown: Four, 43 Million Students and Counting

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In today’s A Lab Aloft entry, International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D., continues her countdown to the top ten research results from the space station, recently presented at the International Astronautical Conference in Beijing, China. Be sure to check back for daily postings of the entire listing.

Research results can have exponential growth rates as scientists build on each other’s findings. That kind of inspiration carries with it innumerable possibilities that are in no way limited to the professional world. Number four on my list is 43 million students and counting—the number of students touched by the International Space Station’s educational endeavors. You can read more in the education publication: “Inspiring the Next Generation: International Space Station Education Opportunities and Accomplishments, 2000-2012.”

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

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

I included this educational topic in a list of investigation examples because it also links to key research on how you motivate students to take on careers in math and science. The statistical summary we put together during the last year across the space station partners included participation of 44 countries, 25 thousand schools, 2.8 million teachers, and 43.1 million students.

Of those students, 1.7 million participated in inquiring-based learning. This type of education is what research has shown us is really important and has set the recommendations of the National Science Teachers Association. When students test a hypothesis on their own or when they do work in their lab and compare it to what’s going on aboard the space station, they are most motivated towards math and science.

The YouTube Space Lab competition, Student Spaceflight Experiment Program (SSEP), and Zero Robotics are just a few examples of inquiry-based space station study done by students during the first 15 years of our mission. Google’s Zahaan Bharmal was recognized at this year’s International Space Station Research and Development Conference for the outstanding impacts from the YouTube Space Lab Project, a top education application. This is real research and contributes to education, while adding to the collective knowledge for various science disciplines.

Logo from the YouTube Space Lab competition that engaged students around the world to suggest and have the chance to launch their microgravity investigations to be conducted aboard the International Space Station. (YouTube Space Lab)

Logo from the YouTube Space Lab competition that engaged students around the world to suggest and have the chance to launch their microgravity investigations to be conducted aboard the International Space Station. (YouTube Space Lab)

The larger population of 43.1 million students learned about life in space from astronauts, gained encouragement through demonstrations, and built excitement by participating in educational programs. But those 1.7 million students that actually engaged in the scientific process themselves are the most likely to be the next explorers. They are the future employees of our agencies and companies currently working for aerospace and research today. This is an extraordinary impact from a spaceflight program and the inquiries of millions of students as they learn to become scientists is worth a place in the top 10 next to the research of today’s scientists.

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

Women in Space Part One, Female Firsts in Flight for Space Exploration and Research

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger Liz Warren, Ph.D., recalls the inspirational contributions and strides made by women in space exploration and International Space Station research.

This month we celebrate the anniversaries of three “firsts” for female space explorers. On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova of the Soviet Union became the first woman in space. Then on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became America’s first woman in space, followed by Liu Yang as China’s first woman in space on June 16, 2012. Though their flight anniversaries are not in June, I would be remiss if I did not mention the first European woman in space: Helen Sharman in 1991; the first Canadian woman: Roberta Bondar in 1992; and the first Japanese woman: Chiaki Mukai in 1994.

Women in space_1

At the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, Dec. 2, 2010, NASA astronaut Cady Coleman (right), Expedition 26 flight engineer, meets with Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to fly in space, on the eve of Coleman’s departure for the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where she and her crewmates, Russian cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev and Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency launched Dec. 16, Kazakhstan time, on the Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft to the International Space Station. Tereshkova, 73, became the first woman to fly in space on June 16, 1963, aboard the USSR’s Vostok 6 spacecraft. (NASA/Mike Fossum)

Each of these milestones built upon each other by inspiring the next wave of female explorers, continuing through today with the women of the International Space Station and beyond. With this in mind, I’d like to take a moment to celebrate women in space and highlight those with a connection to space station research. It is amazing to me to see just how connected these seemingly separate events can be. The steps of the intrepid explorers who engage in space exploration set the course for future pioneers, blazing the trail and providing the inspiration for those who follow.

To date, 57 women including cosmonauts, astronauts, payload specialists and foreign nationals have flown in space. Our current woman in orbit is NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, working aboard the space station as a flight engineer for Expeditions 36 and 37. While Nyberg lives on the orbiting laboratory for the next six months, she will perform experiments in disciplines that range from technology development, physical sciences, human research, biology and biotechnology to Earth observations. She also will engage students through educational activities in addition to routine vehicle tasks and preparing her crewmates for extravehicular activities, or spacewalks.

Women in space_2

NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg performs a test for visual acuity, visual field and contrast sensitivity. This is the first use of the fundoscope hardware and new vision testing software used to gather information on intraocular pressure and eye anatomy. (NASA)

Many of the women who have flown before Nyberg include scientists who continued their microgravity work, even after they hung up their flight suits. In fact, some of them are investigators for research and technology experiments recently performed on the space station. Whether inspired by their own time in orbit or by the space environment, these women are microgravity research pioneers ultimately looking to improve the lives of those here on Earth.

Chiaki Mukai, M.D., Ph.D. of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, for instance, served aboard space shuttle missions STS-65 and STS-95. She now is an investigator for the space station investigations Biological Rhythms and Biological Rhythms 48, which look at human cardiovascular health. She also is the primary investigator for Hair, a study that looks at human gene expression and metabolism based on the human hair follicle during exposure to the space station environment. MycoMyco 2Myco 3, other investigations run by Mukai, look at the risk of microorganisms via inhalation and adhesion to the skin to see which fungi act as allergens aboard the space station. Finally, Synergy is an upcoming study Mukai is leading that will look at the re-adaptation of walking after spaceflight.

Women in Space_3

STS-95 payload specialist Chiaki Mukai is photographed working at the Vestibular Function Experiment Unit (VFEU) located in the Spacehab module. (NASA)

Peggy Whitson, Ph.D. served aboard the space shuttle and space station for STS-111Expedition 5STS-113, and Expedition 16. She also is the principal investigator for the Renal Stoneinvestigation, which examined a countermeasure for kidney stones. Results from this science have direct application possibilities by helping scientists understand kidney stone formation on Earth. Whitson, who blogged with A Lab Aloft on the importance of the human element to microgravity studies, also served as the chief of the NASA Astronaut Office at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston from 2009 to 2012.

Women in Space_4

Expedition 16 Commander Peggy Whitson prepares the Capillary Flow Experiment (CFE) Vane Gap-1 for video documentation in the International Space Station’s U.S. Laboratory. CFE observes the flow of fluid, in particular capillary phenomena, in microgravity. (NASA)

Sally Ride, Ph.D. (STS-7STS-41G) initiated the education payload Sally Ride EarthKAM, which was renamed in her honor after her passing last year. This camera system allows thousands of students to photograph Earth from orbit for study. They use the Internet to control the digital camera mounted aboard the space station to select, capture and review Earth’s coastlines, mountain ranges and other geographic areas of interest.

Women in Space_5

Astronaut Sally Ride, mission specialist on STS-7, monitors control panels from the pilot’s seat on space shuttle Challenger’s flight deck. Floating in front of her is a flight procedures notebook. (NASA)

Millie Hughes-Fulford, Ph.D. (STS-40) has been an investigator on several spaceflight studies, including Leukin-2 and the T-Cell Activation in Aging study, which is planned to fly aboard the space station during Expeditions 37 and 38. This research looks at how the human immune system responds to microgravity, taking advantage of the fact that astronauts experience suppression of their immune response during spaceflight to pinpoint the trigger for reactivation. This could lead to ways to “turn on” the body’s natural defenses for those suffering from immunosuppression on Earth.

Hughes-Fulford has been a mentor to me since I was in high school. It was Hughes-Fulford who encouraged me to pursue a career in life sciences, and she also invited me to attend her launch aboard space shuttle Columbia on STS-40, the first shuttle mission dedicated to space life sciences. In fact, STS-40 also was the first spaceflight mission with three women aboard: Hughes-Fulford; Tammy Jernigan, Ph.D.; and Rhea Seddon, M.D.

I followed Hughes-Fulford’s advice, and, years later, I found myself watching STS-84 roar into orbit carrying the life sciences investigation that I had worked on as a student at the University of California, Davis. In the pilot’s seat of shuttle Atlantis that morning was Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot and command the space shuttle. Our investigation, Effects of Gravity on Insect Circadian Rhythmicity, was transferred to the Russian space station Mir, where the sleep/wake cycle of insects was studied to understand the influence of spaceflight on the internal body clock.

Women in Space_6

Payload Specialist Millie Hughes-Fulford checks the Research Animal Holding Facility (RAHF) in the Spacelab Life Sciences (SLS-1) module aboard space shuttle Columbia. (NASA)

Women at NASA always have and continue to play key roles in space exploration. Today we have female flight controllers, flight directors, spacecraft commanders, engineers, doctors and scientists. In leadership positions, Lori Garver is at the helm as NASA’s deputy administrator, veteran astronaut Ellen Ochoa is director of Johnson; and Lesa Roe is director of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

In space exploration and in science, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. These women pushed the boundaries and continue to expand the limits of our knowledge. What an incredible heritage for the girls of today who will become the scientists, engineers, leaders and explorers of tomorrow.

Liz Warren

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

Liz Warren, Ph.D., is a physiologist with Barrios Technology, a NASA contractor. Her role in the International Space Station Program Science Office is to communicate research results and benefits both internally to NASA and externally to the public. Warren previously served as the deputy project scientist for Spaceflight Analogs and later for the ISS Medical Project as a science operations lead at the Mission Control Center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Born and raised near San Francisco, she has a Bachelor of Science degree in molecular, cellular and integrative physiology and a doctorate in physiology from the University of California at Davis. She completed post-doctoral fellowships in molecular and cell biology and then in neuroscience. Warren is an expert on the effects of spaceflight on the human body and has authored publications ranging from artificial gravity protocols to neuroscience to energy balance and metabolism.

Remembering Janice Voss

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The International Space Station Program Science Office would like to dedicate this entry of A Lab Aloft to the life and work of astronaut Janice Voss, who passed away February 7, 2012. Her support NASA’s vision for science on orbit was a remarkable contribution to our research mission.

Janice Voss, Ph.D., was an astronaut and mission specialist for five space shuttle missions, logging over 49 days in space. These were physical science flights, including STS-83 and STS-94, which were historic re-flights to achieve a singular microgravity research mission. Voss also flew the first “commercial” Spacehab and the radar mapping mission.


June 27, 1993 — Inside the SPACEHAB module, onboard the space shuttle Endeavour, astronaut Janice Voss, STS-57 mission specialist, works with biomaterials products. (Credit: NASA Image STS05739001)

With a real love for physical sciences, Voss used her dedication to research to determine her next role as NASA transitioned from the shuttle era to the station era. Voss was the only crew member ever selected to serve as a Lead Increment Scientist to represent the research community during experiment operations. She worked in this role during Expeditions 8 and 9.  

“Her boundless enthusiasm for getting as much research done was contagious, especially welcome in the challenging time after Columbia,” remembers John Uri, her manager in the ISS Payloads Office at the time. “Her experiences from flying science missions as an astronaut were invaluable in optimizing the onboard research.”


April 4-8, 1997 — Astronaut Janice Voss, payload commander, pictured here following a successful test at the Combustion Module-1. The test was designed to study the Structures of Flame Balls at Low Lewis, or SOFBALL, numbers.
(Credit: NASA Image STS083305017)

The timing of her tenure, which followed the Columbia tragedy, led to one of the more interesting things that happened while Voss was Lead Increment Scientist. While the shuttle was grounded, researchers proposed experiments that could be done with existing materials on orbit.

The International Space Soldering Investigation, or ISSI, was one of these studies performed in microgravity. The crew used the soldering materials they had on orbit to make coupons and melt them, which led to an amazing result! The rosin that was in the solder boiled out to the outside of the coupons, orbiting around them.


In July 2004 astronaut Mike Fincke melts solder onboard the International Space Station. See the full length movies: Windows media format (2 MB), Real video (2 MB), mpeg format (15 MB). (Credit: NASA)

I remember how excited Janice was about this new finding. She worked with scientists to evaluate what caused the orbital effect, with the final determination pointing to Marangoni convection. Voss presented the results in a press briefing, including the incredible video of the experiment.

Later on, as Voss was assigned to different things in the Astronaut Office, she became the ongoing research representative for a number of years. There she represented the crew office, but always with the perspective she carried with her from her time as a Lead Increment Scientist, which made her viewpoint unique.

Voss had a natural scientific curiosity that prompted her to always try different things. She never accepted at face value how things worked, and would try alternatives to investigate further. This questioning nature was an exceptional attribute and helped to make her a success in her many roles with NASA.


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


Sharing the Love

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This week on A Lab Aloft, comments from guest blogger Justin Kugler, Systems Engineer with the National Laboratory Office, as he recalls his experience at the STS-135 Tweetup at Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

Our mission in the International Space Station National Laboratory Office is to make the unique capabilities of the station more open to other government agencies, industry partners, and education programs. Fulfilling that mandate from Congress has introduced me to a wide variety of researchers, technologists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and educators. I have every expectation that the National Lab portfolio will only grow more eclectic with time.

As the admin for the National Lab Office Twitter account, @ISS_NatLab, it was exciting to move out from behind the keyboard and take the stage at the STS-135 Launch Tweetup at Kennedy Space Center, Fla. on July 7, 2011. Presenting alongside me was scientist Tracy Thumm with the International Space Station Program Scientist’s Office. This is a great example of how NASA has embraced the power of social media to connect with the public and share our stories.

Tracy Thumm and Justin Kugler
speak at the STS-135 NASA
Tweetup (NASA image)

Back home, our colleges with @ISS_Research supported the Tweetup and posted updates for our followers on Twitter. Tracy and I spoke about the science, technology, and exploration research planned for the final mission of the Space Shuttle Program and aboard the space station. In addition to the physical group of 150 of NASA’s biggest fans, we had countless virtual participants through the live video stream and online forums.

Some of the topics we covered for STS-135 included advanced vaccine research and the J. Craig Venter Institute’s bacteriological survey of the station environment. I also had the privilege of presenting some of the new technologies that will be broken in on the station in preparation for future deep space exploration, such as new carbon dioxide scrubbers, non-toxic propellants, inflatable modules, and advanced telerobotics. 

I really enjoyed the Q&A session that followed my talk, as it allowed us to answer in greater detail how research opportunities are expanding on the station. For example, I shared a training module from a commercial partner, NanoRacks, LLC. This 10-cm cubed platform, with USB port for power and data, houses and integrates small experiments aboard the station. Using ready-made platforms like this enables researchers with a good idea, but relatively little funding to obtain sustained exposure to the microgravity environment. We also talked about the planned use of commercial lab equipment—such as a plate reader—modified for the station that will allow NASA to send data back to researchers on the ground without having to return samples. This reduces the time lag to get results.

My colleague Tracy fielded a question regarding the length of time till scientist see results from station research. In fact, we are already seeing results, such as a recently published study on the stability of pharmaceuticals in space. The International Space Station Research and Technology Website keeps tabs on the results, as they become available to the public. The actual duration for results varies from investigation to investigation.

One of my favorite questions, though, was about what we still need to learn to send humans on long-duration missions and where people can learn more. There are, relatively speaking, only a handful of data points for how the human body behaves in the space environment and billions of data points here on Earth. We understand very little of what happens in between, such as with the one-third-normal gravity of Mars. Future human research studies on the station will help us fill in those gaps so we can design vehicles and missions to keep human explorers healthy, safe, and sane on their journeys. NASA’s Human Research Roadmap covers this in much greater detail.

Later, I was told that the tent was quiet—except for the background hum of the portable air conditioners—because everyone was listening intently, taking notes for their blogs or posting our answers in real-time to Twitter. Attendees continued to come up to Tracy and I to ask questions about the work being done on the station throughout the rest of the event.

The Tweetup also included a special visit from Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and an entertaining interview between astronauts Mike Massimino and Doug Wheelock and Sesame Street star, Elmo. The Muppet, interestingly enough, had as many questions as the astronauts! 

Sesame Street’s Elmo interviews
astronauts Mike Massimino and
Doug Wheelock at the STS-135
NASA Tweetup.
(NASA Image)

After the rains of that Thursday passed, the attendees all made their way out to the lawn near Pad 39A to visit the shuttle Atlantis. The crowd was electrified by the breathtaking unveiling of the orbiter, as the rotating service structure retracted from view to clear the pad for launch. Despite the amorphous grey clouds in the background, the stark contrast between the orange external tank, black and white thermal tiles on the orbiter, and the white cylinders of the boosters was truly riveting.

The rotating service structure
retracting from Atlantis
(Image courtesy of Justin Kugler)

Surprises were in store for the Tweetup participants throughout the morning of launch day. This included a visit from astronaut legend, Bob Crippen, and the introduction of Bear McCreary’s “Fanfare” for STS-135 by Seth Green (an unabashed NASA enthusiast). As the hours rolled by, the anticipation was at a fever pitch. The weather was progressively improving and everyone had a sense that the launch would actually happen.

The passing of the Astrovan further raised the level of anticipation. We had our first indication that the “final four” were close from the passing of the escort helicopter. A spontaneous cheer went up when the van and its security entourage turned the corner and came into view. There was one last stop to let off anyone not going to the pad, then the crew of Atlantis pressed on to their destination and a beautiful launch!

One last stop for the Astrovan.
(Image courtesy of Justin Kugler)

After Atlantis’ ascent, people made their way back to their laptops in the Tweetup tent or established a connection with their smartphone, the blog posts, Tweets, and picture uploads resumed en masse. Each of the Tweetup attendees became an ambassador to the rest of the world for NASA.

That relationship is what NASA Tweetups are all about. Even in the twilight of the Space Shuttle Program, the love and passion for spaceflight was alive and well in us all. I believe it is the responsibility of those who experienced the final shuttle launch—NASA employees and honored guests alike—to share this connection with the rest of the world and to look forward to the next decade of research on the space station.

The Tweetups are successful because they embody more than just telling people about what we do at NASA. Attendees have the chance to participate and share the story on their own terms. It is this bond between NASA and the public that can sustain interest in and support for our nation’s space program and future exploration. We still have a lot of work to do on the space station and to prepare for missions in deep space, so I look forward to many more Tweetups to come.

The STS-135 Launch Tweetup participants.
(NASA image)

Justin Kugler works at NASA Johnson Space Center in the International Space Station National Laboratory Office. There he supports systems integration activities for science payloads. He has a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from Texas A&M University and a M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Rice University.

 

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