A Lab for Science, and for Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 thoughts on “A Lab for Science, and for Thinking”

  1. Sir,
    I am very privilege knowing many factors of your studies out there in ISS.
    Now i understand more the word laboratory .
    I send you my gratitude for such mind opener education .
    For such ,i thank you indeed.

  2. I’m so jealous. I know you guys are having the time of your lives up there .Godspeed to you all.

  3. 08 February 2012


    You can do a very simple but super important experiment from the ISS–the first measurement of the sun’s extraterrestrial constant of an LED from space. This is of major interest to the GLOBE sun photometer program (and my ongoing 1990-2012 aerosol and water vapor measurements using LEDs).

    1. Find, borrow or salvage a red LED. Record what follows on video so it can be posted online.

    2. Remove the LED’s rounded end with a file or sandpaper. Smooth the flattened end if possible.

    3. Set a multimeter to measure a small current and connect its probes to the LED leads. (OK to simply hold tightly with your fingers.)

    4. Point the LED as directly as possible toward the sun through that remarkable observation window, ideally with the sun normal to the surface of the window.

    5. Record the current produced by the LED. It will be low milliamperes.

    6. Write the current, date and circumstances on a card and stuff it and the LED in a poly bag.

    7. If time and circumstances permit, repeat the above for several red and green LEDs.

    8. Send LED(s) and data to me after your May landing. (Address sent later.) I will take the LED(s) to Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory and do a careful Langley calibration. I’ll return the LEDs and draft a short paper for us to co-author on the first comparison of the extraterrestrial constant of an LED measured from space and the surface.

    Wish I could be there!

    All the best,

    Forrest M. Mims III

  4. What is the best vaccum you have attained on the ISS? Do you have an STM on board? What UHV experiments have you done?

  5. Don, I wonder how do you sleep in the micro gravity. Do you use velcro?
    Maybe you can tell us something about this… Thank you.

  6. I love space.It is a wonder,and i always wonder,i also wonder if the space station we see is the International Space Station…

  7. This blog and the J2X engine blog are my favorites. Your posts about ordinary stuff (i.e., going potty, eating, etc.)and the differences between earth and space are so enlightening. What everyone here on earth takes for granted, has to be so well thought out in space.

    When people ask me why it’s so hard to take a trip to Mars, I just send them a link to your blog and show them how hard it is just to keep humans in space a mere 240 miles over are heads, much less the millions of miles it would take to get to Mars.

    Please keep these posts coming and thank you for making these incredibly complex things so easy to understand!!

  8. Since you are looking for experiments….. just a thought.

    You have what we here on earth lack, an extremely cheap and versatile source for high vacuum. Use it. One area which, though still utilized on a minimal scale, could be expanded through experimentation in space. What I refer to is vacuum based circuitry. Remember that “vacuum tubes” here on earth due to manufacturing constraints are necessarily bulky and are very fragile both due to the clunky glass envelope which must maintain said vacuum inside the device. A main driver for the terrestrial changeover to solid state here on terra firma. Remeber also that vacuum tube circuitry is much more precise and “clean” in many applications than solid state.

    Entire circuits could should theoretically be possible using nothing but tiny metal elements for grids/anodes/cathodes in space, as they could be exposed directly to the vacuum with no clunky envelope, and cooling is cheap in the shade.

    Like I said, just a thought.

    Paul Andrulis

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