Crew Ends Week Researching Space Physics, Biology and Time

Flight Engineer Serena Auñón-Chancellor checks on plants being grown for botany research aboard the International Space Station. NASA is exploring ways to keep astronauts self-sufficient as humans learn to live longer and farther out into space and beyond low-Earth orbit.
Flight Engineer Serena Auñón-Chancellor checks on plants being grown for botany research aboard the International Space Station. NASA is exploring ways to keep astronauts self-sufficient as humans learn to live longer and farther out into space and beyond low-Earth orbit.
A crew of three from around the world are heading into the weekend aboard the International Space Station. The Expedition 57 trio from the United States, Russia and Germany studied a variety of space phenomena today including physics, biology and time perception.

Flight Engineer Serena Auñón-Chancellor joined Commander Alexander Gerst for eye checks first thing Friday morning. The duo then split up for a science-filled day and preparations for the next U.S. cargo mission.

Serena spent most of the day in the Japanese Kibo lab module mixing protein crystal samples and stowing them in an incubator for later analysis. She moved on to a little space gardening for the VEG-03 study before stowing gear that sequences ribonucleic acid, or RNA, from unknown microbes living in the station.

Serena also found time to set up a command panel for communications with a Cygnus cargo craft when it arrives to resupply the station Nov. 18. The resupply ship from U.S. company Northrop Grumman is being packed and readied for launch atop an Antares rocket Nov. 15 at 4:49 a.m. EST. from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Gerst spent over an hour in the European Columbus lab module today researching how astronauts perceive time in space including its physical and mental impacts. The German astronaut from ESA (European Space Agency) also configured a specialized microscope for more protein crystal observations.

Flight Engineer Sergey Prokopyev from Roscosmos continued his week-long research exploring complex plasmas, or ionized gases produced by high temperatures. The Russian experiment may benefit space physics research and improve spacecraft designs. The cosmonaut also swapped fuel bottles inside the Combustion Integrated Rack to maintain ongoing flame and gas research aboard the station.

Station crew investigates quality of space-faring life with studies on cabin air, food systems

Space Algae in Veggie facility.
Space Algae culture bags are pictured after installation in the Veggie Facility. Image Credit: NASA
Today, Expedition 56 crewmates balanced work on science investigations in between housekeeping duties aboard the International Space Station.

The crew retrieved samplers as part of the Aerosol Sampling Experiment that had been deployed the day before in Nodes 1 and 3. After connecting them to chargers, they were redeployed for a second round of sampling. The battery-powered samplers pull in air and collect particles through thermophoresis, a process in which different particle types exhibit different responses to the force of a temperature gradient. The collected cabin air particles are later returned to Earth so investigators can study them with powerful microscopes.

The Veggie facility amped up production with an additional six space algae culture bags installed by the astronauts for future studies. The Space Algae investigation will further NASA’s understanding of how plants respond and grow in spaceflight using state-of-the-art omics approaches. Algae may perceive microgravity as a physical stress, which can trigger the production of high-value compounds. Scientists plan to sequence whole genomes of the space-grown algal populations to identify genes related to growth in spaceflight and evaluate how their composition changes in low-Earth orbit.

In addition, the crew continued the organization, packing and loading of items slated for return on SpaceX’s Dragon early next month.

Space enthusiasts should tune in to NASA Television this week as the Saint Louis Science Center and NASA’s Stennis Space Center each host educational downlinks as part of NASA’s Year of Education on Station. The Earth-to-space call with the Saint Louis Science Center happens July 18 at 12:20 p.m. EDT and will include summer campers ranging from Kindergarten to 12th grade. Second to 10th graders participating in ASTRO CAMPs in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas will get their turn to engage with station residents about living and working in microgravity the following day, July 19, at 11:30 a.m. with Stennis hosting. Watch the events unfold live on NASA TV or the agency’s website.

While launch awaits, the science does not

Expedition 55 prime and backup crew
At the Cosmonaut Hotel crew quarters in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, the Expedition 55 prime and backup crew members pose for pictures by a Soyuz model as part of their pre-launch activities. From left to right are prime crew members Ricky Arnold of NASA, Oleg Artemyev of Roscosmos and Drew Feustel of NASA, and backup crew members Alexey Ovchinin of Roscosmos and Nick Hague of NASA.

As the International Space Station orbits Earth with three occupants already onboard, on the ground below in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, three more crewmates are engaged in activities leading up to a March 21 liftoff on a Soyuz MS-08 spacecraft to join them. (You can watch this launch live on NASA TV, with coverage beginning at 12:45 p.m. EDT.)

Today the future Expedition 55-56 crew members, NASA Flight Engineers Ricky Arnold and Drew Feustel, along with Soyuz Commander Oleg Artemyev, engaged with journalists for media day, sharing how they will continue work on hundreds of experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science aboard humanity’s only permanently occupied microgravity laboratory. This crew will build on the trend of long-term increase in U.S. crew size from three to four, allowing NASA to maximize time dedicated time for investigative research.

Meanwhile, off the Earth, the Expedition 55 crew reconfigured the JEM Airlock in support of an upcoming experiment: Materials on ISS Experiment – Flight Facility (MISSE-FF) payload operations. This study exposes sample plates containing a variety of surface materials to the harsh environs of space outside the station for varying durations. Data collected will inform satellite designers how different materials can degrade over time—a topic of great importance when it comes to designing and building spacecraft and structures to withstand a journey through the cosmos. 

On Friday, Flight Engineer Scott Tingle of NASA will wrap up the week talking to science teachers—and lots of them—via an educational in-flight event with the National Science Teachers Association National Conference. During this downlink highlighting the Year of Education on Station, teachers from as far as the United Arab Emirates will pose their own burning questions for the astronaut and learn more about how to living—and working—is accomplished in microgravity.

Spacewalk and cargo preps punctuated with media outreach

Flight Engineers Norishige Kanai and Scott Tingle
From left, Flight Engineers Norishige Kanai and Scott Tingle take part in an in-flight media event aboard the orbiting laboratory. Image Credit: NASA TV

It’s a new day in space aboard the International Space Station, and three Expedition 55 crew members are prepping for an upcoming spacewalk and cargo-transfer activities while also sharing the wonders of our orbiting laboratory.

March 29 is the target date of the next U.S. spacewalk. To begin preparations for the excursion, the crew swapped out Extravehicular Mobility Units, or EMUs, and began resizing the suits. Also on the task list: packing up suit parts intended for return to Earth with SpaceX CRS-14.

In addition, the crewmates spent time reconfiguring the European Physiology Module rack for the future installation of ESA’s ICE Cubes Facility (ICF). The ICF will provide commercial entities simplified, low-cost access to the space station with individual experiment cubes—small investigations that could make large impacts within the scientific community.

NASA astronaut Scott Tingle and Norishige Kanai from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency shared how space station benefits humankind off the Earth, for the Earth, during two in-flight Public Affairs events live on NASA TV. The first interview was with KYW-TV in Philadelphia, while the second was with NPR’s 1A Broadcast on WAMU Radio in Washington, D.C.

Later, a reboost is planned using the Progress 69P spacecraft to lift station to the correct altitude for a Soyuz 53S undock and landing early this summer.

Investigations this week set the stage for longer missions in space

Veggie experiment
The crew continued work with Veggie-03, watering the lettuce plants, documenting growth and selecting some for consumption. Image Credit: NASA

Kicking off the new week, the Expedition 55 crew aboard the International Space Station continued studies evaluating crew health, performance and sustainability for long-duration space missions.

For one such investigation, a crewmate set up Neuromapping hardware to perform tests for Flight Day 90, conducting strapped in and free-floating body configurations. This experiment studies whether long missions can cause changes to brain structure and function, motor control and multitasking abilities, as well as how long it would take the brain and body to recover from the possible effects. Previous anecdotal evidence supplied by astronauts suggests that movement control and cognition can be affected in microgravity.

The crew also continued work with Veggie-03, watering the lettuce plants, documenting growth and selecting some for consumption. Veggie-03 supports the concept that for future long-duration space missions, a fresh food supply can be grown in space to supplement the crew while far from home.

On the ground, Expedition 55-56, consisting of Soyuz Commander Oleg Artemyev and NASA Flight Engineers Ricky Arnold and Drew Feustel, checked off more reviews of launch day and rendezvous procedures in anticipation of a March 21 liftoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in a Soyuz MS-08 spacecraft. They will join the crew already in orbit following a March 23 docking.

Next Crew in Russia as Station Preps for Cargo Missions

Expedition 54-55
Expedition 54-55 is the next crew to launch to the space station. They are (from left) Norishige Kanai of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Anton Shkaplerov of Roscosmos and Scott Tingle of NASA.

The next crew to launch to the International Space Station is in Russia today for traditional ceremonies before heading to the launch site in Kazakhstan. Back in space, the Expedition 53 crew is preparing for the departure and arrival of a pair of cargo ships next week.

Three new crew members from Russia, the United States and Japan are getting ready for their Dec. 14 launch aboard the Soyuz MS-07 spacecraft to the space station’s Rassvet module. The Expedition 54-55 crew consists of Soyuz Commander and veteran station resident Anton Shkaplerov and first-time Flight Engineers Scott Tingle and Norishige Kanai.

The trio was in Star City today talking to journalists before heading to Moscow to tour Red Square and lay flowers at the Kremlin Wall where famed cosmonauts are interred. Next, the crew will head to the launch site Dec. 4 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan where they will stay for final launch preparations at the Cosmonaut Hotel.

Meanwhile, the orbiting Expedition 53 crew is packing the Cygnus cargo craft with trash before it ends its mission next week. First, ground controllers will remotely detach Cygnus from the Unity module with the Canadarm2 on Dec. 5. Cygnus will then be maneuvered over the Harmony module for a GPS test to assist NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Next, astronauts Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba will take over the robotics controls and release Cygnus back into space on Dec. 6. It will orbit Earth until Dec. 18 then enter the Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean for a fiery, but safe demise.

SpaceX is getting ready to replenish the station with its Dragon cargo craft scheduled to deliver about 4,800 pounds of crew supplies and science gear. Dragon is targeted to launch Dec. 8 from Florida atop a Falcon 9 rocket and take a two-day trip to the station. Vande Hei and Acaba are training to capture Dragon with the Canadarm2 when it reaches a point 10 meters from the station. Ground controllers will them remotely install Dragon to the Harmony module where it will stay until Jan. 6.

On top of the world

Mark Vande Hei exercises
View of Mark Vande Hei, Expedition 53 flight engineer, exercising on the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (COLBERT) T2 aboard the space station. Image Credit: NASA

When you’re on top of the world—or orbiting it—there’s no better place to be. NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) had a late night yesterday, staying up to watch a special uplink from Mission Control: Game 7 of the World Series. The winning outcome was cause for celebration, as the Astros have many fans at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, which is home base for the astronauts.

Today, the crew worked to size up the exercise equipment they rely on to sustain muscle mass and prevent bone loss while living and working in space. They set up cameras in Node 3 to capture video from multiple angles of the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) and Miniature Exercise Device (MED-2) hardware, applied body markers, performed exercises and transferred the video for delivery to Mission Control. Aboard ISS, the exercise equipment is large and bulky, which is OK because the orbiting laboratory is about the size of a three-bedroom house. But, for Mars or other destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, available space will be difficult to come by. MED-2 aims to demonstrate that small robotic actuators can provide the same quality motion and resistance for crew workout sessions, thus reducing the size and weight of exercise devices for space missions farther out and lengthier in duration. Evaluating MED-2’s game-changing technology is crucial to the design and development of second- and third-generation hardware that is much lighter, smaller and more reliable than what is used now.

An Expedition 53 crew member read “Notable Notebooks Scientists and Their Writings Read” on camera for Story Time from Space. These recordings are downlinked and then used in schools, combining science literacy with simple concept experiments that children can follow along with on the ground. The videos are posted in a library with accompanying educational materials, further promoting science, technology, engineering and math to budding scientists, engineers and explorers.

The station’s altitude was raised last night during a three minute, 26-second firing of the ISS Progress 67 thrusters. The reboost of the complex was the first of two such maneuvers this month to set up the correct trajectory for the landing of the Expedition 53 crew on Dec. 14 in south central Kazakhstan and the launch, three days later, of the Expedition 54-55 crew from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Station Crew Continues Prep for Eighth Orbital ATK Launch

Cygnus
Cygnus is an autonomous cargo vehicle that provides commercial cargo resupply services to the International Space Station. Its next launch is targeted for Nov. 11. Image Credit: NASA

Routine—and not-so-routine—housekeeping duties continue for Expedition 53 aboard the International Space Station in preparation for an upcoming Orbital ATK 8 (OA-8) commercial launch targeted for Nov. 11.

The crewmates prepared the Permanent Multipurpose Module rack fronts to accept cargo by moving smaller items off and staging them for disposal. During OA-8 cargo operations, the items marked for disposal will be swapped with new cargo arriving aboard OA-8.

During Orbital ATK’s eighth Cygnus resupply mission, the cargo craft will make a nine-minute ascent to space and then begin a two-day trek to the space station. Upon arrival, it will captured by Canadarm2 and installed for a month-long stay. Tonight, ground teams will reboost the station using the thrusters on Progress 67, which will put it at the proper altitude to meet up with Cygnus.

The crew also spent part of the workday photo documenting their uncommon “home life” aboard the orbiting laboratory for the Canadian Space Agency study called At Home in Space. This investigation assesses the culture, values and psychosocial adaptation of astronauts to a space environment shared by multinational crews during long mission timeframes. Questionnaires answered by the crew will help answer if astronauts develop a unique, shared space culture as an adaptive strategy for handling the cultural differences they encounter in their isolated and confined environment by creating a home in space.

For Flight Engineers Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba of NASA, their day was punctuated by an educational downlink with students from Shaker Heights High School in Cleveland, Ohio. The students were immersed in the science and technology studies being executed daily approximately 240 miles above Earth.

Station Crew Remains Rooted in Science as the Week Kicks Off

Veggie Harvest
Charles Spern, project manager on the Engineering Services Contract, communicates instructions for the Veggie system to astronaut Joe Acaba aboard the space station. Image Credit: NASA/Amanda Griffin

The Expedition 53 crew capped off last week’s investigations with fresh pickings of lettuce, cabbage and mizuna harvested from the Veg-03 investigation. There’s still some left, though, for the remainder of the vegetation will be allowed to grow and sprout new leaves. Since future long-duration explorers will expected to grow their own food to survive the harsh environment of space and Mars, understanding how plants respond to microgravity is an important component to a robust astronaut food system.

Plants are still on the table for the crew, so to speak, as the week kicks off. Following last week’s successful assembly and installation of the Advanced Plant Plant Habitat facility into the EXpedite the PRocessing of Experiments to Space Station (EXPRESS) Rack 5 (ER5), today the crew moved the Space Acceleration Measurement System (SAMS) Sensor Enclosure to ER5. The automated plant habitat facility will be used to conduct plant bioscience research aboard the International Space Station by providing a large, enclosed, environmentally controlled chamber.

The crewmates also set up the payload components for EarthKAM in Node 2 for a weeklong imaging session. Sally Ride EarthKAM allows thousands of students worldwide to photograph and examine Earth from a space crew’s perspective. Using the Internet, the students control a special digital camera mounted on the space station to photograph coastlines, mountain ranges and other geographic items of interest from the incomparable viewpoint of space. Later, the varied topographies are shared online for the public and participating classrooms to observe.

Around noon EDT, Station Commander Randy Bresnik and Flight Engineer Joe Acaba of NASA shared insights about living and working aboard the nation’s most unique U.S. National Laboratory with students from Santa Monica High School in Santa Monica, California.

Pope Francis and Expedition 53 Crew Exchange Thoughts About Humanity’s Deepest and Oldest Questions

Pope Francis calls ISS
On a screen at right in NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston, Pope Francis speaks to the crew aboard the International Space Station on Oct. 26. Image Credit: NASA

In the middle of a workday where the Expedition 53 crew performed a routine emergency drill and additional ocular ultrasounds to map any eye changes, there was, most certainly, a higher (phone) call that actually came from more than 200 miles below the International Space Station at the Vatican: Pope Francis phoned in.

It was no ordinary ESA (European Space Agency) in-flight event. Though the Pope did ask the requisite question—what motivated them to become astronauts/cosmonauts—the conference delved quickly into deeper topics, like the crew’s thoughts of humankind’s place in the universe. Each crew member took turns speaking to Pope Francis through ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli of Italy, who translated.

Nespoli indicated that while he remains perplexed at humankind’s role, he feels their main objective is enriching the knowledge around us. The more we know, the more we realize we don’t. Part of space station’s ultimate mission is filling in those gaps and revealing the mysteries locked away in the cosmos.

Cosmonaut Sergey Ryazansky of Roscosmos told the Pope that it was an honor to continue his grandfather’s legacy aboard the orbiting laboratory. Ryazansky’s grandfather was a chief engineer of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite to launch to space. Ryazansky said he is now part of the future of humanity, helping to open frontiers of new technology.

Commander Randy Bresnik of NASA spoke candidly to Pope Francis, saying that one cannot serve aboard the space station and not be touched to their soul. From Bresnik’s unique vantage orbiting Earth, it is obvious there are no borders. Also evident: a fragile band of atmosphere protecting billions of people below.

Pope Francis said that while society is individualistic, we need collaboration—and there is no better example of international teamwork and cohesiveness than the space station. It is the ultimate human experiment, showing that people from diverse backgrounds can band together to solve some of the most daunting problems facing the world.

“The totality is greater than the sum of its parts,” Pope Francis observed.

At the end of the call, the Pope thanked his new friends, offered his blessings and asked that they, too, pray for him in return.