7 minute readInt’l Space Station: Science Unchained

StratPost managed a conversation with the Chief Scientist for the International Space Station program at NASA, Dr. Julie Robinson, just before the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center, who explained the range of work being done on the ISS and how that work would continue despite the imminent end of the space shuttle program this year.

“The Atlantis is carrying up all of our biology ad bio-technology experiments, that are being done by all the different partners for the space station – Japan, Europe, Canada – all have experiments on this flight. Also, It has the MRM – 1 in it, which is the Mini Research Module which gives Russia the space that they need for their laboratories in space. So it really enables research in bio-technology by the whole partnership,” says Robinson, who has an interdisciplinary background in the physical and biological sciences.

She says a vaccine development is a key area for research on the ISS.

Dr. Julie Robinson, Chief Scientist, International Space Station program, NASA.

“Different kind of bacteria become more virulent when they’re in space. And we’re trying to understand that virulence and see if we can use that to develop better treatments for illnesses. One that we’ve been working on in the past was Salmonella, which was the bacteria that causes food poisoning. Very important in the US as well as the developing world. Salmonella’s a huge health problem,” she explains.

The work done on the ISS has been validated too, with a possible treatment on the anvil.

“We’ve had the success with the Salmonella – there is a candidate vaccine that’s been developed and that’s been proposed to our regulatory agencies as a new drug – to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). And it’s being evaluated now. It’s not a vaccine yet because it hasn’t been tested and proven to work in humans but its a good candidate vaccine,” says Dr. Robinson.

And there’s more. Experiments are also looking into ways to produce treatments for the deadly MRSA bacterial infection.

Dr. Robinson says, “Now we’re working on Methicillin-Resistant Staphlococcus Aureus (MRSA), which is the bacteria that causes infections in hospitals and the antibiotics can’t treat it. So it’s a very serious disease – it kills 90,000 people in the US every year. And they’re looking to see if we can use the space environment to help us find a better vaccine to treat that.”

And they’re looking to experiment on other organisms too.

“We’ve got a number of different scientists that are looking at all the other different bacteria that are out there to see if this pattern that we’re finding with Salmonella and MRSA could apply to other organisms and in fact many different partners are now flying different kinds of bacteria to see how those bacteria grow in space,” says the NASA scientist.

But its not only vaccine research that scientist are working on at the ISS.

Dr. Robinson says, We have other lines of research too, for example, cell differentiation and development, cell biology – that’s a very important area for understanding life and also understanding disease and understanding problems with our bodies.”

“One that really stands out in my mind is the Japanese experiment looking at cells from fish scales. The cells are called osteoblasts and they’re the cells that build the fish scale. They’re very similar to the cells in our bodies that build bones. And we know that these cells don’t function the same way in space as they do on the ground.”

According to her, this will help understand and perhaps find ways to alleviate a problem astronauts have to deal with in space.

“Astronauts lose bone mass when they’re in space because these cells don’t function the same way. The osteoblasts and the osteoclasts. But in Japan, because seafood is such an important industrial product, they’re interested in whether the space flown results from bone also apply to the development of scales,” she says.

The ISS is also carrying out experiments on increasing the yield of bio-fuel from the plant, Jatropha.

“There are a set of experiments called NLP cells and one of the things that we’re flying in that experiment are cells from a plant called Jatropha. It’s an important nut for bio-fuel. And it’s from Central Asia,” says Dr. Robinson.

“Our scientists are interested in whether we could develop a kind of Jatropha that produces more oil per plant. Either a bigger seed, or oilier nut or more nuts on the plant and because cells differentiate more rapidly and differently in space they’re flying cells from Jatropha to understand how they’re dividing and growing in space to see if they can take that knowledge and bring it back to earth and make a better Jatropha plant that would be more productive for bio-fuel. This is an ongoing study. This will be its third flight. So far the investigators told me that the results are interesting – they justify doing the additional flights but they’re not yet ready to announce any final results,” she elaborates.

But she also clarifies that this will take some time to show results down here on earth, saying, “Usually it takes between four to ten experiments, because in a laboratory the scientists will do an experiment and then they’ll see the results and then they’ll do a different experiment and see the results and do a different experiment. And the same is true in space flight. So I would expect to see information on whether Jatropha’s going to be a productive – product will come from that – I would expect to see those results down on the space station in the next one to two years. But then it might be four or five years before that would turn into a commercial product. It takes time for that development to happen.”

Dr. Robinson thinks much has been achieved from their experiments on the space station, offering the example of a water filter.

“There are great things that come from the technologies that we test on the space station. For example – our water system – we develop new filters for that water system. Those have been turned into a small portable filter that can be taken anywhere in the world when there’s a disaster, to provide clean water. And those filters were implemented after the earthquake in India, for example. Those filters were brought in,” she says.

How does it work?

“This is a new technology and it doesn’t require any power at all. So in a disaster area where all the power’s out, all you need is a gravity feed and it can just feed through by – you know if you just have a little hill, that’s enough – and you can provide clean water to a small community. It’s very important,” she says.

So what’s the future of all this work on the ISS, once the space shuttle program comes to an end?

“The partnership has a number of different vehicles and we collaborate together to bring the re-supplies and the lab equipment that we need to the space station. So we have the Russian Soyuz and Progress vehicles – we have the European ATV vehicle and we have the Japan-built HTV vehicle and then American companies are building two new vehicles Dragons being built by Space X and the Orbital is building a new vehicle as well. And so those vehicles will allow us to keep up our resupply,” explains Dr. Robinson.

“(We’ll be relying on ) The Soyuz for crew transportation but for cargo transportation to do the science we have all those other vehicles. So there’s a number of other vehicles. Most of them are unmanned, because you can have an automated docking. You don’t need a manned vehicle to deliver your equipment,” she clarifies.

These alternatives allow her to exude confidence.

“We’re just going to keep going and keep doing the research because we have all these different cargo vehicles, we’ll be able to keep bringing up our samples. And then we’ll bring them home on the Space X vehicle when that’s operational. And till that’s operational we have the capability to store up to three years of samples in space until we can bring them home,” says Dr. Robinson.

Your correspondent’s visit to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to witness the Atlantis launch was facilitated by the Boeing Company.

So what do you think?