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The International Lab in Space Helps Prepare for Life Beyond

NASA Johnson Space Center Director and a former astronaut Ellen Ochoa highlighted the scientific advances realized after 17 years of continuous habitation by crews of astronauts on the International Space Station during a plenary lecture at the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas. | Professional Images Photography

After 17 years of continuous habitation by a rotating crew of astronauts, the International Space Station has become a hub for scientific discoveries that might never have happened on Earth, said Ellen Ochoa, the director of the NASA Johnson Space Center and a former astronaut.

In her plenary address at the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting, Ochoa described experiments that rely on the unique environment of the first human outpost in space, assembled from one million pounds of hardware over more than 100 space flights. Ochoa was part of the first space shuttle mission to dock with the ISS in 1999.

“Most often it’s the microgravity aspect that’s most interesting to researchers, since taking gravity out of the equation of basic processes yields unexpected results,” she said. But scientists can also take advantage of the near-vacuum conditions on the station, its position hovering above the Earth’s atmosphere and its ability to monitor the entire globe.

Ochoa said the ISS has two main “customers” in the United States — NASA and the International Space Station National Laboratory. While NASA tends to use the ISS as a research ground for human spaceflight, the National Laboratory has launched a wide range of basic and applied research and educational opportunities into low orbit, under the motto “off the Earth, for the Earth,” she said.

“Research on the ISS is being conducted in areas as diverse as high-energy particle physics, Earth remote sensing, protein crystallization, human physiology, radiation, plant cultivation experiments, fluids, combustion, materials science and biology,” she said.

One of the most recent scientific accomplishments, Ochoa noted, were the first demonstrations of DNA and RNA sequencing onboard the station about a year and a half ago, by cancer biologist Kate Rubins and molecular biologist Peggy Whitson.

These types of experiments are important to NASA as they prepare for long-duration spaceflights, Ochoa said. “Now that we have this sequencer on board and we showed that we can use it, we know that we can continuously assess crewmembers’ health and also understand what microbes are inside the actual vehicle that they are operating.”

Another experiment that works particularly well in microgravity is protein crystallization, which researchers use to reveal protein structure and design new pharmaceuticals. A drug now in clinical trials in Japan for Duchenne muscular dystrophy got its start in a crystallization experiment on the ISS, she said.

Orbiting scientists are also studying bone loss, aging and gene expression and performing combustion experiments that show how flames change shape and how different fuel mixtures behave in space. Ochoa said these experiments could help improve fuel efficiency and reduce pollution on Earth.

The station has also played a role in tracking major storms and hurricanes and “ISS in general has a unique vantage point for observing with both automated equipment and hands-on equipment including photos taken by the astronauts and we participate in disaster response networks using all these data available,” said Ochoa.

Some of the work being done on the ISS to prepare for long-duration spaceflights is already being applied to pressing problems on the ground, Ochoa noted. For instance, ISS now has systems in place to recycle about 85% of the water and moisture that moves through the station — a feat that one astronaut has called “taking yesterday’s coffee and turning it into today’s coffee,” Ochoa joked. Similar filter technology, however, has been used to produce clean water in rural Mexico “at a fraction of the cost that other systems have,” she said.

Ochoa was the first Hispanic woman to go into space and has logged nearly 1000 hours in orbit on four space shuttle missions. After her talk, Ochoa fielded questions from social media about her experiences as an astronaut, including a question about which spot on Earth looked the most beautiful to her from space.

“That’s a tough one,” said Ochoa, “but I think that first of all every astronaut is emotionally attached to either where you grew up or to the places you know well … so California always really caught my eye.”

Before Ochoa’s talk, AAAS Board Member Laura Green of Florida State University presented the 2018 AAAS Award for Science Diplomacy to Lassina Zerbo and the 2018 AAAS Scientific Responsibility and Freedom Award to Marc Edwards.

[Associated image: NASA/Crew of STS-132]