Aug. 26, 2009 at 1:48 AM ET
NASA astronaut Sunita Williams uses a "lab-on-a-chip" on the international space
station in 2007. The device has been compared to the tricorder on "Star Trek."
NASA says the shuttle Discovery's mission marks the start of the international space station's transition from a construction site to a full-fledged orbital lab. But space station science is still more promise than payoff.
The folks in charge of the station's scientific program say they're just now getting a chance to make good on the scientific promise. "The STS-128 flight is going to complete the final outfitting of the station with its major research facilities," Mark Uhran, NASA's assistant associate administrator for space station, told reporters during a weekend briefing.
Among the goodies packed into Discovery's cargo bay are a brand-new space station rack designed for experiments in fluid physics, another rack devoted to materials science (with room for a zero-G furnace), a second lab freezer for storing biological samples, and scads of scientific experiments.
On the way down, Discovery will be carrying another couple of batches of experiments that have been mounted on the station's exterior for more than a year. Most of those experiments are aimed at testing how various materials stand up to the radiation and vacuum of the space environment. Some of those materials may well be used for building the Orion crew capsule that's supposed to take the shuttle's place, said Julie Robinson, NASA's space station program scientist.
Robinson and her colleagues have detailed more than 150 research projects that have been conducted aboard the space station over the past nine years or so, most notably in a technical report released earlier this year. Nevertheless, critics say the research output from the $100 billion station seems underwhelming when compared with the thousands of studies produced by the Hubble Space Telescope and other unmanned space probes.
As we discussed just last week, the space station's relatively low profile among scientists is one factor behind the rise of interest in private-sector suborbital research opportunities.
Sunday's briefing was aimed at signaling that NASA and its international partners would be making the space station more science-friendly in the years to come. Now that the station's long-duration crew has expanded from three to six, there should be more time available for doing orbital research, Uhran said. And on the flip side, researchers will be taking advantage of the fresh opportunities that are becoming available.
"We're right on the cusp of that right now," Uhran said, "and the largest reason behind that cusp has been that the perception of risk has been very high during the assembly phase. Two years ago, people weren't certain whether the space station was going to be completed on schedule."
Comeback for science?
Even three years ago, NASA acknowledged that science would have to be pushed out of the spotlight as station construction was ramped up - and the cutback in funding left some researchers out in the cold. Today, there's still some perception of risk, because NASA hasn't even committed to funding the station in 2016 and beyond. Uhran noted that "few people want to get involved" in a lab project when the lab might be shut down in just a few years.
"I think it would really cut us off short if the station ended in six years," said Jeanne Becker, chief science officer for Texas-based Astrogenetix.
Astrogenetix's research into disease virulence were held up as a success story for space station science. Starting last year, the company has flown samples into orbit aimed at studying how microbes such as the ones that cause salmonella poisoning and staph infections behave differently in space.
Earlier research found that salmonella bacteria became much more virulent in space - perhaps because the fluid conditions in zero gravity are similar to the conditions found inside our intestines. Follow-up studies supported by Astrogenetix built upon that finding by sending genetically modified roundworms into orbit.
The worms were studied after each flight to see whether blocking particular genetic factors reduced the rise in virulence, and researchers think they've hit paydirt: Astrogenetix is now trying to develop a salmonella vaccine on Earth, based on the genetic leads discovered in space. Astrogenetix is getting ready to file an application with the Food and Drug Administration to begin clinical trials, Becker said.
"We're very excited about these results, which really would not have been made possible had we not had continued access to space to be able to do iterative-type studies," she said.
The company is also conducting a multiflight study to find out whether a similar vaccine can be developed for MRSA, a drug-resistant strain of staph that has been linked to tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations. "In these survey flights, it demonstrated a good proof of concept to continue with results in MRSA," Becker said.
Thomas B. Pickens III, Astrogenetix's chairman of the board, told me that researchers weren't sure that the MRSA bacteria would spark the same virulence response that salmonella did in space. "We were on pins and needles when we sent MRSA up, and when it came back we were very pleased to find out that it acted in the same way," he said in an interview.
Pickens acknowledged that the project still had a long way to go. "The pharmaceutical industry doesn't really pay any attention to anybody unless you've gone through the FDA process," he said. And many biomedical researchers aren't yet convinced that spaceflights are necessary to figure out how to fight infectious diseases. In fact, some pooh-pooh reports of space-related "breakthroughs" as little more than efforts to sell the space program.
Pickens, however, is convinced that Astrogenetix is "on the forefront of something big."
He is already talking about taking on one of the other promised frontiers in space research: enhanced protein crystal growth in microgravity. If purer proteins can be grown in space, that could help researchers develop entirely new breeds of medications.
"They can do the aqueous proteins ... like Viagra was one that they did," Pickens said. "But when you get into the really tough stuff, the proteins that cause these really sinister diseases, those are the ones that are so complex that they can't find solutions. ... We see that as the next natural step for Astrogenetix to go to."
Benefits on Earth?
The space station already serves as a platform for solving the problems that will need to be addressed in order for humans to push out farther into outer space. For example, researchers recently found that long-duration spacefliers urgently needed to boost their vitamin D supplement, NASA's Robinson said.
But when it comes to doing science with applications on Earth - such as developing new medical treatments and new industrial materials - the jury is still out. In fact, Uhran would say that NASA has barely had a chance to make its case.
"If I look back cumulatively over the past 25 years, at the opportunities that we've had on prior programs - believe it or not, we've only had the equivalent cumulatively of about six months of laboratory time in space," Uhran said. "Remember, those missions were only 10- or 12-day missions at best. But now, with a continuously operating space station, we'll surpass that in the first 90 days. In fact, we've surpassed it already with the space station in the assembly phase. That's why I say this is a real critical juncture that we're at."
Once science really gets going on the space station, Uhran believes the questions about extending operations on the orbital outpost beyond 2015 will quickly get resolved.
"If we can get this R&D program ramped up, I'm not that concerned about the lifetime," he said. "I think it'll make its own argument."
But what do you think? Is the space station just about to come into its own as a place for doing research, or is it a scientific dead end? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.Join the Cosmic Log team by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And reserve your copy of my upcoming book, "TheCase for Pluto." You can pre-order it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Borders.