The World's Highest Laboratory
The space station's finished. Now what?
- By Guy Gugliotta
- Air & Space magazine, March 2012
(Page 4 of 5)
Similar research was done by Astrogenetix, a company in Austin, Texas, which knocked out several salmonella genes and flew those cultures in worms on the shuttle. In doing so, they took away the bacteria’s infective power. The company plans to submit its findings to the Food and Drug Administration to get the altered bacteria approved as an investigational new drug, with the goal of creating a vaccine.
NIH, a longtime NASA collaborator, is interested in this biomedical research and has begun a grant program seeking applications from a broad range of disciplines. “The idea is to increase the use of the space station for research that applies to a much broader purpose—human health,” says Joan McGowan, director of NIH’s division of musculoskeletal diseases, who is overseeing the competition.
Arizona State’s Nickerson, for one, is an applicant, and already has an agreement with NASA to test salmonella in space as a carrier for a pneumonia vaccine that is under development. “Gravity may mask changes in gene expression that regulate a live vaccine,” she says. “Our hypothesis is that spaceflight will make our vaccine stronger. We want to observe these changes in space, then tweak the vaccine to get a better strain.”
Another project, directed by Harvard Medical School assistant professor Paola Divieti Pajevic, one of the first NIH grantees, will grow bone cells in space to find genes that sense gravity and regulate bone mass. “By either stimulating genes or blocking genes, we can perhaps prevent bone loss or stimulate bone growth in patients on the ground,” she says. “The ISS would be the proof of principle that our lab model is working.”
Under the terms of the NIH program, Divieti Pajevic has two years to prepare the experiment before flying it. NIH and NASA have asked the team to design the project so it keeps astronaut time to a minimum, and to make sure there is a way to provide electricity to the payload during launch and docking. Another limitation, she notes, is that “you only get one shot.” If the experiment does not work immediately, there’s no tweaking for second chances.
MANY IN THE AEROSPACE community are generally upbeat about the station’s possibilities, noting that it already has weathered hard times. Station research suffered a blow during the George W. Bush administration, when the budget for human spaceflight was focused on a return to the moon and eventually a manned flight to Mars. Station science was further hurt in the aftermath of the 2003 Columbia disaster, when the shuttles were grounded for more than three years. “Life science was cut by 90 percent,” says former astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman, a professor of aerospace engineering at MIT. “Engineering technology research budgets were decimated.”
Now, though, “there’s a commitment to actually implement the National Lab,” says Hoffman. Even so, he cautions, “the challenge of turning the space station into a working, efficient laboratory is going to be every bit as difficult as building it in the first place. There are a lot of people running the space station who want to maximize the return. Inherent in the NASA system are a huge number of impediments thrown in the way, and when you add it all together, it’s a lot harder to use the space station than it probably needs to be.”
NASA and other agencies, he says, will have to find the money to fund the research, and astronauts who in the past spent much of their time on maintenance will have to make time to work on science—whether for NASA or CASIS. Scientists on the ground will have to be able to communicate more easily with astronauts aloft instead of funneling every word through NASA interlocutors. “There is a lot of bureaucracy,” Hoffman says.