I visited the Johnson Space Center in Houston this week for the latest NASA Social, a behind the scenes look at the International Space Station (ISS). It was really fun! And I learned a lot.
Currently there are 139 experiments going on in the ISS, which is about the size of a football field. They include Biology and Biotechnology, Earth and Space Science, Educational and Cultural Activities, Human Research, Physical Science and Technology. My primary interest (of course) was in learning about the Human Research, and there is quite a bit. Over the duration of their six month missions, each astronaut participates in approximately 20 human tests. They get to pick which experiments they want to do from a list of options approved by the science office at Johnson, then they have two years of working with their flight surgeons and trainers in preparation for running them in space. They might be collecting their own blood, swabbing their cheeks, testing their muscle mass, vision, blood pressure, or any number of other things, but they all have to adhere to the specific protocols of the tests’ design.
Astronauts are also monitoring tests, turning them on and off, etc. Some examples running now are a Capillary Flow Experiment (CFE), studying how liquids adhere and move across surfaces, and several microbial tests. The results of the CFE are expected to help improve portable medical diagnostics, and studying bacteria in microgravity is leading to increased understanding and, in some cases, vaccines. Human trials may be starting soon for vaccines for Salmonella and MRSA. After these bacteria were flown in space and became more pathogenetic, researchers were able to isolate the controlling genes and figure out how to shut them off.
My graduate research is of the changes to the eye in spaceflight, and I learned quite a bit about what NASA is doing about the known problems moving forward. Astronauts can return to Earth with quite serious pathology including optic disc edema (papilledema), choroidal folds, optic nerve sheath distention, and globe flattening, to name a few. The seriousness of the problems has promoted eye research to the front of the line and new measuring equipment is being sent to the station for an in depth study beginning this month. Details can be found here: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/204.html.
The mocked up ISS Lab. Everything works in here for astronauts to train. Check out the “floor” and “ceiling” which have spaces for experiments.
ISS Training Lab (a better shot of the “ceiling”)
Building 9 Training Center
More of the training building. A huge warehouse they just call Building 9.
The evolution of the space suit. You couldn’t leave the spacecraft in the Mercury suits, the Apollo suits didn’t have fine motor control, and the Shuttle suits could get pretty hot. The current suits work well but there are new suits coming soon with even faster acclimation to pressure changes.
Me in the Mission Control room used for the Apollo missions. Preserved as an historic site.