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Laboratory under construction

NASA/Marshall biotechnology may get an
early start on space station

click for larger viewDec. 10, 1998: While astronauts assemble and activate the first portion of the International Space Station, scientists working with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center are preparing experiments that will take advantage of the most extensive space-based laboratory ever devised. And although the U.S. Laboratory Module won't be attached until the year 2000, research on board the space station should start by the end of 1999.

Right: A peek at the future: Engineers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center take a look inside the U.S. Laboratory module which was shipped there in November for final outfitting. It is scheduled for launch in 2000.

Their initial efforts will be modest, but eventually scientists will have tools that include everything but the kitchen sink.

Initial space station biotechnology candidates
protein crystals - click for larger view
Protein crystals - like these of HIV reverse transcriptase - help scientists understand how diseases work.
  • DCAM, the Diffusion-Controlled Apparatus for Microgravity, grows crystals over long periods of time by letting fluids diffuse through a porous plug that acts like a timer. It has been used successfully on Mir.
  • EGN, the Enhanced GN2 Dewar, carries protein samples up frozen in liquid nitrogen, then lets them crystallize slowly after they thaw in space. It also has been used successfully on Mir.
  • VDA-2, the second-generation Vapor Diffusion Apparatus, grows protein crystals in tiny droplets extruded on the tips of specially design syringes
  • In addition, the Space Product Development Program will fly several commercial protein crystal growth experiment units, including a Protein Crystallization Facility from the University of Alabama in Birmingham.

"Most of our current inventory of payloads can fly very early," said Patton Downey, NASA discipline scientist for microgravity biotechnology research, a discipline that has had great success with experiments aboard the Space Shuttle and Russia's Mir space station.

Head start for biotechnology

Biotechnology is likely to be one of the the first microgravity science payloads aboard space station.

"We've had requests for payloads that could fly on the early space station assembly missions before the crew mans the station," continued Downey. "The space station office is asking for payloads that can operate unattended for about two months."

The biotechnology program has several science payloads that grow protein crystals. These are analyzed on Earth to determine the molecular structure so scientists can design drug therapies that target a specific problem with few or no side effects. It's a bit like safe-cracking at the atomic level.

Most of the protein crystal growth hardware requires little of the space station's resources and crew support. They only need to be turned on, and days or months later, turned off. If crew time is available, some photo documentation may be requested.

Tops on that list are payloads known as EGN and DCAM (above). Each grows large quantities of crystals by slightly different techniques.

These experiments will be conducted in an EXPRESS rack designed to handle experiments with minimal complexity, or in whatever space is available inside the Unity (Node 1) module, Zarya (the Russian-built base module), and other elements as they are added.

Links to information about space station
International Space Station - Primary web site
Research Plan for space station
Space Station launch site web page at NASA/Kennedy
Boeing Co. is NASA's prime contractor for space station.
EXPRESS rack (EXpedite the PRocessing of Experiments to the Space Station) - info from the Microgravity Science Lab 1 mission in July, 1997, where the EXPRESS rack was used for the first time aboard the shuttle.

"After that, the rotating Bioreactor experiments in cell science will start on one of the utilization flights," Downey continued. Bioreactor is more complex and will require some crew attention since the health and growth of the cell clusters inside must be monitored, and nutrient and waste bags replaced.

The NASA Bioreactor is like a rotating culture dish with a mini-life support system attached. In it, scientists can culture cells for long periods of time so they can grow in lifelike assemblies that should yield clues to how both healthy and cancerous tissues grow. From that will come new knowledge of how to improve transplants and to fight cancer.

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"What we would fly is much like what we flew on Russia's Mir," Downey said. "It would be self-contained, with its own gas supply and other resources."

The Bioreactor is anticipated to use the EXPRESS rack during its initial experiments, then expand to use a dedicated facility. Bioreactor is the key hardware element in NASA's cell science program which is managed at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Extra elbow room

click for larger viewMany of the microgravity experiments planned for space station got their start - or an important boost - from early work in the Middeck Glovebox, a tiny enclosure carried aboard the Space Shuttle and Mir. In the glovebox, astronauts were able to conduct experiments that are highly promising, but don't quite warrant a full-fledged facility of their own. They still need the personal touch.

Right: The new Microgravity Science Glovebox affords much more working space than the highly successful gloveboxes used aboard the Shuttle, Spacelab, and Mir.

Aboard space station, a larger, more capable Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) will be installed soon after the Lab module is launched.

"It's going to be a little like pulling up to one of the workbenches in the laboratory here," said Charlie Baugher the MSG project scientist. "It'll have everything but the kitchen sink."

Services provided by the new glovebox will include electrical power, air conditioning (to clean the air and cool equipment), pressurized nitrogen, a vacuum vent, color video, connections to the space station's own network and - through communications satellites and the Internet - to scientists at universities and government labs.

And lots of room. Scientists using the Middeck Glovebox had to cram experiments into containers about the size of a lunch pail, and then astronauts had to conduct the experiments in a volume just a little bigger than the lunch box. The new glovebox - with a large pull-out enclosure - will have openings 40 cm (16 in) wide to accommodate experiments as large as a carry-on bag, and more than enough room for astronauts to work around the apparatus.

"The beauty of the MSG is that it is so much more powerful than the original gloveboxes that scientists used and so more complete science can be done," said Dr. Don Gillies, the materials science discipline scientist.

On the rack(s)

The MSG will be joined by the larger Materials Science Research Facility (MSRF) which NASA/Marshall will develop and integrate.

The MSRF is a modular facility comprising three autonomous Materials Science Research Racks (MSRR) for research in the microgravity environment on space station. It will house materials processing furnaces and common systems required to operate the furnaces. Each research rack will host on-orbit replaceable Experiment Modules, Module Inserts, investigation-unique apparatus, and other equipment to conduct a wide variety of scientific investigations.

The research facility will accommodate the planned and evolving cadre of peer-reviewed science investigations. The facility will provide the apparatus for satisfying near-term and long-range materials science discipline goals and objectives to be accomplished in the U.S. Laboratory.

"It will handle a wide range of research in electronic crystals and advanced alloys," said Dr. Frank Szofran, the MSRF project scientist at NASA/Marshall.

The research facility will actually comprise three racks, each about 1 meter (40 inches) wide. Although they can be replaced in orbit, NASA envisions keeping the racks in place as long as possible and exchanging experiment systems within the racks.

MSRR-1, scheduled for launch in October 2002, will host several modules developed by NASA and the European Space Agency, one of the major space station partners.

The left side of the rack will be filled with experiments provided by NASA's Space Product Development Program which is working with industry to develop commercial applications in space processing. The Space Product Development Experiment Module (SPD EM) being developed by the Consortium for Materials Development in Space at the University of Alabama in Huntsville will accommodate multiple furnace modules, including both transparent and opaque furnaces.

Equipment for first Materials Science Research Rack (MSRR-1)
  • NASA Quench Module Insert is a furnace capable of reaching 1400oC (iron melts at 1535oC), with a cold end to establish a controlled temperature gradient. This insert will also allow rapid freezing of samples up to 8 mm (1/3 inch) in diameter. This quenching will enable the history of the solidification of complex alloys to be maintained for subsequent examination. The information gained will be applied to foundry practices in industry.
  • NASA Diffusion Module Insert is a furnace capable of reaching 1600oC, and able to maintain a constant temperature along a 100 mm (4 inch) length. Controlled gradients can also be obtained. The furnace will be used to study the speed and mechanisms by which electrically active elements can be distributed (diffusion) through a molten element such as a semiconductor. These data are important to the electronics industry and real values cannot be obtained on the ground because of the influence of gravity driven convection.
  • ESA Low Gradient Furnace Module Insert is a furnace for crystal growth capable of reaching 1600oC. Samples can be translated at slow and precise rates within a temperature controlled environment. Magnetic field capabilities, both static and rotating are available to influence the liquid flow and improve the properties of the crystalline product.
  • ESA Solidification Quench Furnace Module Insert is a furnace designed primarily for metallurgical experiments capable of reaching 1600oC, and including a quench capability. While initially designed to be used for ESA experiments, these latter two insert modules may be made available for NASA experimenters.
  • NASA Advanced Pattern Formation and Coarsening Research Module will be an on- orbit replacement for the SPD EM. It consists of a low temperature facility with a precisely controlled bath for in situ observation of the solidification and growth of transparent model materials that simulate the behavior of metals and alloys
Links to research microgravity science

The NASA Microgravity Research includes

Life and Microgravity programmatic information from NASA headquarters.

ESA microgravity and spaceflight

To read about recent microgravity science missions, visit the web sites for Microgravity Sciences Laboratory-1 - (July 1997), the U.S. Microgravity Sciences Payload -4, and the press kits for other recent microgravity missions

The right side will be filled with research equipment provided by NASA and the European Space Agency, which is also building its own lab, the Columbus Orbital Facility. NASA and ESA are each working on two module inserts for the first MSRR. These will take turns using the rack.

The full range of experiments and their schedules are being developed by NASA and its partners. They deliberately avoided locking the experiments in place because science usually moves at an unpredictable rate, and today's discoveries can redirect tomorrow's plans. Watch this space. We'll have more on space station science activities as they develop.


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Author: Dave Dooling
Curator: Linda Porter
NASA Official: Gregory S. Wilson