NASA Celebrates Decade of Research, Looks Ahead
02.25.10
 
NASA is entering its 10th year of human presence aboard one of the greatest technological accomplishments in history -- the International Space Station. NASA's Kennedy Space Center reaches beyond station processing and launch operations, to health, energy conservation, the environment, and ultimately our quality of life.

"We have some awesome new technologies on board the station that were developed right here at Kennedy," said David Cox, project manager for International Space Station Research. NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams

Image above: Expedition 22 Commander Jeffrey Williams conducts a daily status check of a plant experiment in the Kibo laboratory of the International Space Station. Williams is holding a Kennedy Fixation Tube, or KFT, which revolutionized biological tissue preservation in space by providing hazardous chemical fixation in a triple contained device. Image credit: NASA
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Cox and his team at Kennedy's Space Life Sciences Laboratory, or SLSL, sent the Advanced Biological Research System to the station in November 2009 aboard space shuttle Atlantis on the STS-129 mission. The single locker system is being used to determine whether gravity has a direct effect on plant cells that cause stems and roots to grow.

Also developed in the SLSL is an experiment that uses real-time Portable Green Florescent Protein, or GFP, imagery so biologists can determine how plants react in space, particularly through droughts, inadequate lighting and uneven temperatures.

"The camera captures the green image and saves it to secure digital cards, and selected images can be downlinked to the ground daily for evaluation," said Howard Levine, a project scientist in the Surface Systems Office at the SLSL.

A foot-long tubular device has revolutionized tissue preservation aboard the station. The Kennedy Fixation Tube, or KFT, holds tissue samples during flight, as well as chemicals to fix and stain those samples. Several KFTs have been included in station payloads and used with a variety of plant specimens and fixatives, such as soybeans and formaldehyde.

In 2008, Kennedy's Engineering Directorate helped integrate a new Solid State Lighting Module, or SSLM, aboard the space station that the SLSL had developed. Station crews switched out fluorescent lighting fixtures with lights that use the same technology as the holiday string lights that recently adorned roofs and trees -- light-emitting diode, or LED.

"LEDs are uniquely suited to spacecraft since they are lightweight, low power and generate less heat than other light sources," said Dan Shultz, SSLM project manager. "By choosing a white LED with a strong blue peak, we help maintain circadian rhythm and thereby alertness in the crew." NASA astronaut Leland Melvin

Image above: Aboard the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Leland Melvin holds two Kennedy Space Center Fixation Tubes, or KFTs, containing TAGES plants and RNALater preservative. Image credit: NASA
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Shultz says next-generation SSLMs will contain multiple banks of LEDs to provide an "engineered" spectrum, for example a visible white light with a red, green and blue peak.

The SLSL researchers have even looked at options past shuttle retirement to get critical experiments to the station. The team developed FASTRACK, a platform designed to accommodate two single middeck lockers, or one double locker, and other compatible experiment accommodations. In September 2008, the platform took to the skies aboard Zero Gravity Corp.'s reduced gravity aircraft for testing.

With plans from Congress to designate a portion of the station's U.S. operating segment into a full-time National Laboratory, the platform could enable Kennedy to keep sending research and education missions long after the shuttle retires.

"The National Laboratory concept's success is very dependent on the success of COTS vehicles from SpaceX and Orbital Science Corp. being able to deliver payloads to the ISS," said Shannon Skinn, Kennedy's National Lab project lead. "Once those vehicles show their abilities, we expect the Space Life Sciences Lab to become a key facility for processing experiments and payloads for launch."

As the capabilities of new launch vehicles mature, Skinn says the SLSL can expect a "gold rush" of microbial virulence, or infectious disease, research to come through, as well as research and technology from other National Lab partners, such as the U. S. Department of Agriculture.

Levine said, "During the next 10 years we expect research coming out of ISS will result in new vaccines, medicines and numerous commercial applications that are currently unanticipated, all of which will benefit both life on Earth and NASA's efforts to further our exploration of space."

 
 
Rebecca Sprague
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center