Making Science Crystal Clear
A pair of hands holds a dropper and a glass tube

Students prepared two protein samples, one of which traveled to the International Space Station while the other remained on Earth. Image Credit: NASA

Through its ongoing education efforts, NASA works to inspire the next generation of explorers -- today's students who will become tomorrow's engineers, scientists, astronauts and more.

But one of the agency's latest projects takes that idea even more literally than usual. In the fall of 2008, a group of high school students had the unique opportunity to be involved in spaceflight, thanks to another next-generation explorer.

When a Russian Soyuz carried two members of the Expedition 18 crew to the International Space Station in October, someone else joined them for the flight. Video game developer Richard Garriott will visit the space station for 11 days and return to Earth on another Soyuz with members of the Expedition 17 crew.

Garriott is a next-generation explorer in a very literal sense. His father is astronaut Owen Garriott, who lived on the Skylab space station for almost two months in 1973 and flew aboard the space shuttle for the first Spacelab mission in 1983.

Not only did Richard become the first child of a U.S. astronaut to travel into space, his flight will have additional significance. He will be returning to Earth with cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, who has served as the commander of the International Space Station since April 2008 and is the first child of a Russian cosmonaut to make a spaceflight.

Garriott is following in his father's footsteps not only by making a flight into orbit, but also by combining science and education while he's there. The elder Garriott was selected as one of NASA's first Scientist-Astronauts, and conducting scientific research was an important part of both his spaceflights. In addition, he worked to inspire student interest in science and spaceflight. While on Skylab, he conducted experiments that had been designed by students through a nationwide competition. He also performed science demonstrations for a series of educational films he created after his return to Earth.

Scientific research and student involvement will also be important parts of Richard Garriott's flight.

Garriott, Fincke and Lonchakov in front of a picture of the space station

Richard Garriott (left) traveled to the International Space Station with Expedition 18 Commander Michael Fincke (center) and cosmonaut Yury Lonchakov. Image Credit: NASA

In working with NASA, Garriott is providing students with a rare opportunity -- to fly a scientific experiment of their own into orbit. Through NASA's National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program, students from 45 schools in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Texas had the opportunity to participate in educational workshops in Alabama, where they prepared a protein crystal growth experiment to be flown in space.

Implemented by NASA in 1989, the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program contributes to the nation's science enterprise by funding research, education and public service projects through a national network of 52 university-based Space Grant consortia. These consortia administer projects in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The Space Grant project supports NASA's education goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

During the workshops, students learned about protein crystals and about scientific research during spaceflight. They heard from speakers, including astronauts Owen Garriott and Larry DeLucas, and University of Alabama in Huntsville biochemistry professors Joseph Ng and Edward Meehan. They toured local research facilities. And they prepared their experiments for flight.

Protein crystal growth is an area of research where spaceflight offers unique opportunities. Proteins are considered to be the main ingredients of living cells and can have a huge impact on an organism.

Unique chemical structures determine the function of proteins and give each type of protein a unique "shape." These shapes determine how proteins interact with each other or with chemicals in an organism. By learning more about the shapes, researchers can better understand how proteins work.

Owen Garriott stands in front of students

Astronaut Owen Garriott spoke to workshop attendees about his spaceflight experiences. Image Credit: NASA

In the microgravity of space, proteins can grow into larger, higher-quality crystals, which are easier for scientists to study. NASA has conducted protein crystal growth research on the space shuttle and the International Space Station.

For their experiments, students prepared samples of the protein lysozyme in special containers that Richard Garriott took with him on the Soyuz spacecraft. After his flight, the samples will be returned to the students, who will be able to compare the samples' growth with control samples that remained on Earth.

About 150 student protein samples are flying with Garriott, prepared by students from schools that work with the Space Grant Consortia. The project was devised and sponsored by the Alabama Space Grant Consortium, the University of Alabama in Huntsville and ExtremoZyme, Inc.

"The workshop exceeded my goals," said one workshop attendee. "I was hoping to learn about the science behind the study of protein crystals and to gain some more laboratory experience. I received far more than that as we were given engaging lectures on the science and entertaining presentations on the current space program from ex-astronauts. I walked away from this experience not only more knowledgeable, but inspired to possibly pursue structural biology as a career."

Related Resources
Expedition 18
Expedition 17
NASA Space Grant   →
Alabama Space Grant Consortium   →
International Space Station
NASA Education Web Site   →

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services