Monday, January 10, 2011

The International Space Station Enters the New Year with a New Era of Utilization

The new year is here, and along with it a new era of utilization for research and technology begins for the completed International Space Station. The orbiting laboratory shifts focus in 2011 from finalizing construction efforts to full-scale use of the facility for scientific investigation and technological advances.

Mark Uhran, assistant associate administrator for the International Space Station at NASA Headquarters, kicked off the year at the 49th AIAA Meeting speaking on the topic, Positioning the International Space Station for the Utilization Era.

"Full-scale ISS utilization will re-boot the spacecraft for the purposes for which it was originally designed -- scientific research, applications development, technological demonstration and industrial growth," Uhran says.

With benefits from research conducted under microgravity conditions already being realized, the NASA authorization act of 2010 extends the life of the space station to 2020. Accomplishments during the second decade of continuous human life, work and research on the station will depend upon the global-market impact of station-based research and development, as well as continued government programmatic support.

The past 25 years of microgravity-based research, on earlier missions and during station assembly, can be viewed as a survey phase. Although it can take a long time for the full application of research results in our daily lives, early space research has already yielded important progress and advances for industry and health here on Earth. In his AIAA paper, Uhran reviews five specific examples of notable discoveries and their benefits:

Thermo-physical Properties Measurement -- Using electromagnetic levitators, investigators can position and study samples free of contamination from container walls. They also can transition the samples from solid to liquid phases via energy flux. This capability has enabled the understanding of thermodynamic properties for complex, metallic glass alloys, advancing the capably to produce bulk metallic glasses on the ground. The Liquidmetal® Technologies company has recently granted an exclusive worldwide license to Apple Computer, Inc., for use of their patented Liquidmetal® alloy in consumer electronics.

Cellular Tissue Culturing -- The use of a bioreactor, originally developed for microgravity-based research, enables cells to grow and propagate in a three-dimensional matrix, similar to their natural development inside the human body. Ground-based labs were previously limited to two-dimensional cell growth. Research laboratories around the nation now routinely use bioreactors in studies of tumors and tissue growth, and the space-based research will continue on board the station in the future where conditions have proven to be optimum.

Macromolecular Crystallization -- Microgravity allows for larger and more perfect biological macromolecular crystal growth, due to the lack of sedimentation, buoyancy, thermal convection, etc. The resulting crystal allows a more exact determination of molecular structures, needed for therapeutic drug design. At the International Astronautics Congress in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 2010, Dr. Yoshihiro Urade of Japan unveiled recent results from his space station research using crystallization to learn the structure of an enzyme protein. His work has led to a potential new treatment for Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy.

Differential Gene Expression -- Gene expression radically changes under microgravity conditions because the physical forces experienced at the cellular level are different than on the ground. Improved understanding of the cues that cause genes to turn "on" and "off" is now enabled through microgravity experimentation. Healthy maintenance of human systems can benefit from a better understanding of gene expression, which regulates physiological performance.

Microbial Pathogenicity -- Some bacterial microbes have proven to be more virulent in space than on the ground. Research may lead to new vaccine development here on Earth. Microgravity investigations have shown that signal transduction pathways at the cellular level alter in the absence of gravitational forces. The original government-funded scientific studies, which focused on Salmonella enterica, have since led to privately sponsored research on the development of vaccine candidates for bacterial infections, which could help in the fight against food poisoning.

As the world looks to findings from the space station, it is necessary to anticipate a realistic lag from research to results. As Uhran explains, "The notion that a single experimental finding is going to yield a profound discovery that rapidly impacts society in the form of widely available products is well beyond the bounds of history." Even so, the survey period findings point to the promising prospects ahead in this new era of utilization, making the space station an asset of great potential to watch in the coming decade.

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