Status Report

NASA: Space Research – Setting New Research Priorities

By SpaceRef Editor
August 4, 2003
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The Office of Biological and Physical Research is developing a comprehensive research plan around five organizing questions to propel NASA into the next realm of exploration.

When the construction of the International Space Station (ISS) is completed, the station will be an orbiting laboratory fully dedicated to scientific and engineering research. Given limitations on resources, what scientific research is vital to take full advantage of this unique long-term microgravity facility, as well as other spacecraft and research facilities on the ground, to fully realize NASA’s vision for the future?

That was the big question that NASA’s Office of Biological and Physical Research (OBPR) addressed as it built its 10-year research plan. The OBPR Research Plan, an outgrowth of the analysis and prioritization of OBPR research by the Research Maximization and Prioritization (ReMAP) task force, is based in part on five organizing questions. These questions will guide the direction of OBPR scientific investigations and steer the solicitation, selection, and development of its experiments for the next 10 years.

Reaching Between Disciplines

Using questions instead of individual scientific disciplines to determine what research to solicit and support during the next 10 years provides an extra degree of flexibility. OBPR hopes the new organizing questions will encourage an interdisciplinary approach to research, generating new ideas and outcomes. This approach also avoids the potential for overlooking fruitful projects because they don’t easily fit into one of OBPR’s four research divisions. Using one set of questions as a guide for all research in OBPR also unifies the enterprise. These questions clearly serve NASA’s goals, which, in turn, serve the overarching missions of the agency, as documented in the NASA 2003 Strategic Plan.

In late 2002, OBPR’s Acting Deputy Associate Administrator for Science Howard Ross took on the task of formulating the organizing questions. His efforts resulted in five questions that OBPR research must answer to bring NASA closer to realizing its vision, which is “to improve life here, extend life to there, and to find life beyond.” The questions are now the core of the new OBPR Research Plan, steering the solicitation, selection, and development of experiments to be conducted on the ground and in flight for the next 10 years. The new plan also serves as a foundation for the next step in exploration: sending humans beyond low Earth orbit.

Below are the five organizing questions, followed by synopses of the kinds of research each question will involve and how the answers will contribute to the realization of NASA’s vision.

The Five Organizing Questions

Question #1: How can we assure survival of humans traveling far from Earth?

The space environment is a challenging one, as living organisms undergo changes in microgravity and experience environmental effects such as radiation. Evidence has shown conclusively that many of these effects increase in severity when space travel is extended from short term to long term. Research is necessary both to identify detrimental effects and to devise countermeasures or methods to mitigate them.

One example of these effects is the increased rate of bone loss during spaceflight. OBPR has been studying this phenomenon and has determined that some bone mass may not return to preflight density levels for two or more years after flight. To understand and quantify the rate and distribution of loss in bone mass during spaceflight, as well as its recovery back on Earth, Principal Investigator (PI) Thomas Lang of the University of California, San Francisco, has been examining astronauts preflight, immediately postflight, and one year after flight. Through his research, Lang has found that bone loss and recovery occur differently in the two basic types of bone: cortical (found in long bones) and trabecular (found in places of stress, such as near joints of long bones and in vertebral bones). Previous research showed that while cortical bone loss is restored after spaceflight, trabecular bone loss might be to some degree permanent. Since trabecular bone mass is lost where bone is most vulnerable to stress, any degree of loss is potentially dangerous for astronauts, especially on long-term missions.

Flight research is planned or already under way to test several countermeasures, both mechanical and pharmaceutical, that have shown promise in reducing bone loss. One countermeasure is a vibrating platform developed by PI Clinton Rubin at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. Bone mass is lost in space largely because the body is not subjected to the normal stresses caused by maintaining an upright posture under gravity. Without gravitational stress, the human body realizes it no longer needs such strong bones, and bone mass is lost. The vibrating platform uses low-magnitude, high-frequency signals to reintroduce this stress by tricking the body into thinking it is in something akin to normal gravity. This countermeasure potentially could also encourage bone growth in patients on Earth, such as elderly women and the bedridden, who suffer from accelerated rates of bone loss from osteoporosis or general inactivity.

Increased exposure to cosmic radiation is another significant risk of spaceflight. The ISS is in low Earth orbit, outside the atmosphere that protects Earth from much of the radiation bombarding everything in interplanetary space. Although the ISS is shielded, astronauts are still exposed to more radiation than on Earth. They are especially vulnerable during spacewalks, when they work outside the ISS. PI Ian Thomson of Thomson Nielsen Electronics Ltd. in Ontario, Canada, recently conducted experiments on the ISS to measure radiation doses to skin, eyes, and blood-forming organs to determine where the body receives the highest levels of radiation. These data will help researchers develop more effective monitoring and shielding for the astronauts during spacewalks.

In addition to the environment’s effect on the body, there is the ever-present risk of injury or illness — of particular concern for longer space journeys, during which astronauts will not have access to more than rudimentary medical treatment. OBPR is developing microscopic in-vitro health monitoring and diagnostic devices to detect health changes much earlier than conventional tools. Such early-detection devices could also provide new diagnostics on Earth, especially for diseases such as cancer.

Research into clinical and operational medicine, radiation health, physiology, behavior and performance, environmental health, and biology is necessary to solve these and other potential health problems before longer-term human space travel can be attempted safely. To optimize health-risk–reduction research, OBPR has created a Critical Path Roadmap to guide researchers and medical personnel in their search for better understanding of the medical effects of space travel and the development of countermeasures. (For more information, go to

Question #2: What must we know about how space changes life forms, so that humankind will flourish?

Scientists are just beginning to understand the effects of gravity on the life processes of organisms at the molecular, cellular, and organismal levels. Although such understanding is valuable for predicting how organisms might react to microgravity and the low-gravity environments of other planets, the resulting knowledge addresses much deeper issues. To understand how an organism reacts to microgravity, scientists must first understand many of the fundamental biological laws and processes that govern it.

Several experiments are studying how internal organs are affected by spaceflight. One is an investigation of the effects of microgravity on liver cells. The liver has many functions, including breaking down toxins or drugs into less harmful solutions. In a joint study with OBPR, PI Albert Li of StelSys Inc. in Baltimore, Maryland, analyzed the effects of microgravity on this function of liver cells. Live liver cells were transported to the ISS, grown in microgravity, frozen, and then returned to Earth for study. The liver cells’ reaction to microgravity provides researchers with valuable information about microgravity’s effect on the body and may provide insights into how the liver functions in general. Results may advance the development of drugs and medical treatment for patients on Earth who are suffering from liver diseases.

Another example of research into the effects of microgravity on organisms is the recent study of the reproduction of sea urchins, led by PI Joseph Tash of the University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City. In experiments both ground-based and on space shuttle missions STS-81 and STS-84, Tash compared the motility (and thus functionality) of sea urchin sperm. He found that sperm become mobile more quickly and slow down more slowly in microgravity than they do in gravity equal to or higher than that on Earth. His results suggest that further study is needed to determine how microgravity could affect reproduction in space — especially important when long-term exploration and colonization become a reality. A greater understanding of reproduction may also benefit many people on Earth who suffer from reproduction disorders.

It is believed that microgravity research into cell and molecular biology (combined with molecular structures and interactions, and cell science and tissue engineering), organismal and comparative biology, developmental biology, and evolutionary biology will reveal answers to mysteries and take researchers that much closer to understanding life and its origins.

Question #3: What new opportunities can our research bring to expand our understanding of the laws of nature and enrich lives on Earth?

One of NASA’s purposes is to enhance human life on Earth. Research in microgravity can reveal phenomena that occur in everyday processes here on the ground but are masked by the effects of gravity. Investigations of energy conversion; fundamental laws; condensed matter; kinetics, structure, and transport; fluid stability and dynamics; phase transformation; human factors engineering; and biotechnology increase fundamental understanding of the physical and biological world and lead to new technologies and products.

One project that examines a basic phenomenon and also has significant applications on Earth is the Physics of Colloids in Space (PCS) experiment. PCS flew on the ISS in 2001–2002 and is scheduled to fly again in 2004 as PCS-3.

Colloids are systems of fine particles suspended in a fluid. PCS PIs David Weitz of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Peter Pusey of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, believe that their studies of colloids in microgravity have revealed valuable fundamental information about colloidal properties, particularly yielding insight into the mechanisms of aggregation, that is, the formation of gels and crystals within colloid solutions. These findings can help advance the field of photonics and the properties of products such as paints, ceramics, foods, and pharmaceuticals. PCS-3 adds two more PIs to the project: Eric Weeks of Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, and Michael Solomon of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Another investigation of colloids, headed by PIs Paul Chaikin and William Russel, both of Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, is scheduled to fly on the station in 2003. PCS+ will study eight new samples of colloids using updated PCS hardware to increase the knowledge of colloidal solutions and will allow its PIs to take advantage of modifications that were made to the original hardware after the Physics of Hard Spheres experiment.

OBPR is committed to forming partnerships with industry, business, and academia to bring entrepreneurship in engineering research and development into space. Such partnerships benefit businesses by offering opportunities to do research not possible on Earth that enhance their development of better manufacturing practices and products. The partnerships benefit NASA by strengthening its bonds with the private sector and other government agencies and by sharing the financial burden involved in supporting space travel.

One research project that offers great partnership potential is the search for ways to microencapsulate pharmaceuticals to improve drug delivery. Its three PIs all hail from Texas: Dennis Morrison, Johnson Space Center, Houston; Ben Mosier, the Institute for Research Inc., Houston; and Allison Ficht, Texas A&M University, College Station. Their experiment, which flew in the space shuttle and on the ISS, was designed to enclose one or more drugs in a liquid-filled microballoon. Such enclosures have been shown to improve drug delivery and have produced very encouraging results in treatments of cancer, especially tumors. Flown on STS-95 and during ISS Expedition 5, this project has already garnered several patents; the investigators are now seeking commercial partners to further the microencapsulation technology.

Question #4: What technology must we create to enable the next explorers to go beyond where we have been?

Although plans for further travel beyond low Earth orbit are still in computers and imaginations, OBPR is using the ISS to look for solutions to problems that might be encountered on longer spaceflights. For example, one challenge to all spacecraft is protection from onboard fires. In a confined craft, any form of combustion is extremely dangerous — smoldering especially so because it can invisibly release toxic by-products or suddenly burst into flames. The physics of combustion itself is different in microgravity than on Earth and thus a fire requires different responses.

PI A. Carlos Fernandez-Pello of the University of California, Berkeley, is using the Microgravity Smoldering Combustion (MSC) project to test the effect of various airflow conditions on smoldering combustion in space and on Earth. MSC has flown on several space shuttle missions, testing different conditions each time.

One study of fire-fighting techniques is the Water Mist Fire-Suppression Experiment (MIST), run by PIs J. Thomas McKinnon, Angel Abbud-Madrid, and Edward Reidel, all of the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. They are studying the use of a fine mist of water droplets instead of chemicals for fire suppression. Their objective is to determine the optimal parameters (such as water droplet diameter and different ratios of fuel to oxygen concentration) for controlling the speed of a flame in a tube, in hopes of developing effective mist fire-suppression systems for use both in space and on Earth.

Additional investigations into the problems of longer space journeys and extended stays on other planets focus on aspects of fire safety as well as environmental monitoring and control, advanced life support, enabling knowledge for propulsion and power, human factors engineering, fluid stability and dynamics, and phase transformation.

Question # 5: How can we educate and inspire the next generations to take the journey?

NASA has always sought to nurture scientific curiosity and the desire to explore. Now, more than ever, the agency is committed to inspiring current and future generations to explore, to expand their horizons, and to share what they find so that our culture and civilization will flourish and our leadership remain strong.

OBPR proactively supports science education and engages the general public in space research. The Educational Outreach Program has designed a variety of classroom activities appropriate for primary and secondary (K–12) school students and teachers. Many OBPR investigators and researchers work directly with K–12 students and with college undergraduates to give them hands-on experiences in conducting research. Some OBPR student projects have flown on the ISS or the space shuttle, contributing valuable scientific knowledge.

OBPR brings space research information to public interest events such as the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Airventure show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The Public Outreach Program sponsors exhibits at science, technology, and education conferences and gatherings. In recent months, OBPR has participated in conferences for such professional organizations as the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the National Medical Association, and the American Public Health Association. OBPR also maintains several web sites, creates multimedia interactive exhibits for museums, and publishes the quarterly full-color newsletter Space Research, which is distributed to educators, researchers, and members of the public who are interested in science.

A primary outreach goal is to attract promising minority students into research. For example, since 1984, the Spaceflight and Life Sciences Training Program has encouraged minority undergraduate students to pursue careers in science, technology, and engineering. In a six-week summer program, undergraduate trainees spend 60 percent of their time conducting research under mentoring scientists and engineers. Lectures are presented by researchers from NASA, academia, and various government agencies. Trainees present their research projects during the final week. They receive six credit hours from Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, Alabama, a NASA academic partner for the program.

Another goal of OBPR outreach is to share the excitement of space experiments with students. This year, the Space Product Development (SPD) Division is developing material for the Professional Development Workshop for Educators. The project includes a classroom experiment that simulates a space research experiment conducted by SPD’s research partners. The purpose is to give students and educators a better understanding of how industry uses space experiments to develop innovative products that benefit life on Earth. By involving children and adults in space research, NASA shares its discoveries; increases interest in science, math, and technology careers; and secures the continuance of the great adventure of exploring space.

Without a doubt, OBPR is committed to engaging the public in current space research missions. One example is the “Countdown to Launch” event held on June 25, 2002. This event highlighted hands-on education outreach activities that featured actual experiments that flew aboard STS-107. Khalid Alshibli, project scientist for the STS-107 Mechanics of Granular Materials (MGM) experiment, displayed the MGM flight hardware and explained the science behind the experiment. Alshibli also wrote classroom activities for middle and high school students that explained the MGM experiments (the activities are available at Other OBPR researchers have also contributed to developing activities that involve students in their experiments and give them hands-on experience not usually possible in a classroom.

The Internet and multimedia technology provide new possibilities for sharing the excitement of space research. For example, the new Virtual Astronaut web site uses interactive 3-D ISS simulation to integrate life science data, ISS research, and NASA educational products into a suite of instructional materials. Virtual Astronaut (http://virtualastronaut.jsc. allows educators to show middle school students recent findings in physical, space, and life sciences through electronic student activities and as teacher materials.

What’s Next?

If OBPR is to inspire the next generation to reach for their dreams in space, it must first lay the groundwork to enable that generation to do more than dream. The OBPR Research Plan includes a section that describes the steps humans will need to take to build on the legacy of the Apollo program beyond low Earth orbit. Another group, led by NASA Space Architect Gary Martin, has the task and privilege of looking to the distant horizon and determining what it will take for humankind to make the next big leap.

Martin’s team has developed a 25-year strategy to get humans from Earth and low Earth orbit all the way to the ability to travel “anywhere, anytime.” The OBPR Research Plan outlines the “stepping stones.” The first step is low Earth orbit, where the ISS orbits. The next steps are traveling to Earth’s neighborhood (including the Moon), then touching down on accessible planetary surfaces, then establishing a sustainable permanent presence on other planets, and finally acquiring the ability to travel throughout the entire Solar System.

The year 2003 marks the 42nd year of the space program. In that time, humankind has seen space exploration and research grow from a dream to a very real and ongoing opportunity. NASA scientists have gone from using 2-second experiments in drop towers to 2- to 6-month experiments on the ISS. However, there is much left to learn. Using tools such as OBPR’s five organizing questions will help ensure that resources will be put to the best possible use as NASA continues to explore and expand human knowledge of the Earth and beyond. In the words of the Chinese proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Humans are a few steps into the grand journey into space, but there are many miles yet to go.

SpaceRef staff editor.