Laboratory Under Construction

December 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.

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

"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.

"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.

"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
Many 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.

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.

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.

NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center--Space Sciences Laboratory

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