A few years ago, Congress designated the US ISS section as the latest addition to the country’s national laboratories, which would be responsible for handling all non-microgravity studies of NASA. In 2011, NASA officials chose the Nonprofit Center for the Advancement of Space Science to administer the laboratory, which is responsible for administering hundreds of experiments from researchers at the universities and American companies. The lab collaborates with the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health to select those experiments and fly about 50 a year.
Ken Shields, executive director of ISS National, said: “We have a great model of public-private partnerships on this station that lends itself to organizations other than NASA who are working in Microgravity environment may not be relevant to the discovery of the Laboratory universe. “In developing these partnerships, we now have companies that can rapidly research and develop station technology and apply the results.”;
The ISS National Laboratory handles experiments in both basic and applied science. Of the hundreds of requests received annually, the lab can only fly a few dozen payloads in a few areas of interest, such as remote sensing or life science. While land-based national laboratories such as Lawrence Livermore or Argonne may have thousands of employees, the ISS National Laboratory has only a handful of NASA crew members. “We strongly rely on astronauts to conduct experiments,” said Michael Roberts, acting chief scientific officer at the ISS National Laboratory. He said the limited time budget of astronauts, who were also tasked with performing NASA’s own experiments and taking care of the station, created all sorts of unique challenges that other national laboratories not face. Just getting them into their hands was logically difficult. “Not an easy prospect to do an experiment, pack it, put it on a rocket, launch it to a remote destination, pass it over, activate it, turn it off, collect and send again, “said Roberts.
An amount of science or technology on the ISS can involve anything from creating fireballs to growing barley to make beer, but NASA administrators have pointed to some core areas in which they consider the most promising for R&D in low-earth orbit. Manufacturing under microgravity, for example, has advantages for making exotic materials such as a fragile glass that can significantly improve the performance of undersea cables. But arguably the most interesting applications are in the medical field; experimenting with organs on a chip could eventually undo animal testing and promote drug discovery. Microgravity can be exploited to develop 3D cell models, called organoids, that will be useful for studying a wide variety of human diseases.
Last year, Valentina Fossati, a researcher at the New York Stem Cell Foundation, sent several organoids to the ISS to study key cell mechanisms in Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis in microgravity. Fossati is particularly interested in the role microglia, cells of the nervous system involved in neuritis, play in these diseases. Microglia are extremely sensitive to their environment, so it’s important to study how they behave in the absence of gravity to better understand their role in neurodegenerative diseases. “It’s really about modeling the disease and trying to understand what’s going on in the brain,” Fossati said. “What I’m trying to replicate in a dish is how nerve cells die. The absence of gravity will most likely change what happens between cells. Although Fossati’s research is ultimately about treating humans on Earth, it could also help improve astronauts’ health by revealing ways that staying in microgravity affects our brain cells.