Not too long ago, in our very own solar system...
FROM SCIENCE FICTION TO
About 400 kilometers above the Earth, the International Space Station orbits at 28,000 kilometers an hour. It's the single largest structure humans have ever put in space and a football-field-size symbol of diplomatic cooperation.
Built over a decade with U.S. and Russian spacecraft, the station has been continuously occupied by an international crew since November 2000. The station isn’t owned by any one nation, but rather operates as a partnership among five space agencies — the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA; the Russian State Space Corporation "Roscosmos"; the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA); the European Space Agency; and the Canadian Space Agency. There are regular crew handovers whereby some astronauts leave and new ones come aboard. Two hundred seventy-three astronauts from 21 countries have worked on the station.
The shared language of science enables these multinational crews to work and live with one another in a small space — there are permanent sleeping quarters for six (and makeshift quarters for extra visitors), two bathrooms, a gym and a 360-degree bay window through which the scientists and crews can see our home planet. On Earth, partners across the globe share technology, monitor the space station, support its research and manage the flow of supplies and crew.
Since 2000, the station’s microgravity lab has conducted more than 3,000 experiments. The research includes studies on Alzheimer’s, cancer, genetics, bacteria, plants, climate change and the effects of spaceflight on the human body. These investigations have led to technological innovations that may never have been achieved if countries hadn’t pooled their resources to explore together.
Following are highlights of projects on the space station that can benefit all of humankind.
In the popular 1960s television show Star Trek, the starship Enterprise crew members depend on handheld tricorders. The devices seem to magically detect everything from unknown life forms to the nature of a crew member’s illness.
While the TV version seems fantastical, a real — if nascent — tricorder has been developed on the International Space Station. What’s more, the research that built it is already supporting human health here on Earth.
The impetus was NASA's efforts to sequence DNA. Scientists aimed to simplify the multistep DNA sequencing process so that one device on the space station could handle it, working to move the tricorder from the realm of science fiction to real life.
Today NASA is looking at hand-held devices made by a U.S. company and a U.K.-based company that can amplify and sequence DNA. The devices identify microbes — bacteria, viruses, fungi and other organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye — growing throughout the International Space Station. The crew can monitor what microbes are on board, how the space environment shapes microbial behavior, and how that might affect astronaut health during long missions to the Moon or Mars.
Crew members gather microbes to sequence by rubbing swabs around the space station’s interior. They then process the genetic material by inserting the swabs into a hand-held device called a miniPCR, which makes copies of a targeted microbial DNA sequence. The copies are fed into another hand-held device called the MinION, which sequences the DNA.
NASA scientists at the Johnson Space Center in Houston found a way for the devices to work together on the space station. (Prior to this, microbe samples had to be sent to Earth for a lengthy sequencing process.)
“ DNA sequencing in real time on the space station is a huge leap forward.”— Sarah Wallace, microbiologist at Johnson Space Center
NASA is collaborating with the Canadian National Research Council to automate and speed up the DNA sample preparation process — in effect, to make a device closer to Star Trek's tricorder in terms of efficiency. Microbiologist Sarah Wallace of NASA's Johnson Space Center hopes that by the time NASA has a sustained lunar base, an early tricorder will be ready for gene sequencing on the moon. And, she says, by the time NASA sends humans to Mars in the 2040s, something even closer to the Star Trek tricorder could be a reality.
Just as exciting, this technology is already making things better for patients on Earth. Through collaborators at Northeastern University in Boston, Wallace works with eHealth Africa scientists connected to Nigeria to use the space station’s DNA sequencing method to monitor infections there, including COVID-19 infections. The organization also plans to expand its use to other African nations.
Trekkies know that Dr. Leonard McCoy, or “Bones” — the esteemed, if skeptical, chief medical officer aboard the USS Enterprise — relies on the diagnostic prowess of his tricorder. In the not-so-distant future, medical professionals will follow suit, harnessing real-life technology to combat the menace of certain microbes and the diseases they spread.
Consider that, each year in the U.S., 2.8 million people are infected with — and 35,000 die from — a bacteria or fungus that has become resistant to antimicrobials. (The global death toll is much larger.) Many of these deaths are connected to patients infected with resistant bugs hiding on hospital walls, drains and sinks. NASA is working with experts to see if methods from the space station can find microbes in hospital rooms and other likely settings back on Earth in order to reduce infections.
The force of gravity on the International Space Station is actually 90 percent of what it is on Earth. But because the station is in free-fall, everything seems to float.
In this microgravity, astronauts' bones and muscles lose density. Exercise is critical to their health and well-being.
Humans float around the station and can't actually run along a path like the jogger in the sci-fi movie 2001: A Space Odyssey who works out with "artificial gravity." For now, space station crew members strap themselves into machines and attach weights to their bodies to simulate Earth’s gravity.
On the space station, agencies from around the world are combining forces to learn how humans can stay healthy in space. NASA and the Danish Aerospace Company built CEVIS, a stationary cycle for astronauts to use during missions. Researchers have experimented with interfacing VR (virtual reality) equipment with CEVIS to help motivate astronauts to do their daily exercise. Other equipment — such as a resistance device — was designed by NASA with input from international partners.
American, European, Japanese and Canadian astronauts have participated in exercise studies with kinesiology specialists like Lori Ploutz-Snyder, who spent eight years at NASA's Johnson Space Center.
An international team of experts developed a spaceflight exercise routine to maintain astronauts’ bone and muscle mass, heart health and mental wellbeing, all while balancing the daily demands of their missions.
Ploutz-Snyder, now the dean of the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology, says that the “secret sauce” is a routine that combines high-intensity effort — short, intense bursts of activity that significantly raise the heart rate — and longer, low-to-moderate-intensity workouts, such as 30-minute pedals on the bike. Today, the space station crew staggers workouts throughout the day to maintain health. (Previously, the astronauts spent long, continuous hours cycling or running but still lost muscle and bone mass.)
Hospital patients on Earth are also benefiting from exercise studies in space. Scientists studied patients confined to a hospital bed for 70 days who afterward exercised on bikes, weight machines and treadmills adapted for use by prone subjects.
“ One hour a day of exercise can prevent the loss of fitness caused by lying in bed 23 hours a day. There is no drug that can do that.”— Lori Ploutz-Snyder, dean of the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology
If you are one of the 1.4 billion people on Earth who don’t like to work out, this advice is brought to you by astronauts everywhere: Add a little intensity each day.
Afully automated medical robot, similar to the droids in Star Wars, may not be far off. Surgeons in hospitals around the world already utilize robotic systems for certain delicate procedures, such as operating on nerve tissue. Unlike the droids in Star Wars, who have independence in medical matters, these real-life robotic arms are controlled by surgeons nearby.
In Canada, surgeon and medical researcher Dr. Mehran Anvari has built robots that might reach another level. He is testing a robotic arm that can be controlled by a doctor from far away.
Anvari’s robot uses technology designed by a Canadian company that built several robotic arms for the Canadian Space Agency and NASA and a robot for the space station. One multi-armed robot, called Dextre, can make small, exacting movements to fix and maintain parts and walls surrounding the station. Dextre is operated by flight controllers on the ground collaborating between mission control centers in Houston and Montreal.
Anvari, head of the McMaster University Center for Surgical Invention and Innovation, worked with the private Canadian company to apply Dextre’s long-distance medical technology here on Earth. The aim is to expand access to procedures in communities where there are few hospitals or doctors. Today, Anvari focuses the application on breast cancer biopsies. (More than 2.3 million women globally develop breast cancer each year, and it kills about 685,000.)
“ In a country like Canada, where we have such a significant population living in remote areas, we need to improve healthcare access.”— Mehran Anvari, McMaster University Center for Surgical Invention and Innovation
The team created a small robot called the Image-Guided Autonomous Robot, or the IGAR, that a radiologist can use to biopsy breast tissue to detect cancer in a patient hundreds of miles away. The company that designed the application with Anvari filed for U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval and hopes to begin selling the IGAR to U.S. health facilities in 2023.
Anvari and the company hope to expand remote, robotic care to future space missions and to Earth-bound patients everywhere and even in fields beyond medicine.
Without the space station, this could not be happening, says Tim Reedman, who works on the robot product line.
In the movie The Martian, character Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded on Mars by his crewmates after a mishap, awakens to face the problems of survival alone. He plants potatoes in Martian dirt mixed with soil brought from Earth and fertilized by his own waste. Through grit and intelligence, he survives until NASA returns to rescue him.
Would this be possible in real life? “Sort of,” says Gioia Massa, a scientist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Massa says the movie portrays Mars inaccurately when it shows light levels strong enough to grow plants and when it ignores the fact that plant life would be harmed by surface contaminants.
But, thanks to efforts by Massa and her NASA colleagues, astronauts on the International Space Station are growing some fruits and vegetables.
NASA hopes to grow “anything you can pick and eat fresh,” says Massa, and especially “to supplement the [astronauts’] package diet with fresh vegetables.”
Astronauts from many countries work together to care for the space station's garden. They water vegetables, monitor leaves for mold and document the plants’ growth for scientists back on Earth. “Japanese astronauts, French astronauts, Canadian astronauts, UAE astronauts do some of our activities up there,” Massa says. They all contribute to growing data.
The NASA-led program has grown leafy greens on the space station, in addition to radishes, chile peppers and tomatoes. (The tomatoes have not been completely successful, and astronauts are “learning a lot on that one,” Massa says.) Even flowers — zinnias — have grown in space.
Meanwhile on Earth, scientists run tests to figure out how to grow new plants — such as legumes, herbs, strawberries, cucumbers and melons — in microgravity. (Recently, NASA has teamed up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to plan how to grow basil and broccoli microgreens in space.)
Several years ago, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly was tasked with monitoring zinnia flowers growing on the space station. One morning, he called Earth to report that there was mold growing on the leaves, and after short deliberations, he cut off the affected leaves and stored them in a freezer until they could be returned to Earth for study. Kelly wiped the remaining plants and turned up fans to increase air flow, and the zinnias continued to grow without further problem. In fact, Kelly picked the flowers just in time for Valentine’s Day and made a bouquet out of them to decorate the station.
Kelly used his intuition and relied on his own gardening experience, rather than an overly scientific or data-driven approach. “You know, I think if we’re going to Mars, and we were growing stuff, we would be responsible for deciding when the stuff needed water,” he told the ground team.
“ Kind of like in my backyard, I look at it and say, ‘Oh, maybe I should water the grass today.’ I think this is how this should be handled.”— Scott Kelly, NASA astronaut
Growing crops in space benefits farmers on Earth. For instance, vertical farms — typically indoor walls of plants that rely upon hydroponic technologies and LED lights — could benefit from research on the space station, where the concept is used for a food program.
In fact, NASA built the first vertical farm in the United States, and certain specific LED lights for growing plants were the brainchild of NASA experts.
What astronauts learn about sustainability and staying healthy on the space station can help us improve life on Earth, Massa says.
In Apollo 13, the Ron Howard film about NASA’s 1970 moon mission, actors depict real-life astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert rationing food and water after their command module mechanically fails.
Dehydrated and cold, they cut the heat to preserve power. The Haise character gets a urinary tract infection, which adds to the general misery.
But wait! Thanks to advances in water research and filtration technology, no astronaut who goes into space today has to worry about becoming dehydrated (and thus bringing on an infection) because his water supply might run out.
The scientific community has figured out how to recycle water on the space station and have astronauts use it during their missions.
Jill Williamson, an aerospace engineer and laboratory manager who leads water-purification efforts for the space station from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, says the astronauts don’t waste a drop.
“ All the crew is releasing their urine, and it’s got to go somewhere. In the early days, you just collected it in a bucket and trashed it, but that’s 50% of your water that you can reclaim.”— Jill Williamson, aerospace engineer at Marshall Space Flight Center
Although that sounds gross, Williamson promises the urine goes through a multistep filtration process that makes it cleaner than water we drink on Earth.
Ventilation systems around the space station also pull water out of the air and into vacuums that send it into a large, aggregate water-purification system.
All liquid (urine or atmospheric moisture) is put through a multistep filtration system and recycled for drinking, food preparation and crew hygiene — tasks such as brushing one's teeth.
Back on Earth, Williamson’s team studies the mineral deposits filtered from the urine in order to learn about the astronauts’ health.
NASA has contracted with private-sector companies to develop some filtration systems, and those companies' innovations also help people here on Earth. A resin filter developed for the space station, for instance, was used by a nongovernmental organization to help a village in Iraq escape its reliance on contaminated creek water. The same system is used in communities in India, Mexico, Pakistan and other countries.
"NASA was right there at the ready for us when we needed them — even half a world away," said the then-president of the NGO, Todd Harrison, when installing the group's first water filter in Iraq in 2006.
As nations send humans back to the moon and on to Mars and as commercial entities take a bigger role managing the space station, one thing is certain: new discoveries are out there.