This guest contribution is part of our ISS20 series commemorating 20 years of continuous human presence on the ISS through a collection of visionary contributions on the future of space.
Stefanie Countryman has worked for BioServe for more than 20 years and has expertise in translating ground-based life science research into space-based life science research, with specific expertise in mammalian cell culture. As director, she leads a wide variety of activities including developing and overseeing the strategic direction of BioServe, grant writing, program management, and technical and programmatic oversight of space life science investigations and engineering projects. Over the last 20 years, she has been involved in or directly responsible for the development and/or oversight of more than 50 different space life science experiments ranging from the very simple to the very complex. As such, she is intimately familiar with the process for developing, launching, and operating life science experiments in space.
“I think this will be a good job for about five years.” That was what I thought when I was hired as the Business Development Manager for BioServe Space Technologies more than 20 years ago. My task: seek out commercial companies interested in conducting research in space, primarily in low Earth orbit (LEO) onboard the space shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS). Commercializing LEO, at that time, was still a novel idea. Now, looking back, it is hard to believe how the approach to the commercialization of LEO has evolved and yet in some respects come full circle.
BioServe is located within the University of Colorado Boulder. It was established in 1987 with limited funds from a NASA grant and was called a Center for the Development of the Commercialization of Space. Its mission was to utilize LEO to promote and support commercial research in space that could ultimately realize benefits for humans on Earth. To date, BioServe has launched hundreds of commercially supported research projects on 72 spaceflight missions.
BioServe launched its first experiment to space onboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-37) in 1991 and its first mission to the ISS on April 19, 2001. The experiment launched to the ISS was sponsored by the pharmaceutical company Bristol Myers Squibb, was the first commercially supported life science experiment to launch to the ISS, and occurred just five months after the first crew arrived there! It was also almost exactly one year after this groundbreaking launch that I found myself working for BioServe. Now, almost 20 years after we launched our first mission to the ISS, I look back realizing I never dreamed I could be a part of such an historic milestone—20 years of human-tended presence onboard the ISS and 20 years of BioServe-supported and commercially sponsored research onboard the ISS!
Twenty years ago, I was one of the few people out knocking on doors of the pharmaceutical, biotech, agricultural, and even forestry industry peddling space life science research. I cannot sugarcoat it. It was an incredibly challenging task, and I had my share of puzzled looks, smirks, laughs, and jokes at my expense. Not be too discouraged, I constantly reminded myself that forging new frontiers is not for the faint of heart—and while it can have many valleys, it also can have at least one or two peaks.
One such peak was successfully creating a consortium of forest-product companies consisting of Weyerhaeuser, UPM-Kymmene, and the Forest Products Laboratory to conduct a series of spaceflight experiments. This research would examine the regulation of lignin, a polymer responsible for tree and plant rigidity. This success was exciting because forest product companies have limited research dollars and are typically conservative with how those dollars are spent. Needless to say, the forest industry conducting spaceflight research was certainly out-of-the-box thinking on these companies’ part.
At the time this consortium was established, we were seeing an increase in the understanding by several different commercial entities of the potential value of space life science research. However, these two things occurred just prior to the release of President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration (2004). With the release of this new vision, focus on the commercial development of space diminished, and research priorities within NASA became almost exclusively NASA focused. The fledgling field of commercial space life sciences was at risk—as was the future of BioServe.
However, in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, Congress designated a portion of the ISS as a U.S. National Lab with a mission to help improve life on Earth. It was given the mandate to support research from a broad base including academic, government, and commercial users. For BioServe, this meant our original mission, the commercial development of space, was still viable. While the consortium had dissolved by this point, we continued to pursue partnerships with other commercial entities during these ever-changing times.
One area of commercial research that was of particular interest during this time utilized mice and the microgravity environment as a model to study the effectiveness of certain therapeutic agents to prevent bone and muscle loss. BioServe was able to recruit and work closely with the biotech company Amgen to conduct several spaceflight experiments focused in these areas. Bone and muscle loss are two major issues facing both astronauts and people on Earth. The ability to utilize microgravity as an accelerated model of disease could contribute to the development of novel or more effective drugs to treat these issues on Earth.
The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 directed NASA to select a nonprofit entity to manage the ISS National Lab. In 2011, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) was selected and has been the manager of the ISS National Lab ever since. It has a mission “to advance the nation’s leadership in commercial space, pursue groundbreaking science not possible on Earth, and leverage the space station to inspire the next generation.” CASIS hired a team of business development professionals whose sole job was to recruit nontraditional entities to conduct research onboard the ISS. Funded appropriately, this team was able to reach out to a significantly greater number of organizations than I was able to in my early years with BioServe. The team was very effective at spreading their messaging campaign, which resulted in an ever-increasing number of nontraditional users of the ISS. Because of this campaign, a significantly greater number of companies developed an interest in and an understanding of how research in space could be of benefit.
In parallel, NASA’s culture was changing to one where commercialization of space and the ISS was an important component of its roadmap for future space exploration. NASA was now embracing commercial involvement, seeing it as integral to the success of its mission. It awarded ISS cargo resupply contracts to two private companies: SpaceX and Orbital ATK (now Northrup Grumman). NASA also awarded contracts to private companies SpaceX and Boeing to launch crew to the ISS. SpaceX has now successfully launched its first successful crewed mission to the ISS, an incredible milestone that was not seen as a possibility 20 years ago. Today, companies like Axiom and Sierra Nevada Corp. are developing concepts for privately funded space stations, again something not even on the radar of space exploration 20 years ago.
To think I started on this journey 20 years ago, my career with BioServe growing in tandem with commercial spaceflight research. It seems so long, yet it has gone by in the blink of an eye. The changes I have now witnessed with regards to the commercial development of space have been incredible. There is a vibrant commercial space life science research community that is building each day. BioServe supports more and more commercially sponsored projects each year in the areas of stem cell culture, tissue engineering, biofilm mitigation, antibiotic effectiveness, bone and muscle loss, assay development, drug screening, and more. We have now flown more commercially sponsored areas of research than I could have ever imagined back when I started on May 1, 2000. The potential and the possibilities now seem almost endless. I truly believe we are on the cusp of major breakthroughs that will benefit humanity as a result of the commercial space life science research we and now others support.
Looking back, we have come full circle to when BioServe was formed back in 1987: a time when a small group within NASA envisioned a community of commercial entities that utilized the space environment to develop commercial applications to benefit people on Earth. This is why five years has turned into 20 years with BioServe for me. The future for the commercial development of space has been and will always be one of the most exciting, frustrating, challenging, yet rewarding areas in which to work. BioServe is truly a part of forging new frontiers when we partner with academic, government, and commercial entities to perform cutting-edge research that may just one day change the world!
Vision for the Future
Over the next 20 years, BioServe Space Technologies will continue to partner with commercial, academic and government researchers to support cutting-edge research in space. As a result of these partnerships, we will continue to build upon our long history of designing and developing both automated and manual hardware systems that support a variety of space life sciences including mammalian cell culture. Robots and artificial intelligence will become an integral part of both our hardware systems and the laboratory platforms operating in LEO and beyond in conjunction with their human counterparts. The available in space laboratory platforms and transportation vehicles will evolve to support greater capacity and a streamlined process that results in lower-cost access as well as high throughput for research experiments. This will lead to more discoveries that positively impact human health on Earth as well as the ability to develop a space economy that includes in space product development and manufacturing. There really are no limits.