On Sunday afternoon, a SpaceX Dragon capsule splashed down off the California coast with almost 2000 pounds of cargo—including blood and urine samples and the habitats from the YouTube Space Lab student science experiments. The journey completed a historic mission in which SpaceX became the first US company to provide commercial cargo services to and from the ISS. It also began a new era of Station utilization.
The successful return of large amounts of cargo and temperature-controlled science samples is a key capability for the use of Station as a science & research platform. Dragon is the only spacecraft—since the retirement of the Shuttle—with this upmass and downmass capability. This is important because the space station has a limited amount of volume in its freezers where science samples are stored. Without a return vehicle that could safely carry frozen samples, those freezers would fill up, and research on the Station would come to a halt.
NASA and the ISS National Lab are working together to maximize the science that goes to and from Station. We are collaborating to develop rodent research capabilities on Station to compliment research labs here on the ground. We are also considering possibilities for tissue engineering research. Such research—much of which is focused on better understanding and fighting degenerative diseases like muscle wasting and osteoporosis—would not be possible without a reliable cargo return vehicle. The scientists need exposure to microgravity to make their observations, but the tissue samples must often be analyzed using equipment on the ground that cannot be flown to the Station.
Each successful flight of the SpaceX Dragon to and from the ISS also helps validate NASA’s new approach to sustaining our only outpost in space. Rather than doing all the work in-house, NASA is trying to save money and focus its resources by contracting with companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation under fixed-price agreements in which NASA pays for services and capabilities such as cargo delivery and return.
Now, it’s up to us at the ISS National Lab to do our part in filling those Dragon capsules with critical science research for the benefit of other government agencies, academia and private industry. Maintaining the cargo launch and return cycle—once every few months—will allow U.S. researchers to fly their science to Station with confidence and ensure that they can get their data back in weeks or months, not years.
(photo courtesy of NASA)