Gravity is fascinating. So too is its absence. The International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory is the world’s most accessible platform where persistent microgravity is a science and engineering tool of extraordinary utility. In the near-zero-gravity environment of the ISS, investigators push frontiers in the life sciences—from the crystallization of proteins and other macromolecules, to the expansion of stem cell lines, to the study of human aging. And in microgravity, fluids don’t flow and fuels don’t burn as they do on Earth, revealing subtleties with real-world consequences in fluid and combustion engineering.
Gravity is not the only game in town. Looking ahead, the ISS will soon be home to CAL, the Cold Atom Lab developed by a research consortium led by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. With CAL, atoms will be cooled to within a few trillionths of a degree Celsius above absolute zero, making it the coldest place in the known universe for the study of exotic states of matter.
As you will learn in this issue of Upward, despite the numerous experiments conducted onboard the ISS National Lab, the space station does not house a hardware store stocked with spare parts and tools to deal with unexpected needs. It has something better— a 3D printer. 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is embraced here on Earth by enthusiasts and engineers alike who convert stock material into forms of infinite variety for fun and profit. Likewise, the company Made in Space designed and built a 3D printer that is now operating on the space station as a research tool in additive manufacturing as well as a print-on-demand resource for station operations. A stand-out example of the latter was a ratcheting wrench printed for ISS Commander Barry Wilmore to service equipment onboard the ISS National Lab. For those who want to replicate their own, the print file of this wrench can be found at nasa3d.arc.nasa.gov/detail/wrench-mis.
Beyond wrenches, in the future we can expect space vehicle components, replacement parts, and even biological tissues to be printed in space for a myriad of science, engineering, and commercial purposes. Indeed, humankind has made an extraordinary journey in the 2.5 million years since our ancestors first crafted cutting tools by flaking stone in a process of “subtractive” manufacturing. Who can guess how much farther we will go with additive manufacturing in space? Likely a very long way.
Not only is the ISS National Lab a platform for today’s scientists and engineers to conduct groundbreaking research but it also serves as a source of education and inspiration for tomorrow’s scientists and engineers. This issue will discuss Tomatosphere, a program in which K-12 students grow tomato plants from seeds flown on the ISS and returned to Earth. Tomatosphere, a perennial classroom favorite enjoyed by more than 3 million students in Canada and the United States since its inception in 2001, now counts among its alumni former 2nd grader and new astronaut candidate Loral O’Hara. By growing plants from “space” seeds and comparing them with plants of humble Earth origin, students learn about plant biology, genetics, nutrition, space science, and scientific methodology. Higher up the ladder of inquiry, students can also learn about “omics” (genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, etc.) that explain the roles and relationships of molecules in the living cell, their impact on the whole organism, and the influence of environmental factors on biological systems. It’s said that from the acorn grows the mighty oak. We say that from the tomato seed grows our nation’s future.
In addition to these feature articles, we encourage you to enjoy the spotlight articles that shed light on many gems of science and technology onboard the ISS National Lab—including CAL. We expect you’ll find that fascination never grows old.