Amelia Smith is senior science writer and editor at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). She serves on the editorial board for Upward, the official magazine of the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory, and was part of the original team that conceptualized and developed the magazine.
Five years ago, we released the inaugural issue of Upward, the official magazine of the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory. The goal of the magazine was to communicate the results of ISS National Lab research to the broad scientific community, including current and future ISS investigators. However, our vision extended beyond that—we aimed not just to merely highlight these research successes but to really bring the research to life for our readers. Through the magazine, we wanted to immerse readers in the exciting story of how our nation’s only laboratory in space is advancing science and technology development in ways not possible on the ground and show how the results of this research are truly impacting life on Earth.
Looking back at the collection of Upward articles from the last five years, it is amazing to see the breadth of the research and development enabled by this powerful platform in low Earth orbit. With its persistent microgravity conditions, access to the extreme space environment, and unique vantage point, the ISS opens the door to endless potential discoveries in a wide range of disciplines. The ISS National Lab provides access to this one-of-a-kind laboratory for a diverse community of users across the U.S. from academic institutions, non-NASA government agencies, and industry—from small innovative startups all the way to large Fortune 500 companies. The many success stories of these researchers demonstrate the value of the ISS National Lab.
Join me in reflecting on some of the exciting ISS research successes featured in Upward over the past five years.
Life Sciences and Human Health
Space has profound effects on living organisms, from humans all the way down to bacteria. We’ve seen how space-based research can provide valuable insights into the mechanisms behind bacterial behavior, informing efforts to develop new vaccines and antibiotics. We’ve also learned how the ISS enables the study of fundamental plant development processes without the masking effects of gravity—knowledge that can be translated to improve crops and agricultural productivity back on the ground. And we’ve seen how research exploring spaceflight’s effects on regeneration in flatworms—which resulted in the famous two-headed space worm—helped shed light on the mechanisms involved in regeneration on Earth.
Leveraging microgravity conditions on the ISS, researchers can study cells in ways not possible on the ground. We’ve learned that microgravity-induced changes in cardiac progenitor cells may aid in the development of cell-based regenerative therapies for heart disease. Also, simulated microgravity studies have shown that microgravity appears to increase the yield, purity, and survival of stem-cell derived heart muscle cells for use in regenerative medicine, disease modeling, and drug discovery.
Additionally, by studying bone cells in microgravity, researchers were able to uncover a potential new avenue for drug development for diseases that cause bone loss. We’ve also seen how researchers used mice in microgravity to test the effectiveness and improve the delivery of a new potential therapy for osteoporosis, a condition that affects millions of people in the U.S. and around the world.
Moreover, the lack of gravity-driven forces such as sedimentation and convection on the ISS makes it an ideal platform for crystallization studies by the pharmaceutical industry. For example, we’ve seen how Merck & Co. used the ISS to grow a crystalline suspension of millions of tiny uniform crystals, toward improving the formulation of the company’s cancer immunotherapy drug, Keytruda®.
Physical Science, Materials, and Technology Development
The absence of gravity-driven forces also makes the ISS a valuable platform for physical science and materials research. We’ve seen how investigators are using a high-temperature furnace on the ISS to produce high-quality semiconductor and scintillator crystals for use in radiation detection for homeland security applications and medical devices. Additionally, multiple companies are leveraging microgravity conditions to manufacture high-performance optical fibers with fewer imperfections than on Earth, with important applications in fiber-optic communications and high-power laser technology.
The reduced fluid movement on the ISS also allowed household product giant Procter & Gamble to gain important insights that helped improve product formulation, and the company now holds three patents and a pending product based on its spaceflight results. In addition to Fortune 500 companies, innovative startups also find value in ISS National Lab R&D. Results from ISS research allowed startup Ras Labs to advance its Synthetic Muscle material and develop improved prosthetics technology, and the company’s product is now in consumer testing.
The ISS also provides an important platform for technology development and demonstration. We’ve seen how Airbus DS Space Systems leveraged the ISS to test new technologies for the capture and removal of space debris. Additionally, an online web application from HySpeed Computing, developed in part through ISS National Lab support, provides remote sensing data analysis in the cloud, making it easier for the global community to process and make use of the vast amount of valuable satellite imagery.
Commercial Service Providers
All of this research and development is enabled by the services and facilities provided by ISS National Lab Commercial Service Providers that develop and operate facilities onboard the ISS. We’ve learned about the Additive Manufacturing Facility from Redwire (which recently acquired Made In Space) that provides in-orbit fabrication services onboard the ISS. And we’ve seen how Space Tango provides researchers with a multitude of lab capabilities inside its 10-cm CubeLab modules that fit within the company’s two TangoLab facilities on the space station. On the exterior of the ISS, the MISSE Flight Facility from Alpha Space Test & Research Alliance provides a platform for accelerated materials and components testing in the extreme space environment.
To address the growing demand for small satellites, the Nanoracks CubeSat Deployer has helped establish the ISS as a reliable launchpad for smallsats with a wide variety of important missions. And SEOPS’ SlingShot system, which mounts on Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus resupply spacecraft, provides an affordable rideshare option for smallsats, deploying them into a higher Earth orbit after the completion of primary Commercial Resupply Services missions to the ISS.
For the Future
The ISS is a powerful research platform for not only the scientists and engineers of today but also those of the next generation. We’ve followed along as a high school student’s dream became reality when she watched her DNA experiment launch to the space station through the Genes in Space program. We’ve also seen how Space Station Explorers partner programs DreamUp and the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program engage thousands of students, providing opportunities for them to design real experiments to be carried out on the ISS. And the Tomatosphere program, in which students conduct experiments using tomato seeds that were flown onboard the ISS, has reached more than half a million students!
Furthermore, the ISS provides an important platform for research to benefit the future of the Earth itself—with several sustainability-related projects aiming to address the pressing environmental challenges facing our planet today. Additionally, we’ve seen how researchers are using the unique vantage point of the ISS to improve measurements and predictions of tropical cyclone intensity and trajectory—information that can help people better brace for the impact of these destructive storms. And finally, turning our gaze away from Earth, the ISS also provides an outpost at the edge of space to look outward at universe around us—providing a better understanding of our early solar system, distant Earth-like planets in other galaxies, and the origin and composition of our universe.
20 Years and Beyond
For 20 years, humans have lived and worked onboard the ISS, and during this time, we have achieved amazing things. The ISS has enabled research and development not possible from the ground that significantly impacts the way we live on Earth. The stories featured in Upward provide only a small snapshot of the many successes enabled by our nation’s incredible orbiting laboratory.
We hope you have enjoyed exploring and learning about ISS National Lab research through Upward over the past five years. We invite you to join us in our continued journey to share the exciting stories of the ISS National Lab as we continue to strive upward—to the ISS, to future platforms in low Earth orbit, and beyond—in our unending endeavor to advance science in space for the benefit of people on Earth.