This piece is part of our ISS360 reflections series highlighting the 2022 International Space Station Research and Development Conference.
The International Space Station (ISS) offers a unique environment for experiments impossible to perform on Earth that lay the foundation for valuable scientific discoveries. Through collaboration with the ISS National Laboratory, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) funds research that leverages this one-of-a-kind platform in space to advance fundamental science back on the ground.
A panel session at the 11th annual International Space Station Research and Development Conference (ISSRDC) brought together a group of researchers leading NSF-funded fundamental science projects onboard the ISS to discuss the benefits of taking their research to low Earth orbit.
The panelists talked about their ISS National Lab-sponsored investigations that were selected through two long-standing solicitations in partnership with NSF. One solicitation is focused on the physical sciences area of transport phenomena and the other on tissue engineering and mechanobiology. These NSF-funded solicitations support fundamental science investigations with a wide range of applications—from tissue engineering for liver transplantation to treatments for muscle wasting conditions, improved fire safety codes, and nanomaterials for next-generation electronics.
The panelists agreed that access to long-term microgravity on the ISS significantly pushed their research forward. For example, Tammy Chang, associate professor in the department of surgery at the University of California, San Francisco, said results from her space-based research showed that microgravity benefits liver organoids’ growth. “Not only do organoids in microgravity have improved form, importantly, they have improved function,” said Chang, who added that it may be possible for researchers to develop large, vascularized liver tissue from stem cells in microgravity, a feat not currently achievable on Earth.
The panelists also discussed current limitations in conducting research on station, such as data bandwidth and crew time—bottlenecks that companies are tackling in their design of new commercial low Earth orbit destinations. Additionally, panelists offered advice to researchers who aspire to conduct future ISS investigations.
“You need to be flexible because there will be a lot of unexpected difficulties that you will encounter,” said Ya-Ting T. Liao, assistant professor in urban and environmental studies at Case Western Reserve University, whose investigation on flame spread in confined spaces recently launched to the ISS. To help overcome such hurdles, ISS National Lab Implementation Partners work with researchers to prepare their investigations for spaceflight, helping to ensure the success of the projects.
“The way you imagine [your experiment] inside your hood or wherever you conduct your experiments [on Earth] is not actually how you would do it in microgravity, so there’s this adaptation process,” said Ngan Huang, associate professor in the department of cardiothoracic surgery at Stanford University and principal investigator at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System. “Working with an experienced Implementation Partner will help you translate or adapt your bench research into microgravity research.”
Space-based research also requires a detail-oriented nature, added Huang, who said she spent years meticulously designing an ISS experiment related to developing a model of sarcopenia (muscle loss due to aging). Huang stressed the importance of ensuring every detail was correct so the project would succeed. She said working on her space-based investigation has inspired her to apply the same precise, detail-oriented mindset to her Earth-based studies.
Conducting experiments in space can also open new avenues for research back on the ground, said Eric M. Furst, professor and department chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Delaware. Furst and his team are leveraging the ISS to study how colloidal particles self-assemble within fluid systems, a phenomenon key to developing advanced electronics. “We’ve done a number of experiments based on what we were seeing up on the space station, and I think it opened up a wider range than we may have considered in terms of the ground-based studies we’re doing.”