What can we discover about phenomena on Earth when soaring approximately 250 miles above our planet’s surface? As you will find in this issue of Upward, the answer lies in the unique insight gained from working at near-zero gravity. The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is pleased to support the fundamental research onboard the ISS, as it enables us to solve questions that cannot easily be answered here on Earth.
The mission of NSF is to promote scientific progress and capacity by investing in research and education across the country. Since our partnership with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space™, manager of the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory®, began in 2016, NSF has invested more than $26 million in funding for 60 projects from institutions across the nation. To date, 23 projects have already been launched. Each of these funding opportunities is designed to support critical research that will lead to benefits for life worldwide.
For example, researchers from Arizona State University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are leveraging the ISS National Lab to improve the mass production of protein-based pharmaceuticals. Funded by NSF, this investigation used the microgravity environment to learn how hydrodynamic forces can alter the structure of proteins in solution and lead to protein clumping, which is currently a significant hurdle in drug manufacturing. The findings of this fundamental research will have widespread implications, as most vaccines and many therapeutics we use today are protein-based. Predicting the complex motion of proteins in solution will help us find ways to mitigate negative effects and improve our capability to manufacture life-saving drugs.
Another great partnership featured in this issue includes an investigation into the effects of aging on our immune system. Funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, set out to study physiological age-related changes using tissue chips designed and engineered to model human tissue. Because prolonged spaceflight can have many of the same effects as aging, the microgravity environment is a uniquely valuable platform for this research. Investigations such as this will not only lead to more effective treatments for age-related diseases but could also shed light on how we may be able to reverse the effects of aging itself someday.
A third featured article in this issue highlights another project that has wide-reaching benefits for humanity. A team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison utilized the ISS National Lab to investigate how cotton grows in microgravity. Targeting Improved Cotton through Orbital Cultivation (TIC-TOC) was funded by the Target Corporation and aims to determine how we can produce cotton more sustainably. Findings from this study could enable us to develop more resilient crops on Earth and one day grow plants during long-term space missions.
It is my pleasure to introduce this latest issue of Upward and the fascinating work being done onboard the space station. As we set our sights on the future, NSF eagerly anticipates its ongoing collaboration with the ISS National Lab and is committed to supporting essential research that promises to enhance the lives of people around the world.