A few years before, Congress had designated the US portion of the ISS as the newest addition to the country’s national laboratories, which would be responsible for handling all non-NASA microgravity research. In 2011, NASA officials selected the nonprofit Center for Advancement of Science in Space to manage the laboratory, which has been responsible for shepherding hundreds of experiments from researchers at American universities and companies. The lab collaborates with the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health to select those experiments and flies about 50 every year.
“We have this awesome model of a public-private partnership on this station that lends itself to organizations other than NASA who are doing things in microgravity that may not relate to space exploration,” says Ken Shields, the chief operation officer of the ISS National Laboratory. “In developing these partnerships, we now have companies that are able to do technology research and development on the station in a rapid way and apply the results.”
The ISS National Lab handles experiments in both basic and applied science. Out of the hundreds of inquiries received every year, the lab can fly only a few dozen payloads that fall into a few broad categories of interest, such as remote sensing or life sciences. While an earthbound national lab like Lawrence Livermore or Argonne might have thousands of employees, the ISS National Lab has only a handful of NASA crew members. “We are extremely reliant upon the astronauts to execute the experiments,” says Michael Roberts, the acting chief scientist of the ISS National Laboratory. He says the limited time of the astronauts, who are also tasked with carrying out NASA’s own experiments and taking care of the station, creates all sorts of unique challenges that aren’t faced by other national labs. Just getting the experiments into their hands is fraught with logistical difficulties. “It’s not an easy prospect to take an experiment, package it up, put it on a rocket, launch it to a remote destination, have it transferred over, have it activated, have it shut down, collected, and sent back,” Roberts says.
A science or technology payload on the ISS could involve anything from creating fireballs to growing barley for beer, but NASA administrators have singled out a few core areas that they think are the most promising for R&D in low earth orbit. Manufacturing in microgravity, for instance, has advantages for making exotic materials like a fragile type of glass that could dramatically improve the performance of undersea cables. But arguably the most exciting applications are in the medical field; experiments with organs on a chip could eventually eradicate animal testing and expedite drug discovery. The microgravity environment could be harnessed to grow 3D cell-tissue models, called organoids, that will be useful for studying a variety of human diseases.
Last year, Valentina Fossati, a researcher at the New York Stem Cell Foundation, sent a few organoids to the ISS in order to study key cellular mechanisms in Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis in microgravity. Fossati is particularly interested in the role that microglia, nervous-system cells that are involved in the process of neuroinflammation, play in these diseases. Microglia are extremely sensitive to their environment, so studying how they behave in the absence of gravity is critical to getting a better understanding of their role in neurodegenerative diseases. “It’s really about disease modeling and trying to understand what is happening in the brain,” says Fossati. “What I’m trying to re-create in a dish is how the neurons die. The absence of gravity would very likely change what happens between the cells.” Although Fossati’s research is ultimately about treating people on Earth, it could also help improve astronaut health by revealing the ways that long stays in microgravity affect our brain cells.