Science Above North Carolina

The zero-gravity environment onboard the International Space Station enables astronauts and researchers to better study health issues that impact people on Earth.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — Videos from NASA showing life in space are always pretty amazing. Space flight may seem more routine now; it’s been 47 years since Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. The space shuttle program made space more accessible and space flight more familiar to all of us. And today, the International Space Station provides humans a permanent presence in space. 

However, space flight is still dangerous. No oxygen, radiation and the myriad of problems that can happen with the incredibly complex machine that is a spacecraft, make outer space an unforgiving place. 

And so the videos of astronauts floating around the International Space Station, performing their science experiments, are still fascinating. Even routine activities like eating peanuts are incredible to watch, when doing so involves snagging a peanut out of mid-air just before it floats out of reach.   

And astronauts still admit, the feeling of weightlessness in space is one of the most fun, but also unnerving feelings. 

“It’s surreal, because once you hit main engine cutoff, all of a sudden it becomes incredibly quiet and you get this weird feeling in your stomach and then everything starts floating,” says Astronaut Doug Wheelock, a veteran of space shuttle flight and stays on the International Space Station. “And I remember the first time in space, I took my gloves off and they were floating in front of me, and then I took my helmet off and it was floating and it hit me that I was in space.” 

Those experiences are, of course, a result of having zero gravity. But it turns out gravity is not just a force pulling us toward Earth. It’s also a signal, telling the body how to act. 

Gravity tells the body how strong it needs to be, and without it, there’s nothing for the bones, muscles and even the heart to work against. So the body perceives that it doesn’t need as much bone and muscle. Studies show bones atrophy in space at a rate of about one-percent per month. Muscle mass vanishes at five-percent per week. 

Ironically, the bone and muscle loss that happens to astronauts in space are the same issues that happen to all of us as we get older. That makes the International Space Station a perfect lab for testing therapies to help an aging population, as well as preparing astronauts for long spaceflights to Mars and beyond. 

“Our motto is above the Earth, for the Earth,” explains Wheelock. “So any information we can gain from what happens to astronauts in space, and then use to test new therapies, is a perfect use for the International Space Station because that is a benefit we can bring to Earth.” 

Astronauts exercise daily to maintain muscle mass and bone strength. They’re also monitoring dozens of experiments testing new treatments for osteoporosis, or rapid bone loss. 

“Space Station provides plenty of opportunities to study all kinds of systems within the body,” says Tara Ruttley, Ph.D. and Associate Program Scientist for the International Space Station. “You can try to understand why astronauts come back with bone and muscle loss and how it may affect how we treat osteoporosis on Earth. If it’s microbes, you can study immune systems and try to understand why astronauts systems become so much like what we see in aging populations on Earth. So there are a variety of things you can study and learn something about.” 

Ted Bateman, an Associate Professor in the Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill agrees. He worked with pharmaceutical companies to test three drugs in various stages of development aboard the space shuttle and now the International Space Station. 

“It’s a small part of the drug approval process but there is definitely opportunity to do research that can’t be done on Earth,” says Bateman. 

He’s flown dozens of experiments on board the space shuttle and the Space Station, using mice to test new medicines that slow bone loss and promote bone growth. The effects of zero gravity on the body happen so quickly that multiple therapies can be tested efficiently. One of the medicines Bateman tested has been approved to treat osteoporosis. 

“Bone loss in space flight is much more rapid than what humans experience on Earth,” explains Bateman. “It’s five times the rate for a post menopausal woman and it’s ten times the rate that aging men will experience, and then you’ve got increased bone resorption and decreased bone formation. So with all of that happening you’ve got the potential for all kinds of therapeutics.” 

The International Space Station orbits 250 miles above Earth and travels at five-miles per second. The football field-sized space outpost orbits the planet every 90 minutes. 

It all means that for scientists who dream about doing research in a one of a kind laboratory, the National Lab on the International Space Station is about as cool as it gets. 

"The big difference with the ISS National Lab is microgravity, which enables a lot of phenomena you can’t replicate here on Earth,” says Cynthia Bouthot, Director of Commercial Innovation with NASA. “The other cool thing is the astronaut is your lab tech, it doesn’t get much better than that.” 

Astronauts go through extensive training with companies flying experiments aboard the Space Station to learn the precise procedures that need to be followed for experiments. Astronauts are also in contact with the companies as the experiments are performed if needed. 

So NASA is reaching out to companies nationwide, encouraging firms to literally think out of the box and consider science in space. The goal is not only to improve life on Earth, but also to set the stage for future space exploration. 

“There’s a magical thing that happens when you grow things in three dimensions, so think of that with pharmaceuticals, with the refining process to test instruments,” says Wheelock. “We hope to unlock things with our software, hardware and with our science on Earth." 

As he looks at a photo of Earth from space, he adds, “I think the idea is we are at the advent of opening up the doors of discovery on the Station when we turn that gravity switch off,” Wheelock says, smiling. “And I can’t wait to get back into space to turn that gravity switch off once again.”

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