21st Century Science Education Thrives Aboard the Space Station

Status Report From: NASA HQ
Posted: Friday, January 17, 2014


Every so often, doomsayers arise to decry the state of America's scientific community, fearing that its future is endangered because of a lack of bright new talent. But it's easy to find a powerful counterargument to that gloomy view. Every July at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, the next generation of America's space scientists—students from 5th grade up to college age—share their work with each other, the scientific community and the public at the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program (SSEP) annual conference. 

Since June 2010, the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) SSEP effort, in partnership with NanoRacks LLC under a Space Act agreement, has offered young scientists the opportunity for the ultimate science fair project: conceiving, designing, implementing and analyzing a real scientific research question in space aboard the International Space Station.

While findings from the 23 investigations that launched on Jan. 9 to the space station aboard the Orbital 1 mission will be presented at the upcoming 2014 conference, the 2013 conference offered an inspiring overview of SSEP accomplishments thus far. As with the previous SSEP conferences in 2011 and2012, it was a showcase of creative investigations, imaginative design and real scientific results.

Students from grades 10 and 12 made up the team from Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School in Fitchburg, Mass. After the success of a previous experiment flown on STS-135, the final mission of the space shuttle, they presented their results on the "Effect of Arthrobacter on Polyethylene Decomposition in Microgravity," which flew on SSEP's Mission 1 to the space station in 2012.

Arthrobacter is a genus of bacteria known to break down polyethylene plastics on Earth, and the team wanted to know if microgravity conditions would help or hinder the process. Team member Russell Holbert reported, "We were able to find strong evidence that Arthrobacter will colonize and potentially degrade plastics in space. Given enough time and proper growing conditions, we could facilitate and possibly observe the decomposition of polyethylene." The work raises the interesting possibility that plastic wastes on the space station and future spacecraft might be disposed of by properly managed Arthrobactercolonies.

The Cicero, Ill. Unity Junior High School student team's project was inspired by a spider-filled basement. "We initially designed an experiment on crystals, but seeing as other students were doing the same thing, we wanted to be a bit more unique," explained team member Aileen Lopez. "Observing my basement and the amount of spiders there, I suggested using spiders."

In their cleverly-titled experiment "Charlotte Goes to Space"—referencing the arachnoid title character of the classic children's book—the students raised the Linyphiid spider Diplostyla concolor in a terrarium at their school. They then sent the spider's egg sacs into space on SSEP Mission 2 to the space station in 2012 to learn whether the sacs would hatch viable offspring. They discovered that while the egg sacs could survive the voyage to orbit, only some of them hatched out, although at the same proportion as those that hatched back on Earth. None of the hatchlings survived the trip home, however, possibly due to limited moisture and oxygen in the experiment container and cannibalism among the young spiders. 

It wasn't spiders in the basement but a moldy yam in a trashcan that inspired the fifth and sixth graders of East Lyme Middle School in East Lyme, Conn. to devise their study, "Effectiveness of Hydrogen Peroxide on Aspergillus Niger Growth in Microgravity." This investigation also launched with Mission 2 to the space station. The students looked at whether the mold-killing properties of hydrogen peroxide would also work in space. Although they did confirm that fact, the returned samples were accidentally contaminated during analysis, so it wasn't possible to compare the station-flown and ground truth results.

Team 2 from Fitchburg's Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School chose an investigation question that could be of vital importance to present and future space travelers: "Will Microgravity Have a Significant Effect on Packed Synthetic HBOCs?" HBOC stands for Hemoglobin-Based Oxygen Carriers, which are synthetic blood substitutes. Because HBOCs are easier to store for long periods than actual human blood, they may be ideally suited for long-duration space voyages.

As team member Yeniffer Araujo explained: "What if an individual in space had an emergency in which blood loss was a huge factor? Would we be able to store HBOCs in space and transfer them into an individual?" The study found no significant changes in oximetry or other parameters in an HBOC sample flown in space compared to a ground truth sample on Earth. "For the time it was up in space, nothing changed at all," said team member Ryan Swift. "So it's reasonable to believe it’s going to last the same, if not longer, in space."

SSEP National Program Director Jeff Goldstein, Ph.D., noted, "Whether or not a synthetic blood substitute degrades in space is really important for long duration spaceflight in case of medical emergency."

The results shared by the Chaminade College Preparatory School team from West Hills, Calif. weren't merely interesting in their own right, but served as an example of the persistence and flexibility required for solid scientific research. Titled "Microgravity Wine," the investigation sought to test the rate of fermentation in microgravity -- an issue important not just for making alcohol but for the production of various drugs in space and in the preservation of food.

The team's first attempt to mix yeast and grape juice and measure resulting carbon dioxide levels, flown in 2012 on SSEP Mission 1, was inconclusive. After flying again on Mission 2, the team was able to report conclusive findings indicating that fermentation occurred in microgravity about three times faster than on the ground -- a significant difference.

Student team member Max Holden observed, "So what does this really mean? If you ask adults, they'll say that when we have to live in space, they can make their alcohol quicker. If you ask me, I'd say that it can make more potent biotech drugs that are now fermented, along with possibly making them quicker in case of outbreak. We have the possibility of using a microgravity chamber and speeding up the reaction."

Goldstein commented that flying the investigation a second time offered "a good teachable moment - last time the team could only report on experiment design, and at this conference they’re actually reporting experimental results. That's what a real research conference is all about."

SSEP Mission 3a studies returned from space in November 2013, and the student teams are analyzing their flight experiments. Meanwhile, the SSEP Missions 3b and 4 investigations currently aboard station are due to return to Earth in mid-March. This will provide plenty of time for student teams to report results at this year’s July conference. The subsequent Missions 5 and 6 are set for launch in Spring 2014 and Fall 2014, and with the upcoming Mission 7 to space station announcement anticipated this February, SSEP has plenty of opportunities ahead for students.

The continued SSEP effort to channel the unparalleled enthusiasm, creativity, imagination and energy of young scientists provides real opportunities for useful research and solid scientific contributions. "[SSEP] opened my eyes up to a whole new type of education. Not one where you are just taught about something, but where you learn through legitimate interaction, with real scientists,” said Holden. “Being able to participate in a scientific research conference two years in a row at my age is both an invaluable experience and opportunity!"

General John R. Dailey, director of the National Air & Space Museum, recently remarked that the SSEP initiative "may be the most important development for the future of the U.S. space program." The students participating in this latest SSEP conference demonstrate both the truth of Dailey's words and the bright future of American space science.

Mark Wolverton
International Space Station Program Science Office


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