Astronaut Don Pettit is a real Mr. Fixit, and that is just fine with the scientists who trust him to run their experiments on the International Space Station.

View an interactive presentation of space station research facilities.

In a recent working session with Paul Ferkul, a combustion engineer at Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Pettit carefully bent a combustion sample's frame a little with a pair of pliers so it would touch the igniter, and then he held it up to a video camera for Ferkul—and anyone else watching the webcast of the experiment session.

“That looks fine,” said Ferkul in Ohio.

“I hope this works,” said Pettit from the station. “This is what our flight suits are made of.”

In the experiment that followed, the Nomex test swatch glowed and carbonized as it was heated, but it did not burst into flame, even with a fan-driven draft in the station glovebox Pettit was using.

“That's really what we expected,” says Ferkul. “We thought it might be flammable in space, and this result is good from a safety point of view, in terms of the material used up there.”

That kind of close work with an astronaut in orbit is a dream come true for scientists who want to see what happens when the gravity factor is removed, and for many experiments there is no other way to remove it. Drop towers and parabolic aircraft flights just do not offer enough time in microgravity, and experiment lockers on the space shuttle did not provide the continuity for the long-term laboratory work many experiments require.

The space station can solve that problem, and scientists, engineers and managers are starting to realize just what that might mean in terms of discoveries, applications and return on investment. After 10 years and at least $100 billion, NASA and its international partners are beginning to move beyond the transition from station assembly to station utilization and starting to do real work in space.

It has not been easy, and it is not finished. At present, the U.S. capacity on the space station is about 72% full, according to Julie Robinson, NASA's space station chief scientist. There are 58 bays in the multiuser express racks scattered through the station. Those are about half full and expected to reach 70% utilization in the coming year and a half, she says, comparing managing station resources to running a hotel.

“Other parameters like real estate are not completely full, because that provides opportunity for people to build a new piece of equipment that wouldn't maybe have been envisioned five years ago, and get that on orbit,” Robinson says.

It took so long to build the space station that at least a generation of young scientists largely went elsewhere with their careers. The next generation is finding a complex set of ISS players wrangling for position and priority. The five space agencies that make up the international station partnership must agree among themselves on priorities and, at the same time, reconcile their positions with their own diverse constituencies. Sometimes one experiment has several different constituencies.

Ferkul is principal investigator on the Burning and Suppression of Solids (BASS) experiment on which he works with Pettit and his crewmates. From its start in September 2011 until it closes out in March 2013, the BASS team will try to ignite 41 samples in the Destiny Laboratory Module's Microgravity Science Glovebox. They are applying a wire heating element to flat, spherical and candle-like samples to determine if and how they burn in microgravity with different oxygen flow rates, and how quickly they are extinguished in a nitrogen flow.

In addition to basic safety questions, such as how well Nomex burns in space and how to put out fires there—subjects of great interest to human spacecraft manufacturers and their potential passengers—the tests will gather a wealth of data on combustion in the absence of gravity that can be applied to terrestrial systems that use flame.

“We can refine the model and then apply it to terrestrial applications like engine combustors, furnaces, fire safety—a wide variety of combustion,” says Ferkul. “Even a fraction of a percent improvement in efficiency makes a big difference.”

All those different potential applications and the “stakeholders” who want them make it difficult to set priorities for using scarce station resources. Since the orbiting lab was completed, those problems have sometimes overshadowed the promise that the station is just beginning to show.

In practice, NASA and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, keep track separately of how they use their station assets, dividing the six-member crew in half. On NASA's end of the station—home to the European, Japanese and U.S. laboratory modules—the three non-Russian crewmembers spend a collective average of 35 hr. per week on research. The rest of their time is spent on exercise to counter the effects of microgravity on their bodies, as well as station maintenance, operations and housekeeping, sleep and personal time.

“We're at full utilization in terms of certain parameters,” Robinson says. “For example, we're getting the full utilization crew time that the system was designed for, and we're filling that completely and have things on the reserve list and have ready to go if we get a little extra time because of a launch slip or something like that.”

Research has been underway on the station from the beginning, when the first crew arrived in November 2000. As more and more scientific gear was delivered and installed, crew members began using it for experiments when they were not needed for assembly and maintenance tasks. By October 2011, Robinson says, NASA had run 475 investigations on the station, and the partnership as a whole had done 1,251. That number is rising rapidly now that the station is finished, but perhaps not as rapidly as planners had hoped when they promoted the station as an orbiting laboratory for ground-breaking science.

Officially, NASA has three priorities for the space station: 1) meeting its international commitments; 2) conducting research in the life sciences and spacecraft technology that can feed its own goals in human space exploration; and 3) conducting research “in the national interest” using the U.S. National Laboratory organization mandated by Congress in 2005.

A space-station conference in Berlin last month highlighted some of the funding issues and other problems that all of the ISS partners are facing as they move into the utilization phase of their grand joint project (AW&ST May 21, p. 22). But it also highlighted some early research successes in orbit that have significant applications on the ground (see p. 42).

In the U.S., work is picking up on the human-exploration part of the portfolio. With the station in operation, astronauts are spending more time in space, growing the pool of human subjects against which to measure the effects of long-duration exposure to microgravity on the human body. One of them appears to be vision changes in some long-duration crewmembers. Station research has pointed to intracranial hypertension induced by microgravity as a potential cause (AW&ST March 19, p. 26).

Now, additional work on the station suggests there may be a nutritional factor, perhaps involving the dependent one-carbon metabolic pathway that is part of the process the body uses to make DNA. Station crewmembers provide samples of blood and urine that is preserved in the Minus-Eighty-deg. Laboratory Freezer for ISS for eventual analysis on the ground. Work based on those samples, published in the March edition of The Journal of Nutrition, may help screen astronauts who are susceptible to intracranial hypertension in microgravity, or point the way to changes in the ISS cabin atmosphere that could mitigate it. Because intracranial hypertension in the terrestrial population is poorly understood and potentially serious, the space-based studies may have a beneficial application on Earth.

“We clearly have identified a piece of the vision puzzle,” says Scott Smith, a Johnson Space Center nutritionist who co-authored the published paper. “We now need to go another step forward to assess whether it is a small piece among many others, or a large piece that is a primary cause of this problem.”

For spacecraft engineering, Japan is preparing to launch a NASA communications testbed in its HTV-III robotic cargo carrier next month that will evaluate three different software-defined radios (SDR) in the space environment. Set for installation by the Canadian-built Special-Purpose Dexterous Manipulator on the exterior platform of Japan's Kibo laboratory, the Space Communications and Navigations (SCaN) experiment will spend the next five years or more testing ways to upgrade and reconfigure radio-communications systems by uploading new operating-environment and waveform software from the ground.

Operated from the Glenn Research Center's Telescience Support Center where Ferkul works with Pettit, the SCaN Testbed will use S- and Ka-band frequencies to communicate through low-, medium- and high-gain antennas with ground stations and NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System. It will be available not just to government researchers, but to commercial users as well.

Commercial researchers will have a route to the station through the National Laboratory arrangement, but there have been problems setting up the non-governmental organization (NGO) that Congress wants to run it. As a result, commercial access to the station probably has been slowed (see p. 45).

The Florida-based NGO—the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (Casis)—has taken almost a year to prepare its first call for proposals on the commercial experiments it will help mount on the station. The inaugural work it selected is not really a new application of space microgravity. Based on a review of 135 experiments NASA has flown on the shuttle and ISS over the past 10 years, Casis science advisers chose to focus initially on drug research aimed at osteoporosis, muscle loss and the immune system.

That kind of work has been a staple of microgravity medical research in space for decades. Timothy Yeatman, the interim chief scientist at Casis as the NGO labors to launch its program, says the choice of ongoing research was deliberate.

“There is wonderful opportunity in taking the initial discoveries made by the NASA experiments and advancing the research towards real innovation and commercialization,” Yeatman says.

Space station managers at NASA say the problems at Casis have not slowed station research aimed at commercialization, which was already underway with NASA-funded research and with “pathfinder” projects managed by NASA that are being turned over to the NGO (see p. 44). Ultimately, the agency wants the National Lab to use half of the research “upmass” NASA is launching to the station on European, Japanese, Russian and eventually commercial cargo carriers.

“What we've put into the plan is that we want to provide another 2.5 to 3 metric tons from an upmass perspective for what we call National Lab research,” says Mike Suffredini, NASA's ISS program manager.

Part of the NGO's job is broadening interest in space research to new arenas. Casis officials say early outreach has focused on the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, because of the promise microgravity holds for speeding research that could lead to new vaccines and other medicines. James Royston, the Casis interim executive director, is a former president of Astrotech, which conducted highly publicized research on salmonella and MRSA vaccines on the space shuttle (AW&ST June 20, 2011, p. 130). He says he is spending a lot of time promoting continuation of that kind of research on the space station.

“You have to understand, even if we're talking protein crystals or osteo work, or some of these others, that we never really had a stabilized platform, or laboratory, to be able to do that,” Royston says. “Then we never had the recurring opportunities for transportation . . . . Now. we really have something, so if I go to Pharma now, I can promise a certain amount of allocation. We have come a long way with understanding what hardware works, what hardware doesn't, as far as both transportation and on-orbit capability.”

The first flight of the Space Exploration Technologies Inc. (SpaceX) Dragon cargo carrier to the ISS gave Casis a boost in the transportation department, particularly in the life sciences arena. SpaceX has set up its Dragon operation to allow payloads to be delivered to the capsule late in the launch-preparation sequence and to be retrieved relatively soon after splashdown in the Pacific. That sample-return capability is unique among the near-term commercial cargo options NASA is pushing to replace the capacity lost with the shuttle retirement (AW&ST April 16, p. 40).

“SpaceX is key for biotech,” says NASA's Robinson. “They're going to have the best capability for launch and return issues.”

That should work out well for SpaceX, because space has long been a useful environment for biological research. Mark Uhran, director of the ISS division in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters, has counted 818 U.S. patents granted since the early 1980s based on microgravity research or applications. The most common subject area among them, representing 36% or 277 patents, is biotechnology.

In a paper on the subject prepared for the American Astronautical Society's ISS Research and Development Conference in Denver this week, Uhran notes that biotech has generated three times the patents as the next-ranked field, analytical instrumentation, and he suggests that the relative simplicity of biological experiments in space may have contributed to the large number.

“The devices and apparatus needed to conduct basic biological studies at the molecular, cellular and microbiotic levels are often less complex and costly than those required for processing of toxic inorganic elements and compounds at high temperatures and pressures,” he writes.

While it remains to be seen how much the pharmaceutical industry will use the space station facilities, the value of microgravity research is well understood in the industry. Amgen, a biotechnology company based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., has partnered with Belgian pharmaceutical giant UCB to develop a sclerostin antibody that counteracts bone loss in post-menopausal osteoporosis and promotes bone healing in fractures.

As part of that work, the company flew a preclinical trial of the antibody on STS-135, the last space shuttle mission, to gauge its effects in mice subjected to microgravity. Bone loss is a well-understood effect of microgravity on mammals, including humans, and the work meshed nicely with NASA's need to protect its astronauts on long-duration space missions and the pharmaceutical industry's search for profitable drugs.

“The sclerostin pathway is regulated by mechanical load, and so if you really want to find out what happens at one extreme level of physiology, like completely unloading the skeleton, there's just no way to do it here on the planet,” says Chris Paszty, scientific executive director at Amgen. “So there are unique things that are only achievable in space.”

Final results of the space tests will be reported in October at the annual meeting of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research, and Paszty does not want to preview the results. But he describes the quality of data received during the short-duration shuttle mission as “fantastic,” and says right now there is no need to repeat the test on the space station.

It will be up to the ISS marketers at Casis to convince biotech experts like Paszty and his research counterparts in other fields that there is a need to use the station. And it remains to be seen at this point if they will be able to alert researchers in other fields to the capabilities available to them in orbit.