Commercial experiments get underway aboard station
Posted: May 4, 2001

From spuds to space medicine. The ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE is the first facility to grow plants that produce seeds on the station. Photo: NASA
Three new commercial experiments are getting started on the International Space Station, marking a major milestone for NASA's Commercial Space Centers -- 17 centers across the United States that help industry conduct space experiments.

The experiments were launched into orbit on April 19 on the Space Shuttle Endeavor on the STS-100 mission, Space Station Flight 6A. The Space Station Expedition Two crew are setting up the three commercial payloads and beginning experiments. These experiments will remain on board the Station until the end of Expedition Two, at the end of July, when the Space Shuttle Discovery will return them to Earth.

The three experiments slated for Space Station Expedition Two explore areas of the fast-growing fields of biotechnology and agriculture. One experiment is growing plants aboard the Space Station. Another examines why antibiotic production by microbes is enhanced in microgravity. A third is testing a new piece of equipment for crystallizing more than 1,000 biological samples.

NASA's commercial partners have been busy preparing for the flight. During the mission, some of them will work in new remote control centers set up with NASA's help. From these ground control centers, students, teachers and industry partners will be able to communicate with the crew and send commands to their experiments on the Space Station -- 233 miles above Earth. Investigators at these telescience centers can talk with the crew and send experiment commands through NASA's Payload Operations Center at the Marshall Center.

"Industry investment in space remains high," said Mark Nall, manager of NASA's Space Product Development Program at the Marshall Center. "We assist companies developing experiments and help them explore how space research can contribute to the growth of their businesses."

Industry funds the research, pays for a portion of launch costs, and brings resulting products or services to market. Because a company pays for the research, it has the opportunity to commercialize products that may be developed as a result of the research.

Bristol-Myers Squibb -- a New York-based international pharmaceutical company -- is sponsoring the antibiotic experiments being conducted in the Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus (CGBA) during Expedition Two. These experiments study the effects of microgravity -- the near weightless environment inside an orbiting spacecraft -- on bacterial growth processes used to produce medicines.

The company has flown experiments aboard three Space Shuttle flights. Initial study results indicate that space flight has a stimulating effect on microbial antibiotic production, with increases in specific productivity of up to about 200 percent compared to ground control samples.

"Our collaboration with NASA not only puts our researchers in the forefront of science, but also gives us the opportunity of being first in our field to develop major new technologies and products," said Ray Lam, senior principal scientist of the natural products department at Bristol-Myers Squibb's research facility in Wallingford, Conn. -- part of the company's pharmaceutical research institute.

Based on these successful, preliminary results, the company recently funded a research program on the International Space Station. Space Station flights are much longer than Shuttle flights, allowing the company to determine if these stimulating effects continue over time as exposure to space is increased from under two weeks to more than two months. Information gained from the space research could be used to enhance research that increases the efficiency of drug production in ground-based facilities.

Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus. These square units fit in a floor-to-ceiling EXPRESS rack on the station. Photo: NASA
To fly the experiment in space, Bristol-Myers Squibb works with one of NASA's Commercial Space Centers -- BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado in Boulder. BioServe built the Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus, which has been flown on several Shuttle missions. BioServe set up and opened a remote ground control site for monitoring experiments and collecting data at the University of Colorado.

NASA has helped establish Commercial Space Centers, like BioServe, with specialized areas of technical expertise. These centers are located across the United States. Eleven are managed by the Space Product Development Program, are jointly funded by NASA, industry and academia, and must meet stringent review requirements for commercial space flight research.

Most of the centers are located on university campuses and work closely with other academic and government research institutions. The centers have agreements with almost 200 firms, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, ALCOA, Amgen, DuPont, Eli Lily and Company, Space Explorers Inc., Monsanto Company and Polaroid.

Another experiment being delivered to the Space Station this month -- the ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE -- will allow companies interested in agriculture and agribusiness to conduct long-term plant research. Starting with Space Station Expedition Two, industry will be able to grow plants in space over an entire life cycle -- from seeds to plants to seeds.

For the Expedition Two experiment, scientists will grow Arabidopsis, a member of the Brassica plant family that includes cabbage and radishes. The Space Station provides an ideal laboratory for growing plants and studying the influence gravity has played as plants evolved on Earth. This is particularly important for studying the way a plant's traits, such as disease resistance and nutrition, are determined genetically.

Space Explorers Inc., of De Pere, Wis., is the commercial partner for this experiment. The company will use data from the experiment to develop the commercial curricula called Orbital Laboratory. This Internet-based multimedia software program allows students to design, conduct and analyze a Space Station experiment.

The ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE was built by the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics (WCSAR), a NASA Commercial Space Center located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It will be monitored and operated by WCSAR staff working at a remote ground center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The ASTROCULTURE plant growth chamber, a precursor to the ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE, has flown on six Space Shuttle missions and on a long-duration Shuttle/Mir mission, growing plants such as wheat, mustard and potatoes.

The third Expedition Two commercial experiment is the Commercial Protein Crystal Growth -- High Density experiment sponsored by the Center for Biophysical Sciences and Engineering at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. This new Space Station experiment holds 1,008 samples, while previous Shuttle hardware contained only 128 samples.

The ability to carry more samples is crucial to investigating the conditions that encourage these biological solutions to form crystals. If the crystals form in an orderly fashion, their structure can be analyzed on Earth. By determining the structure of these biological substances, scientists can learn how they work in humans, animals, and plants, including what roles they play in diseases. The Space Station provides a platform for growing crystals that are difficult to grow on Earth and require longer periods of microgravity than have been available on shorter Shuttle missions.

NASA has manifested more commercial experiments for upcoming Space Station expeditions.