The Most Unusual Laboratory (Not) on Earth
Floating 200 miles above the Earth, and speeding at nearly five miles per second, the International Space Station may be the most unusual lab available to science. NASA’s chief scientist for the space station, Julie Robinson, talks about the station’s year-long experiment on the Kelly twins—Mark on Earth and Scott in space—as well as the effects of space on the microbiome, and how plants grow in low gravity.
Julie Robinson is chief scientist of the International Space Station program at the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston, Texas.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow here at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. And last week we talked about the International Space Station’s nifty, new Isspresso machine. Get it? I-S-S-presso machine. They also had a bulbous no-shave zero gravity coffee cup, which allows astronauts to sip their drinks in zero gravity.
But they are more than just sipping coffee up there. There is a microbiome experiment studying, does space change the community of bugs that live in your gut? Think about it. And then don’t think about it.
And experiments– and how plants know to grow in the right direction. And it’s not just the sunlight that we talk about here. And investigations– and how you genes interact with zero gravity. Now we have the famous Kelly twins, Mark and Scott as the test subjects. Mark is here on earth and Scott is up there in space for a year.
They’re going to be up there comparing notes with the ground. And then there’s one of my favorite, the suction pants experiment, which well, we’ll talk about that with my next guest, NASA’s chief scientist for the International Space Station Program. Julia Robinson, she’s based at Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston.
She came all the way here to Huntsville. Thank you for being with us today. Happy to have you. Dr. Robinson, thanks for joining us. There are so many things going on up there that we don’t hear much about except the espresso machine.
JULIA ROBINSON: Yeah. What can I say? The press doesn’t always want to cover the most exciting science. They want to cover the most popular science.
IRA FLATOW: You know what? I was reading about this. Some of the exciting stuff, especially how zero gravity might affect genetics of the people up there. We had never thought about that before, did we?
JULIA ROBINSON: Right. I mean, now we’re in the age of personalized medicine now. Doctors are starting to test your genes before they decide what to prescribe. It’s hitting cancer, therapy, all of that. And it’s hitting us in space as well because not every person is reacting to the space environment the same way.
And as we start to understand that better, some day it’s gonna influence who we send to Mars, for example. Maybe not everybody has got the right genes to go that far and be subject to all that radiation and be alone such a long time.
IRA FLATOW: Right, right. So we learned things that we never expected. We never expect a lot of things out of zero g, but things pop out. Right?
JULIA ROBINSON: One great example that popped out about four years ago, was that there are some astronauts– not every astronaut– and mostly the men, not really the women that have permanent vision loss after being in space. A lot of astronauts have some vision decline when they’re on orbit.
But when they come home, there’s a few that don’t get better, don’t recover. And what we’ve learned over the last four years is that their optic nerve is swelling, the pressure in their brain, basically, the pressure of the fluids in their brain is going up. Their optic nerve swells.
It compresses their eyeball so it’s not round anymore. And it can cause cotton wool spots and disrupt the retina. It’s this whole process. And we missed it for all these– what? 30 years, 40 years of human space flight, we didn’t even realize that was going on.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Because we used to talk about you maybe lose some calcium. You may have bones atrophy a little bit. But never these other kinds of–
JULIA ROBINSON: Yeah, yeah. So bone loss we’ve known about for a long time. And that’s one that we’re actually solving. So we’ve had astronauts now come home from the space station that with the right level of exercise, high intensity resistive exercise– not running on a treadmill– the right vitamin D, and the right calories, eating a fair amount of food, they come home without losing bone mass density. And that’s actually an incredible achievement for mankind to get off of the planet.
IRA FLATOW: I think a lot of people want to get into space here. What can we learn from the Kelly twins? What’s the biggest thing that we’re hoping for?
JULIA ROBINSON: Well, you know, the thing that’s really a breakthrough with the Kelly twins builds on the one-year expedition that we’re doing with our Russian colleagues. So Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko cosmonaut are both going to spend one year on the International Space Station. And we’re bringing the two medical research programs of the US and Russia together in doing joint experiments on things like fluid shifts on the eye issue I just talked about.
Once we had selected Scott for the one-year expedition, he and Mark came to us and said, hey, don’t scientists do things with twins? Aren’t twins a good way to understand things? We’d love to volunteer. And that was a huge breakthrough for us because we’re always pretty careful at NASA about looking at genetic data.
Astronauts are employees. They’re covered by a federal act called GINA that doesn’t let you use genetic information about your employees. And so until they had come to us, we really had not started dealing with all of the ethical issues. And they were really open to having basically, their genes sequenced, having people look at all of these different levels, what proteins they’re making, what RNA is coming out, even their gut microbiome.
We’re looking at both the microbiome of the astronauts, but also the way that microbes colonize the space station as a whole. As new vehicles come up, it’s one of the most closed systems in the world. Anything that gets there is going to pretty much stay there until it gets filtered out by the HEPA filters. So it makes a great laboratory for studying microbes.
IRA FLATOW: Why would we have different protein expression if we’re in space? What is our body think is happening that it changes gears?
JULIA ROBINSON: Yeah. So one of the things that happens at a cellular level is there are certain cells that are responding to, say muscle tension. If you look at your bones, your bones are always recycling themselves. If they didn’t recycle themselves, they’d become brittle and they’d just break. And so there’s a type of cell that actually feels the tension at a cellular level between your muscle cells in the bone and says, boy, I should do some work here.
I should build some bone. And if that tension isn’t there, it doesn’t work the same way. So really understanding that tension between the cells that chew up bone and the cells that build bone is where a lot of the focus has been on bone loss research over the last 10 years.
IRA FLATOW: All right. We have a question in the audience. Let’s go right here to the front. Yes, sir?
AUDIENCE: Yeah, we’re talking about some of the effects of zero gravity. And to date, I guess, it’s been combative primarily by extensive exercise and pharmacological approaches and things like that. But Dr. Ashton Graybiel did a lot of research several years ago using artificial gravity. And that, of course, is showing up in movies like 2001 Space Odyssey. Is there any work going on in that area nowadays?
JULIA ROBINSON: Yeah. Artificial gravity is something NASA’s looked at several times over the years. And the big problem with artificial gravity is you’ve got to design your spacecraft system. Well, it’s got two problems. One is the spacecraft system side. One is the human system side.
So you’ve got to design your spacecraft system to work in spinning mode and to work if it breaks and isn’t spinning anymore, which means the physics has to work for zero gravity and the physics has to work for spinning. And that’s an engineering challenge. So that makes a spacecraft much more expensive to build. You know how well that goes over.
And then, but on the human system side, when you’re spinning, if you guys think 2001 Space Odyssey is how it would feel, you’re wrong. Think Ferris wheel. Think, you know, Tilt-A-Whirl. Because your brain and your sensory system does not like to have these Coriolis effects on your body. So if your centrifuging around and you turn your head a little bit to the side, you’re going to throw up.
IRA FLATOW: I hate it when that happens.
JULIA ROBINSON: So far, the idea of trying to design a 360 degree barf bag for centrifuged astronaut was not working out so well.
IRA FLATOW: Would it be possible in a large space station or other place to grow fresh plants that people could eat, fresh food, and like a little garden?
JULIA ROBINSON: So we are growing fresh plants in a little habitat called veggie.
IRA FLATOW: How original a name?
JULIA ROBINSON: And we just brought enough samples home. Everybody was worried about the microbiome part of that. See? So the first set we grew, the docs wouldn’t let the astronauts eat them because they wanted to bring them home and make sure they were clean enough. We just got approval. So the next set that grow are OK to eat, the next lettuce.
IRA FLATOW: It’s going to be lettuce? What’s it going to be?
JULIA ROBINSON: I think the plan is lettuce. But we haven’t confirmed that yet.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. It’s not integrated into the waste system for vegetation.
JULIA ROBINSON: No. But, you know, the amazing thing about plants is that when you look at the genes that turn on when they’re in space, they’re kinda the same genes that turn on when they’re water stressed.
IRA FLATOW: When they think there’s a drought some kind of genes that get turned on?
JULIA ROBINSON: Yeah. And there’s a lot going on with plants because in space, the liquid doesn’t go to the bottom of the container. So there’s all of this water everywhere with air bubbles everywhere. And the roots feel like they’re drowning as well. So there’s a lot of work going on there to try and understand what is this stress response? And how quickly does it happen?
There are even scientists that have done a lot of work on the space station. They decided to see how fast does the plant know it’s in space? And so they did some work on a sounding rocket. And they were measuring electrical impulses in the cells and found it was almost instantaneous as they went up.
IRA FLATOW: They knew they were in space or they started reacting with the stress?
JULIA ROBINSON: They started reacting. You could see the gene reactions change. The gene transcription would change.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. And do we have a question in the audience? Yes, sir?
AUDIENCE: On the subject of the ISS twin study, there are some effects that can be expected, such as the calcium loss that you had mentioned earlier. But are there any effects that are less well documented that you’re interested in looking at or just looking to show?
JULIA ROBINSON: Yeah. That’s a great question. Two or our biggest risks, as we look ahead at going to Mars, are radiation. Because you know, even on the space station, we’re still partly inside the earth’s magnetosphere. So we’re in a gentler environment. It’s not as gentle as here on the Earth’s surface, but it’s a little bit gentler.
And as you go on a transit to Mars, you’re pretty much in open space and really exposed for awhile. And so that radiation risk is one thing. A second thing we’re really concerned about is what we call, behavioral health and performance. And that’s something that engineers aren’t real comfortable with, because it’s not the hard, firm, data-driven type science maybe that most engineers are comfortable with.
But the fact is, if you’re on a mission to Mars for three years and you’re with a handful of other people, and you’re stuck with them, and things get tense, and things go wrong, and halfway through the mission you really wish you could quit, there’s not a lot you can do about that. And so understanding how to select the right crews, how to give them the right support– they can’t call home from Mars like they could from the space station space. The space station, they just call their families on the satellite phone.
IRA FLATOW: You know, in the early days of living– I remember when I was in Antarctica 30 years ago. In the early days of what they called, wintering over, you couldn’t leave Antarctica for six months either. And they started experi– and they actually started documenting people going a little nutty, as they called it. And there was a depression they go through. Whatever. This sounds like you’re in the early days of that same kind of research.
JULIA ROBINSON: Right. And so we have studies that’ll be going on that help the astronauts to assess their own state of mind. Especially, you can imagine on a Mars mission, an astronaut needs be able to assess themselves, because the delay of communication with the ground could really interfere with getting a lot of support. Talking with Scott Kelly before he went up, he was really realizing this is so different than the six-month mission he did.
When he did a six-month mission, he said at about four months in, he had the experience. He was kind of done with it and then he just had to soldier on. And that’s actually been scientifically documented. It’s called the third quarter effect. It happens to marathon runners as well. You know, when you’re through the first half. And then you think, oh my god, I’ve got to do this again.
IRA FLATOW: You hit the wall.
JULIA ROBINSON: And so he’s really thinking actively about how’s he’s going to deal with that in this mission? What happens? He asked me, what happens if at four months I feel the same way I did the last time?
IRA FLATOW: But at least you can predict it now. It’s sort of more of a science. You know, what’s going to happen. You know to expect it. And other people around you know that that might happen.
JULIA ROBINSON: Right. But part of what we do on the space station is it’s not just predicting the problem. It’s finding a way to alleviate the problem. We call that a countermeasure. We’ve got to do something to get that risk down enough that we think that mission is going to be good to go.
IRA FLATOW: Julia Robinson is chief scientist for the International Space Station based at the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston.
We’re going to take a short break. We’ll be right back after. This is Science Friday from PRI.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow here at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. If you’re just joining us, we’re talking with Julie Robinson, chief scientist for The International Space Station. You know, there are people who think that if we’re going to Mars it’s a one-way trip. We should find people who are willing to go to Mars and that be their last place that they go. They’re not coming home. What is your view? What is NASA’s view on this.
JULIA ROBINSON: Well, I think–
IRA FLATOW: And there are thousands of people who are supposedly ready to do that.
JULIA ROBINSON: And those people can do it on their own time. But I think–
It’s sort of the difference between the Lewis and Clark expedition and a personal trip to Mount Everest, right? The Lewis and Clark expedition was a government funded expedition to gain knowledge for the benefit of the nation. And we sent them, intending them to bring all that knowledge, the samples back, and all of that so that it really served the nation, not just them as human beings to go do something cool.
But an Everest expedition is generally a person raising their own money and paying for personal experience. And they take a lot of personal risks and die. But that’s not something that governments usually fund.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s see if we can go to the audience. Yes. Right here.
AUDIENCE: Hi. I got a question about disease on The International Space Station. Can other astronauts come up and pass the common cold or the flu, like new astronauts coming up, bringing up food, or for example, other supplies?
JULIA ROBINSON: Yeah. We worry about that a lot. All the astronauts are in a quarantine before they launch for a period of time, hoping that we won’t bring up something like the common cold. But it has happened where somebody looked pretty good when they launched and they’d looked good all along.
And maybe they got an illicit kiss from one of their little kids or something like that. And they brought it up. And from the astronauts that have had colds in space, they say it’s pretty miserable. The only way to clear your sinuses is to spin yourself around.
IRA FLATOW: OK.
Do we worry that we might be bringing our germs to Mars if we go there, and like they might run wild?
JULIA ROBINSON: So there are folks at NASA that are sort of in charge of planetary protection. And they talk a lot about how all the things we’re going to do to make sure we don’t bring bacteria to Mars. But with my own background as an ecologist, I think a little more practically. And I just can’t imagine that anything we send isn’t going to have some bacteria on it. That’s just my personal view.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. As they said in the Jurassic Park– “nature will find a way.”
JULIA ROBINSON: “Nature finds a way.”
IRA FLATOW: Jeff Goldblum’s famous lines.
JULIA ROBINSON: There will be something.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. We have to expect to bring something there. One of the recent experiments on the International Space Station was 3D printing in space. So you could make stuff up there instead of ordering it from Earth. Did it work well? Was it OK?
JULIA ROBINSON: It didn’t work perfectly. And in fact, some of the guys you were talking to about the coffee cup, they had predicted it wouldn’t work perfectly. Because they’re experts– you know, Mark Weislogal is an expert in how surface tension, forces of fluids dominate when you don’t have gravity anymore. And so the things kind of suck to the surface in ways we didn’t expect and so forth.
But we’re going to work on some other materials and keep analyzing the way that the little droplets of fluids start interacting with each other. And when you think about the big picture, I would say 3D printing is one of the most important things we can do for becoming independent of Earth so that we can do a long distance exploration mission.
Because you cannot take all the spare parts with you. And so if you’re able to manufacture only the spare parts you need and any spare part you could happen to need, that makes a huge difference on the cost of the mission, the mass of the mission, and the safety of a mission. So it’s really important.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about suction pants. I’m not even going to go there. You just take the ball and run with it. Suction pants.
JULIA ROBINSON: Well, so I talked about the eye issue, this idea that fluids are shifting up into the head and causing pressure that could damage the eyes. And those fluids are rising up because there’s no gravity holding them down. Our bodies are adapted to be in 1g. And when astronauts we know well go up into space, they look funny to us, if you know them well.
Their faces look puffy and their legs get really skinny. We call that chicken legs. So when they’re wearing shorts or something like that, oh, man. His leg got really skinny.
IRA FLATOW: OK. You’re looking out that.
JULIA ROBINSON: Yeah. You got to watch for it. And so this is something we’ve known about for a long time. But all of a sudden it has a new focus because it might be causing damage to the eyes. And that changes the whole landscape. It’s not just something funny anymore. It could be something really serious.
Our Russian colleagues for years and years have had a countermeasure that they use before their astronauts return to earth that they think helps them to get used to the fluids coming back down in their legs when they land. And this is called the Chibis. And it’s basically a set of pants that have lower body negative pressure, which is suction, essentially.
And so what we’re going to do on this one-year expedition for the first time– it’s really exciting study with both Scott and Mikhail– is have them in the Russian segment using the Chibis, and then have all of the American ultrasound equipment and the tomography, the eye measurement equipment also in the Russian segment so that we can draw the fluid down and then see, does that affect the shape of the eye?
Does that affect all the eye problems that we might be observing at the time? And also, do we see the fluids actually shifting or not? So we’ll be able to image the blood vessels and really see if this is an important area to pursue.
IRA FLATOW: This sounds like the same problem the fighter pilots had in the early days of– in the ’50s. Supersonic planes. Because the blood would rush from their head and they’d blackout when they’re going, doing a lot of g-forces. And they had to come up with space suits to push the blood back up there. It’s sort of the same, but the opposite direction.
JULIA ROBINSON: It’s the same set of problems. And also, you know, pilots will do Valsalva maneuvers, so they don’t pass out, where they create some pressure on their heads to keep the blood there. Where one theory, which hasn’t been proven on the eye issue, the vision issue, is that all this high intensity resistive exercise that’s protecting the astronauts bones and has the osteoporosis research community here on earth really interested, might be contributing, because they’re basically doing Valsalva maneuvers when they’re doing this high intensity exercise too. So that might make it worse.
IRA FLATOW: Well, Dr. Robinson, I’m so glad you decided to come in from Houston to visit us on Science Friday.
JULIA ROBINSON: It’s always a pleasure to be here in Huntsville. It’s our mission control for all the research. So it’s good to be here.
IRA FLATOW: Great place. Thank you. Julia Robinson is chief scientist for the International Space Station, based at the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston.