For decades, the space community has sought the “killer app” for microgravity research: the project that, once and for all, will demonstrate work that can only be done in space and has tremendous value on Earth that is enough to sustain investment in the field. So far, that search has come up empty.
Advocates of microgravity research, though, remain undeterred, even while cautioning such research is hard and takes a long time to complete. “Whenever we study biological systems in extreme environments of temperature or pH or lack of gravity, we’ve always learned something new about life, and many times we’ve translated that to global advances for human health and quality of life,” said Cheryl Nickerson, a professor at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Center for Fundamental and Applied Microbiomics.
Nickerson was speaking at a one-day workshop there Sept. 16, organized by the university and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, to promote the benefits of commercial microgravity research, particularly in the life sciences, be it on the International Space Station or commercial suborbital vehicles.
But while Nickerson and other speakers played up the potential benefits of such research, they also didn’t shy away from the difficulties.
“If there’s so many benefits to doing space life sciences research, why the heck isn’t everybody doing it?” she said. “Because it’s hard. It’s not at all like doing research at your lab bench.”
Nickerson and other speakers at the event discussed those challenges, which range from funding to dealing with unique hardware to the timetables and planning involved with sending even a modest experiment to the International Space Station. And, of course, launch delays. “We spent many holidays, including my birthday” dealing with launch delays for one mission, recalled Jennifer Barrila, an Arizona State professor. “Launch delays happen. It’s just a normal thing for spaceflight.”
Delays can also take place at the other end of the mission. The only way to get experiments back from the station today is on SpaceX Dragon capsule, which splash down in the Pacific several hundred kilometers off the California coast. It can take up to 36 hours to get those experiments in the hands of scientists, said Jana Stoudemire of Space Tango, a company that builds research hardware, which can be an issue for time-sensitive research. She added, though that there can be ways to cut that time down, such as picking up experiments right after the ship carrying the capsule returns to port in Los Angeles.
Some of the biggest delays, though, can come once the experiments are back on Earth. Nickerson described one experiment to test a potential Salmonella vaccine in microgravity. “We’re still analyzing the results of it,” she said. That experiment flew on the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, more than eight years ago.
The workshop emphasized ways to try to speed up the process of flying experiments. Some relatively straightforward experiments can be manifested for flight by the ISS National Lab in as little as six months, although more complex experiments will take longer. The use of “facility” hardware, designed to support a wide range of experiments rather than optimized for a single one, can also help.
While patience can be a virtue, it has its limits. Although it now looks like the ISS will be extended beyond 2024, to perhaps 2028, 2030 or even later, it does have a finite lifetime. The lack of major success stories from ISS research — those killer apps — so far could pose a challenge in the future for commercial successors, trying to build a business case and raise investment for individual modules or complete stations.
If microgravity research has only a limited impact, pharmaceutical and other companies may be less interested in pursuing such work, making it more difficult for commercial facilities to make money.
Scientists may be patient as they deal with the challenges of microgravity research, but investors may not be as willing to wait.
“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Sept. 23, 2019 issue.
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.