‘Science in a box’ will let astronauts really get their hands on Space Station experiments

People talk about thinking “outside the box,” but some science experiments
aboard the International Space Station will be safer and easier when they
are done inside a box.

A glovebox that is.

Until now, many of the Space Station experiments have been in enclosed
containers, with few hands-on crew activities. That will change when Space
Shuttle Endeavour delivers a new facility – the Microgravity Science
Glovebox – to the Space Station in May during the STS-111 mission.

“Without the glovebox, many types of hands-on experiments would be
impossible or severely restricted on the Space Station,” said Charles
Baugher, project scientist for the glovebox at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight
Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The glovebox – a sealed container with built in gloves on its sides and
fronts — will enhance the Space Station’s science capabilities by providing
a facility where the crew can work safely with experiments that involve
fluids, flames, particles and fumes that need to be safely contained. In an
Earth-based laboratory, liquids stay in beakers or test tubes. In the
near-weightlessness, or microgravity, created as the Station orbits Earth,
they float.

Contaminants could get into the cabin air and irritaf.co crew member’s skin
or eyes — or even make them ill. They could damage the Station’s sensitive
computer and electrical systems or ruin other experiments.

To make laboratory-style investigations inside the Station possible,
engineers and scientists at the Marshall Center collaborated with the
European Space Agency to build the glovebox.

During the upcoming four-month Expedition Five on the Station, the glovebox
will support the first two materials science experiments to be conducted on
the Space Station. These experiments will study materials processes similar
to those used to make semiconductors for electronic devices and components
used in jet engines.

High-temperature furnaces and toxic materials required for the experiments
will be safely contained inside the sealed glovebox work area. Yet by
inserting their hands in the gloves, the crew will still be able to change
out samples and adjust video for the experiment – two critical hands-on
activities crucial to the success of both investigations. The glovebox is
hooked up to Station resources like power and computers, so investigators on
the ground can still send commands to their experiments and receive data,
such as video of samples being melted.

The glovebox facility occupies a floor-to-ceiling rack inside the Destiny
laboratory module. It is more than twice as large as gloveboxes flown on the
Space Shuttle, and its work volume can hold larger investigations that are
about the size of an airline carry-on bag. The work area is waist-high and
can slide out to extended positions, making it easier for crew members to
work. The side and front ports are 40 centimeters (16 inches) in diameter
and are used for setting up and manipulating equipment inside the box.

The Microgravity Science Glovebox is designed to be a fixture of the
Station’s Destiny laboratory for the next 10 years. Scientists are
developing a steady stream of investigations that take advantage of the
glovebox’s capabilities. The glovebox supports relatively low-cost, small
investigations from many disciplines including biotechnology, combustion
science, fluid physics, fundamental physics and materials science.

“The glovebox allows scientists to test small parts of larger investigations
in a microgravity environment, try out equipment on the Station, and do
experiments more like they would do them in a laboratory on the ground,”
said Baugher.

In exchange for building the glovebox, the European Space Agency will be
able to use other facilities inside Destiny until that agency’s Space
Station laboratory – the Columbus Orbital Facility – is attached to the
Station in a couple of years. The glovebox was built by Bradford Engineering
B.V. in The Netherlands.

“We have a long history of working with the Europeans on the glovebox
concept,” said Mary Etta Wright, one of the Marshall Center’s lead glovebox
engineers. “We built on our successful flights of gloveboxes on the Space
Shuttle and the Russian space station Mir.”

Wright does her work in the Microgravity Development Laboratory – a unique
Marshall Center facility that helps scientists and engineers prepare
investigations from conception to implementation in space. The laboratory
has an identical engineering model of the glovebox that was used to test and
prepare the first experiments for this flight, and will continue to be used
to prepare future investigations.

During the mission, scientists will command and monitor glovebox
investigations from a telescience center located at Marshall’s Microgravity
Development Laboratory.

“People at the Marshall Center developed gloveboxes to increase the types of
experiments we could conduct in space,” said Wright. “We can’t wait to see
this facility became a mainstay of laboratory equipment on the Space