Project ties in with International Space Station

AMHERST, Mass. This month, high school students in Massachusetts and across the country will get a taste of how science is done on board the International Space Station (ISS), courtesy of a collaborative project at the University of Massachusetts, funded by the Massachusetts Space Consortium. The project is tied in with the space shuttle Atlantis, which blasted off for an 11-day mission on April 8. The students will rely on elements as high-tech as specialized software and real-time downloads from the space station – and as low-tech as recycled milk bottles – to learn about space biology. Students will study topics such as weightlessness and its effects on plants, including fruit and flower development and photosynthesis; and how astronauts recycle and purify water and air for re-use.

The ISS orbits the Earth at an altitude of about 250 miles, within what is called Low Earth Orbit (LEO). “To go beyond LEO, we need to answer many questions about how people can live and work in space,” said Mary Musgrave, who developed the program, dubbed LEO then Beyond. Musgrave is associate dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and conducts space-related research in the biology department. “As on Earth, plants are expected to play an important role in long-duration space expeditions. Plants would provide a source of food for astronauts, and would play a crucial role in the air and water recycling systems.”

But first, scientists need to learn more about how plants grow in space, Musgrave added. To accomplish this, special chambers are being designed that can provide plants with light and water, while keeping track of information such as temperature and air pressure. A test of one such plant-growth chamber will take place on the current mission, and students will actually assist in evaluating the device, built by Orbital Technologies Corp., of Madison, Wis.

The students will use a specially-designed software created by UMass computer scientist Beverly Woolf and her students. They will take a Web-based “tour” of a closed-loop system here on Earth: Bioshelters, an Amherst company that combines aquaculture and hydroponics to produce fish and basil. John Reid, president of Bioshelters, says that school groups often tour his facility, which demonstrates many principles of biology, engineering, and ecology. The program also guides students through lessons on “closed-loop” systems, in which water and nutrients are recycled. After taking the virtual tour, students test their knowledge by trying to grow their own fish and basil using the SimBioshelters computer program. The curriculum and multimedia activities are available on the website

Students will also construct simulated micro-gravity chambers from used plastic milk bottles, a plastic cup, and interfacing. The classes will use the simulated chambers to grow “Astroplants,” a specially developed strain of mustard that will be grown on the ISS mission. Through the UMass Web site, students can then retrieve data and images from ISS and compare plant growth in space with the growth of their own plants in the classroom simulators. The students planted seeds in their simulated chambers on
March 31.

“As human expeditions into space last longer and are more distant from Earth, it will be more and more difficult to take along enough supplies to keep astronauts alive until they return home,” Musgrave said. “Water and food take up significant cargo space, and the added weight makes it difficult to boost them up from Earthís surface.”

This isnít the first time Musgrave has taken students into space. In 1997, she established a space-Earth link when students studied pollination with Ukrainian payload specialist Leonid Kadenyuk, who used a bee stick to pollinate plants while in orbit on the Space Shuttle. That collaboration, with the Ukraine, allowed 200,000 students from the U.S and 20,000 from the Ukraine to study space biology together, with downlinks from the spacecraft.


NASA-funded space-grant consortia, like the one in Massachusetts, provide funds for the development and use of space-related educational outreach activities. The curriculum has been adopted by NASA as a pilot program, and was recently presented at the National Science Teachers Association meeting in San Diego.

Mary Musgrave can be reached at
or 413/577-4712.
Hannah Neville, a science teacher at Turners Falls High School, Turnpike Rd., Montague, whose students are participating, can be reached at, or by phoning the school at 413/863-9341.