Space-X successfully launched its first crewed mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on November 15, 2020. On board was Crew-1 which included Japanese astronaut, Soichi Noguchi, and NASA astronauts, Shannon Walker, Victor Glover and Mike Hopkins. Along with the new crew came a payload full of fascinating experiments focused on space exploration and the human body. Space programs are looking to the future, and their experiments are focused on the multi-faceted goal of colonizing the Moon and Mars.
Building habitats and long-term living in space is going to take ingenuity and working with readily available resources. BioAsteroid will study how rocks and microbes are affected by gravity in a liquid medium. In microgravity, researchers can test their theories with two microbial species: Phingomonas desiccabilis and Penicillium simplicissimum. The results from the study will go a long way to forming processes for biomining and using regolith for life support systems.
Astronauts will even get the chance to SERFE in space, or more accurately, to perform the SERFE (Spacesuit Evaporation Rejection Flight Experiment) on NASA’s new spacesuit called the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU). The xEMU design uses water evaporation to remove heat inside the suit and to keep astronauts at a safe temperature. They’ll test the suit and the Spacesuit Water Membrane Evaporator on 25 simulated spacewalks, each eight hours long. It sounds exhausting, but it’s necessary before they take it out on a real spacewalk.
Growing food in the inhospitable environment of space is an obvious and trying challenge. NASA has been adding modules to grow plants for many years and now they are expanding again. The Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) was added to the ISS in 2018 to study which growth conditions plants prefer. It provides a larger root and shoot area than previous experiments and has been used to study the cabbage-like Arabidopsis and Dwarf Wheat. Chosen for its similarities to Arabidopsis and its nutritional value, the Crew-1 brought radish seeds onboard to test in the APH. It’s looking like future astronauts better get used to eating radishes and cabbage.
There are also many on-going experiments the new astronauts will work on, including the Food Physiology experiment, which is the shortened name for the Integrated Impact of Diet on Human Immune Response, the Gut Microbiota, and Nutritional Status During Adaptation to Spaceflight. Thank goodness they didn’t turn it into an acronym.
Our stomachs are a mystery to us at the best of times, microgravity and a foreign environment complicate an already complex issue. The most direct and measurable way to deal with an astronaut’s overall health and immune system is through their diet. Monitoring changes in astronauts as their diet changes over time helps researchers improve the astronauts’ health. They are comparing the current diet with an enhanced version that includes foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, lycopene and flavonoids. All of these experiments will help current and future astronauts thrive in space as well as enhance the lives of everyone else on Earth. Important science is undertaken everyday onboard the ISS and we all reap the benefits.