While astronauts assemble and activate the first portion of the International Space Station, scientists working with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center are preparing experiments that will take advantage of the most extensive space-based laboratory ever devised. And although the U.S. Laboratory Module won't be attached until the year 2000, research on board the space station should start by the end of 1999.
Their initial efforts will be modest, but eventually scientists will have tools that include everything but the kitchen sink.
"Most of our current inventory of payloads can fly very early," said Patton Downey, NASA discipline scientist for microgravity biotechnology research, a discipline that has had great success with experiments aboard the Space Shuttle and Russia's Mir space station.
Head start for biotechnology
Biotechnology is likely to be one of the the first microgravity science payloads aboard space station.
"We've had requests for payloads that could fly on the early space station assembly missions before the crew mans the station," continued Downey. "The space station office is asking for payloads that can operate unattended for about two months."
The biotechnology program has several science payloads that grow protein crystals. These are analyzed on Earth to determine the molecular structure so scientists can design drug therapies that target a specific problem with few or no side effects. It's a bit like safe-cracking at the atomic level.
Most of the protein crystal growth hardware requires little of the space station's resources and crew support. They only need to be turned on, and days or months later, turned off. If crew time is available, some photo documentation may be requested.
Tops on that list are payloads known as EGN and DCAM (above). Each grows large quantities of crystals by slightly different techniques.
These experiments will be conducted in an EXPRESS rack designed to handle
Contact: John Horack
NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center--Space Sciences Laboratory