Orbital Space Biology Laboratories

With the end of the space race, the space program evolved. The Russians opted for longer and longer human missions on board their space stations Salyut and Mir. The Americans developed the Space Shuttle program, which included a more suitable environment for space biology research. Animals and plants were flown in the middeck and in the pressurized Spacelab and SpaceHab modules. These modules included animal holding facilities, refrigerator/freezers, small and large mass measurements devices, and special workstations for manipulating the specimens.

On Soyuz-20, launched November 17, 1975, tortoises set the duration record for an animal in space when they spent 90.5 days in space. Salyut-5 in 1976 carried tortoises and a Zebra danio fish.

The Spacelab missions were conducted in a reusable space laboratory developed by the European Space Agency, which flew 19 times in the cargo bay of Space Shuttle Columbia between 1983 and 1998. Spacelab-3, in 1985, carried 24 rats and two squirrel monkeys, orbiting for seven days. In addition to pioneering a new generation of hardware for studying animals in space, one of the crewmembers (veteran U.S. astronaut Norm Thagard) had the distinction of becoming the first person ever to clean out animal cages in orbit.

The last Spacelab flight, the Neurolab mission, was a dedicated neurology research payload. Research subjects included baby rats, pregnant mice, snails, crickets and prehistoric looking oyster toadfish (Figure 2-05). Neurolab reinforced the value of using diverse organisms to address different biological questions. For example, crickets were included by virtue of their external gravity-sensing apparatus, the development of which can be easily studied (see Figure 5-01).

Figure 2-05. An oyster toadfish flown on the Neurolab STS-90 Mission. Each fish is between 20-30 cm long. This fish is an excellent model for looking at vesti-bular function because the archi-tecture of its vestibular apparatus in the inner and middle ear is similar to those of mammals. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Figure 2-05. An oyster toadfish flown on the Neurolab STS-90 Mission. Each fish is between 20-30 cm long. This fish is an excellent model for looking at vesti-bular function because the archi-tecture of its vestibular apparatus in the inner and middle ear is similar to those of mammals. Photo courtesy of NASA.

The last flight of Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 carried a SpaceHab module including silkworms, golden orb spiders, carpenter bees, harvester ants, and Japanese killifish. Nematodes (C. elegans) from one experiment were found still alive in the debris after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

From 1995 through 1998, NASA collaborated with the Russian Space Agency to use the Mir space station, conducting numerous animal and plant life science experiments. These ranged from studying the effects of the space environment on developing quail embryos to its impact on basic plant processes such as photosynthesis and water use. A notable milestone came in 1997 when seeds harvested from plants grown in microgravity were successfully germinated in orbit. This first "seed-to-seed" growth of plants in space proved that gravity is not required for plant reproduction

As the International Space Station (ISS) assembly proceeds, on-orbit space research capability will grow as additional experimental facilities are deployed. The first ISS laboratory was placed on orbit in 2000. Other laboratories, including the European Columbus and the Japanese Kibo modules will presumably be launched in the near future. Experimental facilities that fit inside these laboratories and on attachment sites will follow in accordance with the rhythm of Space Shuttle delivery flights.

The ISS laboratory areas will have equipment such as general-purpose workstations, surgical areas, facilities for breeding and maintenance of animals, aquatic facilities for marine experiments, and multigenerational plant facilities (see Chapter 3, Section 3). Research could also be conducted on biologically regenerative life support systems. The laboratory procedures conducted on board the ISS will allow that data be available in real time on the ground, a considerable improvement compared to the earlier space stations.

Many milestones have yet to be achieved. One of the most significant will be the first birth of a mammal in space, leading to multi-generational mammalian studies. The ability of humans to reproduce and develop normally over multiple generations beyond Earth is an essential part of plans to explore and inhabit other worlds. Mammalian studies will be a critical milestone step in assessing this ability.

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