Final liftoff for space shuttle Atlantis

U. COLORADO (US)—The launch today from Kennedy Space Center is expected to be the last one for space shuttle Atlantis, marking the end of a career that includes 32 space missions—covering more than 115 million miles.

Atlantis and six astronauts are headed for the International Space Station to deliver research materials and conduct experiments on a 12-day mission.

On board the shuttle are three University of Colorado at Boulder-built biomedical payload devices, including one to help scientists understand how and why slimy and troublesome clumps of microorganisms flourish in the low-gravity conditions of space.

The experiments on biofilms—clusters of microorganisms that adhere to each other or to various surfaces—are of high interest to space scientists because of their potential impacts on astronaut and spacecraft health, says Louis Stodieck, director of BioServe Space Technologies in the aerospace engineering sciences department at CU-Boulder. Their growth, for example, occurred in water purification and environmental controls systems on Russia’s Mir Space Station and was of regular concern.

Led by Cynthia Collins, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.,  and managed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffet Field, Calif., the experiments will target the growth, physiology, and cell-to-cell interactions in microbial biofilms. The team will examine how the formation of the three-dimensional structure of biofilms formed by microbes differs in spaceflight versus normal gravity.

Because astronauts show decreases in their immune systems during spaceflight, researchers would like to know more about how bacteria behave in space, including their apparent increase in virulence and resistance to antibiotics, says Stodieck. Such experiments have implications for astronauts on long-term space travel flight to places like the moon, Mars, and beyond.

The experiments will be carried aboard Atlantis in sets of specially designed fluid-processing apparatuses known as GAPs designed and built by BioServe, says Stodieck. Atlantis astronauts will control the individual GAP experiments using hand cranks to trigger and then later terminate cell growth via fluid mixing.  The samples will be returned to Earth at the end of the mission for further study.

The GAPs will ride inside BioServe’s Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus, an automated, suitcase-sized device developed at CU-Boulder that has been launched on more than a dozen NASA space shuttle missions, with two of the CGBA devices now on the International Space Station. BioServe is providing the hardware, integration, and operations support for all Atlantis GAP experiments.

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Mission Specialist Mike Good, waves as he is submerged in the waters of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory near NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The training prepares Good for work on the exterior of the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA/JSC)

A second experiment using BioServe hardware will analyze changes in virulence of two particularly nasty strains of bacteria in the low gravity of space.

One, Salmonella, can cause illness and death to humans by tainting food or water. The second, Staphylococcus, can cause a variety of infections, including Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA—a growing problem in hospitals and health clinics—because of its ability to resist antibiotics in the penicillin class of drugs.

“Water quality, food safety, and disease are age-old problems on Earth,” says Stodieck. “Not only do these experiments have applications for keeping crew members safe by helping scientists better understand gene and protein changes in pathogens, they also could help researchers find new ways to prevent and control infectious disease.”

A third experiment designed by the University of Florida will use BioServe hardware to study cell cultivation in a tropical plant known as Jatropha that produces energy-rich nuts, a popular new renewable crop for biofuels. The researchers will be looking for genes that help or hinder growth in tropical plant species to see if it could be commercially grown in “warm-temperate” areas like the southern United States.

After the launch of Atlantis, the shuttle program has two scheduled flights remaining—Discovery in September and Endeavour in November—before the fleet is retired. Stodieck says hardware and experiments built by BioServe are manifested on both missions as well as on future resupply vehicles traveling to the International Space Station from other countries.

BioServe also has plans to fly hardware and experiments in micro-gravity on existing commercial rockets and on space vehicles now under development, Stodieck adds.

“It’s been quite an era for the space shuttle program,” notes Stodieck. “But I fully expect we will continue to do research on the International Space Station—it will just require an adjustment in space vehicles.”

More news from the University of Colorado: www.colorado.edu/news/

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