Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum at Night with U.S. Capitol CLICK ON PHOTO FOR ZOOM

This month, NASA Johnson Space Center published a powerful story showcasing research conducted by SSEP student researchers on the International Space Station. The story was written by Mark Wolverton for the International Space Station Office, and appears on the ISS Research page.

The story covers research results reported by student research teams at the SSEP Annual Conference, which took place over the last three summers, in the beginning of July, at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. See, e.g., the 2013 SSEP National Conference page. (FYI – our colleague Michael Hulslander at the Museum, and SSEP Team member, thinks we should hear from the Museum’s program committee some time this month if we have a ‘go’ for the proposed 2014 SSEP Conference on July 2-3, 2014.)

We have reprinted the NASA story in its entirety below with permission from NASA. We have also inserted at the bottom of this post videoclips of the conference presentations by student researcher teams highlighted in the article.

We should all feel a sense of deep pride that NASA points to SSEP as a powerful argument for a bright future for American science, and America’s Space Program, through the good works of SSEP student researchers. It echoes the sentiment of National Air and Space Museum Director General John Dailey in his January 2014 column in Air and Space Smithsonian Magazine, which we highlighted in our December 19, 2013 Blog Post. In fact, NASA’s story below quotes General Dailey.

The National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education, and NanoRacks are grateful and truly honored that NASA, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS – overseeing the U.S. National Lab on ISS)  view SSEP as vitally important STEM education for the nation.


21st Century Science Education Thrives Aboard the Space Station
Jan. 10, 2014

Mark Wolverton
International Space Station Science Office

Link to Story at NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/news/ssep_conference/

Every so often, doomsayers arise to decry the state of America’s scientific community, fearing that its future is endangered because of a lack of bright new talent. But it’s easy to find a powerful counterargument to that gloomy view. Every July at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, the next generation of America’s space scientists—students from 5th grade up to college age—share their work with each other, the scientific community and the public at the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program (SSEP) annual conference.

Since June 2010, the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) SSEP effort, in partnership with NanoRacks LLC under a Space Act agreement, has offered young scientists the opportunity for the ultimate science fair project: conceiving, designing, implementing and analyzing a real scientific research question in space aboard the International Space Station.

While findings from the 23 investigations that launched on Jan. 9 to the space station aboard the Orbital 1 mission will be presented at the upcoming 2014 conference, the 2013 conference offered an inspiring overview of SSEP accomplishments thus far. As with the previous SSEP conferences in 2011 and 2012, it was a showcase of creative investigations, imaginative design and real scientific results.

Students from grades 10 and 12 made up the team from Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School in Fitchburg, Mass. After the success of a previous experiment flown on STS-135, the final mission of the space shuttle, they presented their results on the “Effect of Arthrobacter on Polyethylene Decomposition in Microgravity,” which flew on SSEP’s Mission 1 to the space station in 2012.

Arthrobacter is a genus of bacteria known to break down polyethylene plastics on Earth, and the team wanted to know if microgravity conditions would help or hinder the process. Team member Russell Holbert reported, “We were able to find strong evidence that Arthrobacter will colonize and potentially degrade plastics in space. Given enough time and proper growing conditions, we could facilitate and possibly observe the decomposition of polyethylene.” The work raises the interesting possibility that plastic wastes on the space station and future spacecraft might be disposed of by properly managed Arthrobacter colonies.

The Cicero, Ill. Unity Junior High School student team’s project was inspired by a spider-filled basement. “We initially designed an experiment on crystals, but seeing as other students were doing the same thing, we wanted to be a bit more unique,” explained team member Aileen Lopez. “Observing my basement and the amount of spiders there, I suggested using spiders.”

In their cleverly-titled experiment “Charlotte Goes to Space”—referencing the arachnoid title character of the classic children’s book—the students raised the Linyphiid spider Diplostyla concolor in a terrarium at their school. They then sent the spider’s egg sacs into space on SSEP Mission 2 to the space station in 2012 to learn whether the sacs would hatch viable offspring. They discovered that while the egg sacs could survive the voyage to orbit, only some of them hatched out, although at the same proportion as those that hatched back on Earth. None of the hatchlings survived the trip home, however, possibly due to limited moisture and oxygen in the experiment container and cannibalism among the young spiders.

It wasn’t spiders in the basement but a moldy yam in a trashcan that inspired the fifth and sixth graders of East Lyme Middle School in East Lyme, Conn. to devise their study, “Effectiveness of Hydrogen Peroxide on Aspergillus Niger Growth in Microgravity.” This investigation also launched with Mission 2 to the space station. The students looked at whether the mold-killing properties of hydrogen peroxide would also work in space. Although they did confirm that fact, the returned samples were accidentally contaminated during analysis, so it wasn’t possible to compare the station-flown and ground truth results.

Team 2 from Fitchburg’s Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School chose an investigation question that could be of vital importance to present and future space travelers: “Will Microgravity Have a Significant Effect on Packed Synthetic HBOCs?” HBOC stands for Hemoglobin-Based Oxygen Carriers, which are synthetic blood substitutes. Because HBOCs are easier to store for long periods than actual human blood, they may be ideally suited for long-duration space voyages.

As team member Yeniffer Araujo explained: “What if an individual in space had an emergency in which blood loss was a huge factor? Would we be able to store HBOCs in space and transfer them into an individual?” The study found no significant changes in oximetry or other parameters in an HBOC sample flown in space compared to a ground truth sample on Earth. “For the time it was up in space, nothing changed at all,” said team member Ryan Swift. “So it’s reasonable to believe it’s going to last the same, if not longer, in space.”

SSEP National Program Director Jeff Goldstein, Ph.D., noted, “Whether or not a synthetic blood substitute degrades in space is really important for long duration spaceflight in case of medical emergency.”

The results shared by the Chaminade College Preparatory School team from West Hills, Calif. weren’t merely interesting in their own right, but served as an example of the persistence and flexibility required for solid scientific research. Titled “Microgravity Wine,” the investigation sought to test the rate of fermentation in microgravity — an issue important not just for making alcohol but for the production of various drugs in space and in the preservation of food.

The team’s first attempt to mix yeast and grape juice and measure resulting carbon dioxide levels, flown in 2012 on SSEP Mission 1, was inconclusive. After flying again on Mission 2, the team was able to report conclusive findings indicating that fermentation occurred in microgravity about three times faster than on the ground — a significant difference.

Student team member Max Holden observed, “So what does this really mean? If you ask adults, they’ll say that when we have to live in space, they can make their alcohol quicker. If you ask me, I’d say that it can make more potent biotech drugs that are now fermented, along with possibly making them quicker in case of outbreak. We have the possibility of using a microgravity chamber and speeding up the reaction.”

Goldstein commented that flying the investigation a second time offered “a good teachable moment – last time the team could only report on experiment design, and at this conference they’re actually reporting experimental results. That’s what a real research conference is all about.”

SSEP Mission 3a studies returned from space in November 2013, and the student teams are analyzing their flight experiments. Meanwhile, the SSEP Missions 3b and 4 investigations currently aboard station are due to return to Earth in mid-March. This will provide plenty of time for student teams to report results at this year’s July conference. The subsequent Missions 5 and 6 are set for launch in Spring 2014 and Fall 2014, and with the upcoming Mission 7 to space station announcement anticipated this February, SSEP has plenty of opportunities ahead for students.

The continued SSEP effort to channel the unparalleled enthusiasm, creativity, imagination and energy of young scientists provides real opportunities for useful research and solid scientific contributions. “[SSEP] opened my eyes up to a whole new type of education. Not one where you are just taught about something, but where you learn through legitimate interaction, with real scientists,” said Holden. “Being able to participate in a scientific research conference two years in a row at my age is both an invaluable experience and opportunity!”

General John R. Dailey, director of the National Air & Space Museum, recently remarked that the SSEP initiative “may be the most important development for the future of the U.S. space program.” The students participating in this latest SSEP conference demonstrate both the truth of Dailey’s words and the bright future of American space science.


SSEP Conference Videoclips: Student Researcher Teams Mentioned in the NASA Story

Fitchburg, Massachusetts

Title: Effect of Arthrobacter on Polyethylene Decomposition Rate in Microgravity
Oral Presentation, 3rd Annual SSEP National Conference, July 2013
Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School
Grade levels of Team: 10 and 12

Type of Experiment: Flight Experiment, Mission 1 to ISS

Co-Principal Investigators: Russell Holbert, Victoria Holbert, Brittany Velez, and Miguel Velez III
Teacher Facilitator: Paula deDiego

Abstract: The purpose of this experiment was to determine if a culture of the genus Arthrobacter has a noticeable increase in the decomposition of polyethylene. Arthrobacter is a genus composed of bioremediators: microorganisms that remove pollutants from the environment. These bacteria are capable of hydrolyzing polyethylene, a hydrocarbon polymer. In bringing the plastic into microgravity, we discovered this strain of bacteria colonize on the plastic in microgravity but not the ground truth.


Cicero, Illinois

Title: Charlotte Goes to Space
Oral Presentation, 3rd Annual SSEP National Conference, July 2013
Unity Jr. High School, Cicero IL
Grade levels of Team: 8

Type of Experiment: Flight Experiment, Mission 2 to ISS

Principal Investigator: Gisela Munoz
Co-Investigators: Stephany Juarez, Aileen Lopez, and Daniela Ortega
Teacher Facilitator: Crystal McDowell

Abstract: Student scientists studied the survivability, development, and feeding behavior of spiders exposed to microgravity. Students developed protocols to culture the Linyphiid spider Diplostyla concolor in a detrital food web terrarium at their school. The resulting spider egg sacs were used to address 4 main research objectives: 1) Do spider egg sacs survive a space launch? 2) Do the spiders develop and hatch in microgravity? 3) Do the spiders exhibit cannibalism as a food strategy after hatching? 4) Do the spiders survive re-entry to earth? Analysis after re-entry helped shed light in to the development of this spider and has helped add Diplostyla concolor and other microarthropods in the list of space bound invertebrates.


East Lyme, Connecticut

Title: Effectiveness of Hydrogen Peroxide on Aspergillus Niger Growth in Microgravity
Oral Presentation, 3rd Annual SSEP National Conference, July 2013
East Lyme Middle School
Grade levels of Team: 5-6

Type of Experiment: Flight Experiment, Mission 2 to ISS

Co-Principal Investigators: Noah Barnhart and Makaih Olawale
Co-Investigator: Nick Hyde
Collaborator: Brandon Hall
Teacher Facilitator: Glenn PenkoffLidbeck

Abstract: A yam growing mold in a trash can inspired our researchers to test the effectiveness of spore-killing hydrogen peroxide under microgravity conditions. The tight confines of the FME tube apparatus required a change in experimental design: Malt extract as food and a specific mold type were substituted for the moldy yam, and a stronger hydrogen peroxide was needed since the liquid mold food would dilute its concentration. Once the experiment was returned from space our analysis required we “Think outside the tube!”


Fitchburg, Massachusetts

Title: Will Microgravity Have a Significant effect on Packed Synthetic HBOCs?
Oral Presentation, 3rd Annual SSEP National Conference, July 2013
Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School
Grade levels of Team: 10 and 12

Type of Experiment: Flight Experiment, Mission 2 to ISS

Co-Principal Investigators: 
Nadia Machado, Tiffany Nguyen, and Ryan Swift
Collaborator: Yeniffer Araujo
Teacher Facilitator: Paula deDiego

Abstract: Our experiment asked the question; will microgravity have a significant effect on HBOCs. Synthetic blood could be an amazing alternative to packed blood cells in a microgravity environment. Our team wanted to determine if there are any changes between the commercial HBOC product in microgravity vs. ground truth. The findings provide evidence to support that there is no difference between the ground truth and the space flight sample.


West Hills, California

Title: Microgravity Wine
Oral Presentation, 3rd Annual SSEP National Conference, July 2013
Chaminade College Preparatory
Grade levels of Team: 10

Type of Experiment: Flight Experiment, Mission 1 to ISS

Principal Investigator: 
Max Holden
Collaborator: Paige D’ Andrea
Teacher Facilitators: Eric Esby and Nancy McIntyre

Abstract: The student investigators from the Chaminade College Preparatory and the Medtronic Foundation studied the effects of microgravity on the rate of Carbon Dioxide production during alcoholic fermentation of grape juice. The student team prepared samples that would run concurrently on the International Space Station and in our lab in West Hills, California. The team believes that the grape juice in microgravity will ferment faster producing more carbon dioxide. Now that the team has received results back, we will present our findings.


The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in the U.S., and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with NanoRacks LLC, working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory. SSEP is the first pre-college STEM education program that is both a U.S. national initiative and implemented as an on-orbit commercial space venture.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), and Subaru of America, Inc. are National Partners on the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.

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