Seeking Out A New Generation On Mission Discovery
March 19, 2014

Seeking Out A New Generation On Mission Discovery

Mark Wolverton, NASA

The January launch of the Orbital-1 resupply mission to the International Space Station featured a number of important milestones. Along with being the first successful mission to the station by Orbital Sciences Corporation as part of their Commercial Resupply Services contract, the mission also marked the inaugural spaceflight for a unique new educational endeavor geared toward international high school- and college-age students. Administered by the nonprofit International Space School Educational Trust (ISSET), the program, called Mission Discovery, seeks to inspire interest in careers within the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines and develop leadership potential by immersing students in space science and exploration.

Among its complement of supplies, equipment and other material for the station, Orbital-1 carried two biology investigations conceived, designed and built by students from King's College London.

“The Mission Discovery program provides a global reach for students interested in the STEM fields and teaches them about the science and engineering that’s unique to microgravity,” said Tara Ruttley, Ph.D., International Space Station associate program scientist. “It’s really exciting for students when they realize that opportunities such as this exist to participate in real space station research. Their hard work leaves the planet and heads to a world-class laboratory where it’s implemented by an astronaut before the data is sent home. What a fun way to learn!”

The driving forces behind Mission Discovery are Chris Barber, who founded ISSET in 1998, and Michelle Ham, a former NASA mission controller and astronaut training instructor who left the agency to found her own educational nonprofit, Higher Orbits, and now also serves as ISSET's US director. Both organizations are dedicated to using space to get students interested in STEM fields.

Mission Discovery is a means toward that goal. "It's a 5-day program geared at high school- and college/university-age students where we use space as a platform to get them interested in STEM and leadership," Ham explained. "We really start to show them the really amazing possibilities that are out there if you're willing to pursue a career in [STEM] fields."

Held at various universities around the world, the Mission Discovery experience emphasizes intensive hands-on learning. A current or former NASA astronaut works directly with student teams for the entire five days, providing one-on-one and group instruction and interaction along with other NASA veterans.

"They do a variety of different projects, they get lectures, things of that nature," said Ham. "But the culmination of the week is a group-designed project where each team creates an idea for a space station experiment. We give them very specific parameters including size, weight, power draw, things like that, but the idea is entirely their own. On Friday they compete, and the best experiment from the teams is chosen to fly to the space station."

That's what happened for two student teams from the summer 2012 Mission Discovery session at King's College London, with two studies that are not only intriguing in their own right but also address important issues directly applicable to spaceflight. The first investigation aims to test the effectiveness of the Ampicillin antibiotic in space conditions against E. coli bacteria. The second study examines whether slime mold can grow three-dimensionally in space rather than only two-dimensionally as it does under Earth’s gravity. Both investigations are intended to provide a more complete understanding of microbial growth and antibiotic effectiveness in microgravity.

Because the studies were designed so that results could be transmitted directly to Earth through digital images, physical return of the samples isn't necessary. On Feb. 19, the Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo spacecraft separated from the space station to burn up completely as it reentered Earth's atmosphere, taking the Mission Discovery investigations with it. But the mission is far from over. The two student teams are already beginning to analyze their findings, and will re-gather at King's College to discuss their results. "We really encourage them to go out and present their data and their information to other students in other schools and get them excited," Ham said.

Although these first investigations focused on aerospace biology, Ham anticipates that future Mission Discovery research will branch out into other areas of science. "King's College, where this particular Mission Discovery was run, has a major aerospace biology program, so the program that we run there has a medical-biological focus. Our other sessions don't necessarily. So for example, at the Mission Discovery that I will run in July 2014 at Valparaiso University in Indiana, I suspect I'll see everything from materials science to biology to crystal growth experiments from the students. We're open to anything that will work, meaning that the experiment will prove something. I don't want it to be up there and not work."

So far, several Mission Discovery programs have been held at King's College, and one each at Imperial College in London and the University of Adelaide in Australia. Valparaiso University, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, St. John's College in Maryland and the council area of Renfrewshire in Scotland all will host Mission Discovery events this year. ISSET and Ham are looking to expand to additional locations for the sessions, which generally consist of about 250 to 300 students.

Ham expects Mission Discovery's first spaceflight to be only the beginning of a thriving program of space science education on the space station. "That's why we're especially excited, because now we can say we have actually flown our experiments," she noted. "We hope for this to be a permanent project, having Mission Discovery experiments flown up to the space station a couple times a year. My goal is to bring Mission Discovery to as many places around the globe, but especially around the U.S., as I can. To me, the more students that I can get their experiment into space, whether it’s suborbital or orbital, the more lives are changing, one way or another."