Emphasis of NASA's microgravity research shifts to space biology

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Action station: Russia's mission control welcomes the first crew to the International Space Station. Credit: AP

As the long-awaited International Space Station becomes a reality — the first crew of one astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts boarded last week — the US space agency NASA is redirecting its controversial microgravity research programme towards the life sciences.

Future microgravity research will focus more on biology and biologically inspired technology, and less on the kinds of crystal-growth experiments that yielded questionable results in the space-shuttle era.

Under the leadership of chief scientist Kathie Olsen, the agency has already reorganized its Office of Life and Microgravity Sciences and Applications, and given it a new name, the Office of Biological and Physical Research (OBPR).

More importantly, the office has been made an 'enterprise', on a par with human spaceflight and space science. The move reflects the importance that administrator Daniel Goldin has attached to beefing up his agency's capability in the biological sciences.

Nobel prize-winner Baruch Blumberg, who heads the agency's Astrobiology Institute, has been named a senior adviser to Goldin to help achieve this goal. Olsen will be acting administrator of the renamed office until a permanent leader can be found.

The creation of the OBPR is the latest of several shifts in NASA's microgravity and biology research programme in recent months. Long-time head of life sciences at NASA, Arnauld Nicogossian, who is widely seen as more interested in astronaut health and 'space medicine' than other aspects of space biology, has been reassigned as the chief medical and health officer.

Other members of the old guard in the programme have retired, creating opportunities to hire younger scientists more versed in molecular biology and genomics.

Olsen and Blumberg are seeking leaders for OBPR's five restructured divisions: physical sciences (which incorporates much of the old microgravity research portfolio along with some new thrusts in nanotechnology); fundamental space biology; biomedical and human support research, which focuses on keeping astronauts healthy; research integration; and policy and programme integration.

The biggest changes will be in the physical sciences division, which spends about 40% of the office's $317 million annual budget. Before, 90% of this went on basic research into the behaviour of materials and processes such as combustion in microgravity. Now, half of the research will be more applied, says the division's director, Eugene Trinh.

Work in different subdisciplines may be consolidated and streamlined, says Trinh. He adds that it will also be more focused on NASA's need to assure the safety of astronauts and their spacecraft.

The physical sciences division will also oversee a technology initiative dear to Goldin's heart — the development of tools and techniques in biomolecular physics that could someday lead to 'nanobots' capable of coursing through a Mars-bound astronaut's body, diagnosing and repairing disease without the need for a doctor.

NASA and the National Cancer Institute have formed a partnership to explore such research. Goldin envisages each agency spending around $10 million a year for five years, although the cancer institute will invest just $6 million this year. NASA will match that, and add a further $4 million for related nanotechnology work.

Another key shift in the microgravity research programme is a retreat from NASA's long-hyped emphasis on protein crystal growth as a boon to drug developers and biotechnologists.

A critical National Research Council panel found earlier this year that “one cannot point to a single case where a space-based crystallization effort was the crucial step in achieving a landmark scientific result” (see Nature 404, 114; 2000). The panel challenged NASA to instigate a grant programme to identify macromolecules important to structural biologists, which could be used to test the value of space-grown crystals once and for all.

NASA issued just such a call for research, with proposals due two weeks ago. Gary Stein of the University of Massachussetts Medical School, who chaired the panel at the time of the report, and who does not himself conduct space research, says: “I've never seen a report given to any group, let alone a government agency, where the recommendations were followed to this extent and with this speed.”

Congress recently added $25 million to NASA's 2001 budget for ground-based microgravity research, and ordered the agency to come up with a plan for doing research on the space shuttle while the space station is being built.

Gently does it: ground-based technicians assemble the space station's laboratory. Credit: NASA

Opportunities for small-scale experiments are being explored for life scientists, says Olsen, including experiments 'piggy-backed' on other satellites.

But the space station will provide the most important opportunities. A crew that returned last week sailed through its construction tasks with apparent ease. Another crew will attach the US laboratory module in January.

At first, construction will take precedence over science. “I don't think in the immediate future we can have incredibly high expectations,” says Stein.

But as the station nears completion in 2005, better laboratory equipment, along with the chance to conduct long-term studies and repeat experiments, should create a “whole new generation of opportunities” in space research, he says.

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