Washington — The space shuttle Atlantis is living up to the nickname given this class of spacecraft 30 years ago.
The “space truck” safely delivered a huge cargo cache to the International Space Station July 11. The work of unpacking 3,600 kilograms of spare parts, equipment, food and other supplies begins.
Atlantis is carrying a year’s worth of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) because the shuttle fleet is going into retirement after 135 trips into orbit. Other partners in the ISS — space agencies from Japan, Russia and the European Union — have all developed unmanned cargo vehicles for delivering future supplies and equipment to the ISS.
NASA is working with private companies to develop a commercial capability for trips to the space station. This plan, according to agency documents, allows NASA to concentrate on the next chapter in human space exploration.
“As NASA charts a new course to send humans deeper into space than ever before, we are stimulating efforts within the private sector to develop and operate safe, reliable and affordable commercial space transportation systems.” This statement fronts a NASA website devoted to the space agency’s commercialization efforts and partnerships.
While steps are made on Earth toward that goal, the Atlantis crew has a lot of unpacking and packing to do. That 3,600 kilograms of gear rode up to the ISS in a seven-meter-long module they call Raffaello, which was lifted out of the shuttle’s cargo bay and then bolted to the ISS.
Shuttle crew members will spend nearly 130 person-hours over the next several days transferring items from Raffaello into the station, and then repacking the cargo module with 2,300 kilograms of discarded station gear for return to Earth.
Among the gear arriving on the ISS is an experiment whose results could be critical to long-term human space flight, and important to people on Earth today who struggle with osteoporosis or frequent bone fractures.
Science has long known that long-term stays in the microgravity environment of space cause significant bone loss in astronauts. Scientists are counting on 30 mice they have sent to space to help them better understand this bone loss at a biochemical level. The experiment is being run by a consortium including Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, NASA’s Ames Research Center in California and others.
The scientific team injected half the spacebound mice with an antibody that blocks action of the protein sclerostin. It is thought that sclerostin inhibits bone growth, so shutting down that mechanism may prevent the skeletal deterioration.
“When the mice come back from space [after the 12-day flight], we hope to learn what the effects of microgravity are on the skeleton and on the muscle,” says scientist Mary Bouxsein, an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Harvard Medical School. “We also want to find out if this new type of therapy will be able to counteract those profound effects and actually promote bone gain in a microgravity environment.”
The experiment is one of many sent to space over the life of the shuttle program. Building the returnable craft pushed NASA to make tremendous advances in space flight technologies, but the shuttle has also served as a unique laboratory for many experiments that have led to discoveries in medicine, biology, astronomy and Earth sciences.
“We have learned about our planet, its land mass, its oceans, its atmosphere and its environment as a whole,” according to a space shuttle history compiled by NASA. “With the help of the shuttle we have learned more about our moon, solar system, our galaxy and our universe.”
Atlantis is set to return to Earth July 20, which will mark the end of the space shuttle era.