By Chloe Aiello
SpaceX plans to launch an unmanned cargo spacecraft bound for the International Space Station (ISS) on Tuesday. But the scientific equipment aboard the ship is actually meant to improve life on Earth, according to Ken Shields, chief operating officer for the ISS National Laboratory.
"ISS national lab, alone, has 20 plus payloads going to the Space Station tomorrow. We are supporting and facilitating research and development, scientific discovery, and even commercial pursuits on the space station, all tied to some Earth-bound benefits," Shields told Cheddar on Monday.
Included in the cargo are crystals, barley, and dental glue, among other things ー all in the name of science. A crystal growth investigation from Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research will use microgravity to crystallize a specific gene which has mutations that account for many cancers. The barley will be used in an experiment by Budweiser to help develop malt barley varieties more tolerant to extreme environments ー it could have implications, not only for beer, but for agriculture more broadly. Also aboard will be a "Guardians of the Galaxy"-inspired experiment, in which a high school student will study the effectiveness in microgravity of a UV-activated dental glue.
With increasing privatization of the aerospace industry, Shields said space on shuttles to ISS is increasingly in-demand, even if the experiments aboard aren't exactly out-of-this-world.
"We see more and more interest from non-NASA interests to do things in space, to leverage somehow microgravity or the environment of space, oftentimes for very fundamental and basic scientific discovery. But more and more, we are starting to see a lot of interest in things more on the applied scale, maybe accelerating things to market," he said.
In other words, it's not exactly rocket science. But rocket science does come into play in mission preparation, which Shields called "very complex."
Weather permitting, SpaceX's Dragon cargo spacecraft will blast off on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at about 1:30 p.m. EST on Tuesday, Dec. 4.
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