Christmas delivery: Station supply run includes new door to space, fresh fruits and veggies for astronauts

New research from UF, Christmas gifts headed to the ISS in SpaceX Cargo Dragon

The Nanoracks Bishop Airlock being added to the space station has five times the capacity of the existing Japanese airlock shown here with astronaut Kate Rubins. Image Credits: NASA (WKMG 2020)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The seven astronauts living in space received a special delivery ahead of the holidays Monday, including Christmas gifts and edible treats but also many new science experiments.

SpaceX launched its 21st cargo supply mission for NASA from Kennedy Space Center Sunday. After the Falcon 9 rocket sent the Cargo Dragon spacecraft on its way to the International Space Station, it arrived about 24 hours later Monday afternoon, bringing 6,400 pounds of research, supplies and goodies for the astronauts.

Currently, there are four NASA astronauts, one Japanese and two Russian cosmonauts on the ISS and now there are two SpaceX Dragon’s docked at the space station. Crew Dragon arrived last month bringing four astronauts.

During a NASA briefing Friday, Jennifer Scott Williams, with NASA’s ISS Program Research Office, explained the astronauts work with the Food Lab at Johnson Space Center to pick their favorites for flight, including any special requests.

“For this mission, we’ve got some fresh apples and oranges and lemons going up because astronauts really don’t get an opportunity to eat fresh fruits and vegetables while they’re in space, there’s also going to be some prepared foods for the holiday season, including fixings for a turkey dinner, and some fun desserts,” Scott Williams said about the bounty headed to space.

This is the first launch with SpaceX’s re-designed cargo capsule, which can now fit 50% more inside than the previous spacecraft, which means more room for science.

One of the many research experiments headed to the laboratory on ISS is led by University of Florida and AdventHealth to study how muscle cells respond to zero-gravity. Dr. Paul Coen, an associate investigator with AdventHealth, said the research group has been developing “lab on a chip” technology to grow and study muscle cells in space.

The whole experiment is self-contained and won’t need any tending from the astronauts.

“This this shoe box size technology is fully automated, Coen said.

But the research will, eventually, help astronauts and every day people.

This shoebox-sized laboratory contains muscle cells as part of research from UF and AdventHealth headed to the ISS for a month-long stay. (Image: AdventHealth) (WKMG 2020)

“One of the negative effects of spaceflight is that there’s a significant loss of muscle mass and strength and quite often our astronauts come back and they’re really deconditioned, they are confined to a wheelchair and have to undergo a strenuous rehab program,” Coen said. “The overarching goal is to develop effective countermeasures to the effects of microgravity on muscle so that we can protect our astronauts better during spaceflight.”

The loss of muscle mass and strength isn’t something unique to spaceflight, Coen explained, it occurs on Earth as people age or during long periods of inactivity for health reasons.

Half of the 16 cells in the tiny lab are from people under 40 and the other half are from people over 60 years old. After a month in space, the research team will compare the cells with those on Earth.

“So older adults progressively lose muscle mass and strength, which eventually can impact their ability to get around,” Coen said. “This is a huge health care issue for older adults and so developing countermeasures or effective therapies to preserve muscle mass and mobility with aging is a is a priority in medical research right now.”

To help with some of those experiments headed to the ISS, the Dragon will be bringing a new doorway to space from Nanoracks called the Bishop Airlock.

Nanoracks Bishop Airlock Program Manager Brock Howe explained the new door will be able to fit payloads as large as a refrigerator or multiple smaller items, saving astronauts time sending the missions out into space. The previous airlock frequently used for such activities could only fit about a microwave-sized payload, according to Howe.

It’s also the first commercially operated airlock on the ISS.

While the football-field-length ISS is a six-bedroom home for astronauts, Howe said the Bishop Airlock is similar to “a new office space” for crew. Astronauts will be able to deploy small spacecraft into orbit from the bell-shaped airlock.

The Nanoracks Bishop Airlock can be attached to Module 3 and opened to space to release satellites and run experiments. It can also be detached and moved to different locations. Taking advantage of the opportunity to expose experiments to different elements such as sunlight or atomic oxygen, this flexibility enables a wide range of research possibilities. Credits: Nanoracks (NASA)

The airlock isn’t just a gateway to space but can host experiments, as well. Parts of the Bishop Airlock include storage where experiments can be placed outside, exposing them to the vacuum of space.

One of the first uses of the airlock will be to take out the trash.

“We think a lot about the science that goes on the space station and its, you know, world-renowned National Laboratory, but in order to do that science, sometimes you got to clean up your house a little bit, right? So you have to maintain a clean working environment,” Brock said.

The astronauts will be able to put about 600 pounds of trash through the airlock, which would later burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

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