Commercializing space: Langston University research could lead to longer missions

Published: Thursday, March 5, 2020 By: Daisy Creager Source: The Journal Record

NASA has entered a new phase of achieving its goals of commercializing space, visiting Mars and returning to the moon, and an Oklahoma university is helping it get there.

Langston University has completed the first phase of research on remedies to support the human immune system in space.

The university became involved in 2015 when NASA awarded it a $4.9 million, five-year grant to develop countermeasures to the immune system degradation humans experience in space.

“The immune system is compromised when you put humans in outer space environments,” said Byron Quinn, chair of Langston’s Biology Department. “Some of the early missions to the moon, they found the astronauts were coming back with viruses they had when they were 5-6 years old, like the chickenpox. Viruses were coming back and amplifying to full infection levels.”

With the first grant period complete, Quinn and his team have a round of cell cultures and countermeasures prepared to send in August to the International Space Station, where it will remain for a month before returning to Langston for chemical analysis.

Findings have not yet been published, so Quinn said he could not discuss many specifics of the countermeasures, but he said the team used immune cells from blood banks to create cell cultures for testing in simulated microgravity environments at Langston’s NASA Advanced Research in Biology Center.

Even in simulated microgravity, however, mechanical forces are being placed on the cultures, so the research has reached the point of needing to be tested in space for “compelling results,” he said.

The outcomes of the research will have “transformational capabilities for space exploration,” allowing longer missions and pursuit of goals that have bipartisan support, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said on a recent visit to the university.

Bridenstine outlined a vision of creating a robust commercial space marketplace through a network of six to 12 space stations, in effect commercializing Earth’s lower orbit, and NASA’s Artemis program, a mission to sustainably deploy people to the moon and beyond.

“When we go to the moon, we’re going to go to stay,” Bridenstine said. “We’re going to go with commercial partners. We’re going to go with international partners. We’re going to lead a coalition to the moon for long periods of time. We’re going to use the resources of the moon to live and work.

“But we also have a purpose … Mars is the destination.”

One challenge for creating effective immune system support for astronauts is the impact microgravity has on pharmaceuticals and duration of missions, Quinn said.

Traditional medication reacts with the body differently in space and a trip to Mars is expected to take three years, so the researchers would like

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