Published: Sept. 28, 2016

If you gaze at the night sky from Earth in just the right place, you will see the International Space Station (ISS), a bright speck of light hurtling through space at 5 miles per second as it orbits 220 miles above the planet.

And if you were an astronaut floating around inside the station, you would see high-tech hardware and experiments designed and built at the University of Colorado Boulder.

CU Boulder’s BioServe Space Technologies, headquartered in the Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, has been building and flying space research payloads since 1991, when high-tech hardware and a biomedical experiment flew on a six-day mission aboard NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis.

BioServe has designed, built and flown more than 75 payloads on more than 50 space flight missions. Since 2002, the CU Boulder center has had a permanent presence on the ISS, including suitcase-sized incubatorsknown as Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatuses (CGBAs) used to conduct a host of life-science experiments.

“The low gravity of space provides a unique test bed for developing new techniques, products and processes that can benefit not only astronauts, but also people on Earth,” explains BioServe Director Louis Stodieck. “In space, for example, scientists can learn more about biochemical changes in various cells and organisms that the force of gravity on Earth may be masking.”

In addition to CGBAs, BioServe has designed and built a host of other space hardware for use by customers and partners, he says. They include devices for cell culturing, microscopy, fluid processing, bone and muscle analyses, molecular studies, plant growth and still and video in-flight imaging.

Keeping apace in space research

By the time NASA’s space shuttle fleet was mothballed in 2011, BioServe had flown equipment and experiments on 41 shuttle missions, 20 of which subsequently docked with ISS. BioServe flew on the final 10 NASA shuttle missions, culminating with the launch of Atlantis in July 2011 that carried five BioServe-built payloads ranging from a bone-loss experiment to research aimed at improving vaccines to combat Salmonella.

Since the early 1990s, BioServe engineers have been training astronauts – both on campus and at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston – on various high-tech devices developed at CU Boulder in order to ready the spacefarers for upcoming missions. While some BioServe payloads are automated, others require in-flight manipulations by astronauts to initiate or end experiments.

To date BioServe has partnered with more than 100 companies and performed dozens of NASA-sponsored investigations. Many of the experiments, like those involving bone and muscle loss in microgravity, may not only lead to healthier astronauts, but could lead to new treatments for muscle and bone diseases like muscular dystrophy and osteoporosis.

When a Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft built by the commercial space company, SpaceX, launched from Florida on July 18, it carried a customized microscope assembled by BioServe to photograph and film tiny cellular structures. It was the eighth SpaceX mission to tote BioServe equipment or experiments since 2012.

Other biomedical payloads flown by BioServe on both NASA and commercial spacecraft have included studies of heart cells, pathogens, immune systems, antibiotics and the behavioral of microbial ecosystems in the low gravity of space. Most BioServe experiments are conducted simultaneously in labs on Earth so the results can be compared and contrasted, explains Stodieck.

Long before the end of NASA’s space shuttle program was in sight, BioServe was broadening its horizons. The CU Boulder center payloads flew on space shuttles to Russia’s Mir Space Station in 1996 and again in 1997. In 2012, a year after the shuttle program was shuttered, BioServe flew hardware and experiments on an unmanned cargo rocket launched by JAXA, the Japanese space agency, that went on to dock with the ISS.

In October 2012, BioServe flew equipment and experiments on the inaugural flight of the Dragon spacecraft built by SpaceX, which is headquartered in Hawthorne, California and headed by entrepreneur Elon Musk.  Stodieck says CU Boulder has developed a solid relationship with SpaceX and hopes to continue and expand the partnership.

Butterflies in space

Not all BioServe payloads target cutting-edge research, said BioServe Associate Director Stefanie Countryman. For more than a decade BioServe has been developing and flying educational experiments involving creatures like lady bugs, ants, spiders and butterflies that have reached hundreds of thousands of K-12 students around the world.

For the butterfly projects, BioServe built space habitats and launched larvae to the space station, where they went through subsequent stages of life from larvae to pupae before emerging as butterflies. Teachers and students at K-12 schools, including a number from Colorado’s Front Range, used classroom kits developed by BioServe and its educational partners to chart the life cycles of butterflies in the classroom and compare them with butterfly development in space.

Other K-12 experiments have included comparing the web-spinning and feeding behavior of spiders in space with spiders in classroom habitats around the world, she says. In 2012 a jumping spider lived for 100 days on the ISS in a BioServe habitat before being returned to Earth and starting a new life at the Smithsonian Institution.

“To be able to use a facility like the International Space Station for these K-12 experiments and involve thousands of teachers and students is tremendously exciting,” says Countryman, who also leads BioServe’s educational and outreach efforts. “There is no other educational program like this in the world, and we see it as a great way to inspire students to excel in science, technology, engineering and math.”

CU Boulder undergraduates and graduate students have played a pivotal role in the successes of BioServe, notes Stodieck.

“We would be unable to carry out all of our research without the help of our students,” he explains. “Both undergraduate and graduate students play an important role in designing, building and testing spaceflight payloads, activities that can give them a significant advantage when they move on to careers in the aerospace industry.”

BioServe partners include large and small pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, universities and NASA-funded researchers.
“It certainly was a transition for us, moving from NASA space shuttles to commercial space vehicles,” says Stodieck. “There have been a lot of challenges, but we are adapting to those and learning how to keep good science going.”


International Space Station

International Space Station 

NASA astronaut Terry Virts manipulating a BioServe experiment on ISS.

NASA astronaut Terry Virts manipulating a BioServe experiment on ISS. 

We would be unable to carry out all of our research without the help of our students,” explains BioServe Director Louis Stodieck. “Both undergraduate and graduate students play an important role in designing, building and testing spaceflight payloads, activities that can give them a significant advantage when they move on to careers in the aerospace industry.”