KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — It’s resupply day for the International Space Station, as the orbiting lab prepares to receive a host of new science experiments along with other cargo.

Expedition 65 astronauts will welcome science based on things like cotton, kidney cell models and yes, water bears. 

What You Need To Know

  • More than 7,300 pounds of cargo are heading to the International Space Station

  • Expedition 65 will receive more than 2,000 pounds of science experiments

  • In addition to the science, ISS Roll-Out Solar Arrays will also be flying and installed over the summer

The 7,337 pounds of cargo tucked away inside SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon capsule includes more than 2,000 pounds of science experiments that will take advantage of the microgravity environment.

The Commercial Resupply Services 22 mission is the 22nd contracted mission between NASA and SpaceX to bring science and other cargo up to the ISS.

Water bears return to space

One of the featured experiments heading into orbit are microscopic creatures called tardigrades or “water bears,” due to the bear-like shape some of them take.

The research is being headed by Thomas Boothby, Ph.D., from the University of Wyoming, Laramie, and was developed in partnership with NASA Ames Research Center. 

Water bears are ideal to study in microgravity because these creatures are some of the most resilient on Earth and have been found to survive in some of the harshest environments.

“I’m very excited to see this experiment fly. They are fascinating organisms,” said Jennifer Buchli, NASA’s deputy chief scientist for the ISS. “We call the polyextremophiles because they can exist in so many extreme environments. They are resistant to radiation, temperature fluctuations, they can exist in environments with low oxygen. You can even dehydrate them and then bring them back to life.”

To survive in these seemingly inhospitable landscapes, tardigrades enter into what’s called a “tun” form, where they curl into a ball and expel most of the water in their bodies and enter a slowed metabolic state through cryptobiosis. 

A protein they produce turns their cells into a glass, which helps preserve them.

According to WIRED, tardigrades are now also on the moon after the Israeli spacecraft Beresheet crashed on the lunar surface and spilled thousands of the dehydrated creatures that were loaded onto the lunar lander.

NASA said this experiment may help “counteract the detrimental effects of space travel” and could create “an option for the dry storage and stabilization of vaccines and other biomaterials.”

One of the people who traveled to see Thursday’s launch in person was Patrick Aryee. The host of the upcoming docuseries “Evolve” on CuriosityStream had the opportunity to speak with Boothby, one of the lead researchers in the Cell Science-04 mission sending tardigrades to the ISS.

He also got to hold one of the samples that will be studied in microgravity.

“It’s kind of bonkers to think that you’re holding something, and then a few weeks later, it’s on a launch pad, Launch Pad 39-A, and then it’s getting thrust into space at 17,500 mph,” Aryee said. “That’s pretty special.”

Microgravity and kidney stones

Another experiment heading into space may help with predicting kidney stones before they become problematic.

It’s called the Effects of Microgravity on the Structure and Function of Proximal and Distal Tubule MPS (Kidney Cells-02) and is being spearheaded by the University of Washington’s Department of Pharmaceutics. 

The project is sponsored by both NASA and the National Laboratory – National Institutes of Health. 

Cathy Yeung, Pharm.D, Ph.D., M.P.H., is a co-investigator on the project and touted the importance of this research prior to the launch, since there isn’t a good predictor of kidney stones right now.

“Most stones don’t get caught until they become problematic. And when they become problematic on Earth, it means you have to go to the doctor, you need pain relief, you may need some sort of invasive treatment to try and remove that stone,” Yeung said.

“But if that happens on a space mission, we don’t have that choice. So, it’s important for all of us. It’s critically important for those who might be involved in a long-term space exploration mission.”

CRS-22 is the team’s second opportunity to fly science to the ISS. Principal Investigator Ed Kelly, Ph.D., said Thursday’s planned launch will build upon their first mission in 2019 using Tissue Chip technology to study the formation of microcrystals that can cluster into kidney stones.

“This project is linked to our previous one, in that kidneys are very important in maintaining homeostasis of critical ions, including ions like calcium, which is a main component of your bone,” Kelly said. “And what happens is, in microgravity, you have significant bone loss. And actually, that bone loss, that loss of calcium, which is secreted through the kidneys, actually is a critical component of the kidney stones. So actually, the two projects are actually linked.”

The group is working with BioServe Space Technologies based in Boulder, Colorado. The company created a self-contained system for this experiment, which limits what the astronauts have to do for it.

“All the astronauts have to do on the International Space Station is essentially change the growth media or the microcrystals that we’re exposing our kidney chips to. So, it’s a completely hands-off experiment,” Kelly said. 

He said the samples are expected to return to Earth in July, where they will be taken back to the lab an studied.  

TICTOC on the clock

Four plant-based experiments will be among the newest experiments, including one that will examine a genetic variant that can expand the resilience of cotton here on Earth. 

TICTOC, or Targeting Improved Cotton Through On-orbit Cultivation, is studying the root system structure of cotton and how that affects things like carbon sequestration, plant resilience and water-use efficiency.

“Cotton uses a tremendous amount of water, lots of nutrients. It’s a magnet for pests. So, it has a big environmental footprint,” said Dr. Simon Gilroy, the principal investigator for TICTOC. “Anything we can do to understand a little bit more about how the plant grows and then maybe target some components of it for a breeding program to make better cotton, that would be a great thing.”

Research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that the prevalence of the AVP1 gene allows the cotton to “show increased resistance to stressors such as higher salinity and drought, yielding 20 percent more cotton fiber under conditions that normally limit cotton productivity.”

Gilroy said they are sending up three types of cotton, two of which have the AVP1 gene, which he said is also naturally occurring. The seeds will be allowed to grow and be studying for six days before being frozen and preserved so they can be further studied here on Earth. The experiment is being funded by retail store Target, but Gilroy believes that the applications for their research can extend far beyond just cotton yields. 

“We’re probably not going to growing cotton to make t-shirts in space, but that information will translate to, for instance, maybe tomato plants, maybe lettuce, something where you really could imagine that astronauts are going to grow it and actually make the food in space,” he said.

Plan for the science

CRS-22 is scheduled to launch on Thursday, June 3, at 1:29 p.m. aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, if the weather cooperates. 

If that timetable holds, it will then dock autonomously with the ISS on the space-facing port of the Harmony module on June 5 at about 5 a.m.