A Woman’s Place Is…In Space

Astronaut Christina Koch printing tissue
Astronaut Christina Koch growing a new kidney (?who knows?) Photo at NASA.gov.

Growing organs in microgravity was the experiment that hooked me. Apparently, they’re experimenting on the space station with 3D printers that grow human organs, like hearts, in zero gravity. The difficulty with growing organs on earth is that soft tissue (“biomaterial”) tends to collapse while it’s being printed, unable to hold a shape and turning to mush before it’s completed. In space, the replicated tissue can hold its shape long enough for cells to growth more tightly together in a culture, eventually becoming strong enough to return to earth’s gravity. That’s the theory, anyway.

I learned about this while digging further into the amazing experiments performed by Astronaut Christina Koch, who just completed a record 328 days in space. As the NY Times reported today, she came home safely after a near-year on the international space station. She also completed three all-female spacewalks.

However, it’s the number and breadth of experiments she conducted that may make the most difference to future generations of spacefarers. After all, if we’re going to check out the interstellar neighborhood, we’re going to need to know how to eat real food, practice medicine, and put out fires. You know, domestic affairs. Who better to do all that than Christina Koch, given the old saying that a woman’s place is in the home.

Do You Think that Spacesuit Makes You Look Fat?

The faces of the early space pioneers were all male, of course, selected from the military, which excluded the likes of notable female pilots Amelia Earhart and Harriet Quimby from its ranks. Actually, to be fair, this bias was in the American space program, since Valentina Tereshkova of the USSR was the first woman in space way back in 1963, only two years after the first American man had gone up.

As the American program shifted from moon landings to space shuttles, NASA finally broadened their entry class in 1978 to include women. Sally Ride, a Stanford physicist, was selected to be the first woman aboard the Challenger in 1983, specializing in working with the robotics arm that deployed satellites. Many of us are young enough to remember the “Ride, Sally Ride!” T-shirts and bumper stickers that advertised pride in such an achievement. Dr. Ride, for her part, remained stoic and smiling during the blizzard of press questions that focused repeatedly on her gender rather than her work, one inane question after another:

Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?
Will you become a mother?
Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?

Questions asked of Dr. Sally Ride, first American woman in space

After Sally Ride left NASA, she continued her physics work at both Stanford and UC San Diego, founded a company that fostered opportunities for young women to work in the sciences, and wrote a number of books aimed at encouraging children especially girls towards space. I note with interest that she worked with optics at UCSD, which is where and what my Favorite Son is studying, and that she also had a degree in English because Shakespeare, what else? Clearly, she studied the Right Stuff.

NASA Class 8

NASA astronauts in training
Part of NASA’s 1978 Astronaut Class 8, the first to include women. Photo from NASA Archives.

The entire NASA astronaut class 8, the first to include women, was full of notables. Pictured next to Ride from the left are Judith Resnik, Anna Lee Fisher, Kathryn Sullivan, and Margaret Rhea Seddon. Seddon was the payload commander on Columbia in 1993, receiving recognition for conducting the most successful Spacelab mission at the time for work on medical research to determine how human physiology would fare in space. Kathryn Sullivan was the first woman to walk in space. Anna Fisher worked on tailoring spacesuits to fit women and returned to space after giving birth, becoming the first mother in space. Judith Resnik was with Christa McAuliffe and the other five astronauts on the Challenger, which tragically exploded after liftoff twenty years ago last month.

All of these pioneers continued to pave the way for others. While women spacewalking became increasingly as routine as men, it was still a long time before two were able to venture out together. It was only last October when Christina Koch and Jessica Meir completed the first all-women spacewalk, first in part because, until then, NASA only had one spacesuit that fit women. What they did wasn’t especially unusual, only that it took until 2019 for enough women to be in the NASA graduating classes (50%) and available on the station to create a worthy milestone.

Astronaut’s Weir and Koch posing before their all-female space walk October 2019. Photo at NASA.gov.

Some Mad Scientist!

Dr. Christina Koch’s bio is pretty amazing even before you get to the part about the record in space or the spacewalks. She had earned her three degrees, Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering and Physics and a Master’s in Electrical Engineering, by the age of 24, and had already graduated from NASA’s Academy along the way. She spent three and a half years as a Research Associate in the Arctic and Antarctic (take that Sheldon Cooper!), a prime opportunity to acclimate to months seeing the same faces, surviving without the sun or fresh food.

The isolation, absence of family and friends, and lack of new sensory inputs are all conditions that you must find a strategy to thrive within.[14]

Christina Koch on surviving in the Antarctic, from Wikipedia

When she finally got that opportunity up on the International Space Station, she made the most out of it. If you slide through her “scrapbook” on NASA’s website, you marvel at experiment after experiment. Monitoring the autonomous robots (watching for hints of self-awareness or the Singularity). Studying how fire behaves in space. Conducting experiments to improve kidney stones. Growing new organs, as mentioned above. Working with the Cold Atom labs. Looking at the efficiency of capillary systems compared with standard air and water filtration systems, to see if improved fluid dynamics would also help desalination and water filtration back on earth.

If you’ve ever seen the movie The Martian, you can almost hear Matt Damon’s voice:

So in the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option. I’m going to have to science the sh*t out of this.

Botanist Mark Watney in The Martian.
Were the outfits supposed to match the plants? The Lost in Space hydroponic garden. Photo at groovyhistory.com.

Botanizing the Heck Out of Mustard Greens

Then, there are the mustard greens. Remember Antarctica? Months without fresh shipments of food? Fresh vegetables are a critical part of human diet, with leafy greens delivering critical vitamins, fiber, and …well…taste. Even I’d enjoy kale if all I’d had for months was extruded protein paste. The NASA experiments reminded me strongly of Lost in Space and their hydroponic gardens, forever being cultivated on the sandy climate of the CBS soundstage.

Maybe it was annoying that the women of space were relegated to the food, while the men were always fixing metal things, but being in charge of food (and water) might arguably be considered the critical job. Christina Koch conducting all those mustard greens experiments put her at the center of the action. As a lead scientist and one of the designers of the Vegetable Production System on the station, puts it:

…Astronauts tend to lose weight. We think that this weight loss is due to menu fatigue, and so we postulate that adding fresh produce to the diet could help with that. 

Giola Massa, principal investigator for Veggie, the NASA plant production system

These plants are grown in pillows rather than soil, watered with a syringe daily, and exposed to red-blue light combinations to see how that affects the harvest. While you may not crave mustard greens yourself, you can imagine how a leaf might seem mighty appealing after months of eating things out of freeze-dried packages.

Astronaut Koch growing mustard greens
Queen of the Mizuna mustard greens, Dr. Christina Koch. Photo at NASA.gov.

The next moon mission is planned for 2024, which will be a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of our scientific history, even though it is still years away. Last year, NASA announced that the next set of missions will be named Artemis, twin to the Apollo missions that started their journeys in the 1960s. Perfect to be named after the goddess of the moon! The plan is to land women and men on the surface. I noted with glee that the picture of the prototype spacesuit for extravehicular activity (EVA)–male or female–was worn by astronaut Kristine Davis.

The suits fit, finally. The women are walking, growing, piloting, and sciencing the bejeezus out of everything. I can barely wait until that first one, whether it’s Davis, Koch, Weir, or any one of a number of intrepid, smarty-pants women, takes that first step out there.

Then, a woman’s place will be on the moon.

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