The International Space Station fulfills several roles for NASA: providing a space base for human activity, testing closed-loop technologies for long-duration spaceflight, and developing international partnerships. But perhaps the station’s biggest selling point is its science. After all, it was designated in 2005 as a national laboratory. And what does a lab need? Scientists.
But despite the vastly increased diversity of the astronaut corps since the early, macho days of Mercury 7, many astronauts today are still fighter pilots, engineers and surgeons. Relatively few are bona fide research scientists. But Kate Rubins did, and she spent 115 days on the space station this summer and fall. Before becoming an astronaut, Rubins trained in molecular biology and ran a lab of more than a dozen researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She and her team specialized in viruses such as Ebola and Marburg, and their fieldwork took them to Central and West Africa.
In space, Rubins worked on most of the 275 NASA surveys conducted during her four months aboard the station. The most notable project Rubins led was the first-ever DNA sequencing in space, of which she completed 211,000 sequences with 2.35 billion bases. As part of this research, she worked on mouse, virus and bacterial DNA samples using a commercially available sequencing device called MinION. Onboard sequencing is likely to help future astronauts on long-duration missions diagnose health problems more accurately and treat them appropriately.
While working on a heart cell study, she described seeing heart cells in microgravity for the first time as “pretty amazing.” She added:
First of all, there are a few things that have left me gasping out loud aboard the station. Seeing the planet was one of them, but I have to say focusing on these cells and seeing heart cells beating was a pretty big one too.
When the age of genomics biology arrived in space, it was fitting that a biologist was there to welcome it.