Spaceflight Insider

Dragon to deliver essential science research to ISS

CRS-10 Dragon at the ISS, 2017-02-23

The SpaceX CRS-10 Dragon cargo spacecraft is seen during final approach to the International Space Station on Feb. 23, 2017. The commercial spacecraft launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center four days earlier with about 5,500 pounds (∼2,500 kg) of experiments and supplies for the crew aboard the orbiting laboratory. (Click for full view) Photo & Caption Credit: NASA

SpaceX is tasked to provide a cargo filled Dragon capsule secured to their Falcon 9 rocket, destined for the International Space Station (ISS). NASA has requested the cargo and supply shipment via their Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, this being the 11th of 12 such planned transport missions, with an expected launch date on June 3, 2017.

Originating from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the flight will depart from the historic Pad 39A – leased by SpaceX since 2014 – and will be referred to within the space agency as CRS-11.

Aboard Dragon, within the pressurized portion of Dragon and the unpressurized trunk beneath, a 6,000-pound (2,720 kg) delivery will be heading for the ISS complete with food, supplies, and science.

The Dragon cargo capsule was designed from its original concept with the intention of being able to deliver large amounts of cargo into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Once the cargo has been unloaded by the astronauts aboard the ISS, Dragon is the only means for which NASA can return valuable science and supplies safely back to Earth. In the case of CRS-11, the return flight is currently planned for July 2, 2017.

NASA’s Rodent Habitat module

NASA’s Rodent Habitat module with both access doors open. (Click to enlarge) Photo & Caption Credit: Dominic Hart / NASA

Osteoporosis research

Included among the vast cargo in this science payload are 40 rodents slated for an osteoporosis treatment regimen to be administered in the microgravity environment, referred to as Rodent Research-5 (RR-5). The drug being investigated is known as NELL-1, a Systemic Therapy, and is specifically designed to rebuild bone in humans and prevent further loss in the future.

The loss of bone mass in astronauts due to microgravity is a well-known consequence of spaceflight, closely monitored by NASA, and is currently countered through a regimen of exercise and nutrition while on-orbit. Back on Earth, osteoporosis is suffered by millions of our elderly, females and males alike, in large numbers during prolonged bed-rest and the natural human aging process.

Nobody is more familiar with the current NASA countermeasures than Captain Scott Kelly, who recently completed a one-year stint aboard the ISS. He was closely monitored by NASA along with his twin brother Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth as a control specimen. Both twins providing regular blood samples for analysis and comparison. Similarly, RR-5 will also have 40 rodents back on Earth as control specimens for this investigation to be used as a comparison control group.

The RR-5 project falls under the purview of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, an organization headquartered in Melbourne, Florida. They are tasked by NASA to administer science operations within the U.S. portion of the ISS, which is designed as a unique microgravity laboratory. Rodents and fruit flies are often used because of their unique characteristics, thereby making them ideal for investigations conducted by CASIS / NASA.

The research team

Systemic Therapy of NELL-1 research team

Drs Kang Ting, Chia Soo, Ben Wu, and Jin Hee Kwak, the research team behind the Systemic Therapy of NELL-1 for Spaceflight-Induced Osteoporosis. This International Space Station study may help identify key characteristics of the NELL-1 protein for use in future bone growth treatments on Earth. Photo & Caption Credit: Peter Bracke / NASA

The principal investigator for Rodent Research-5 is Dr. Chia Soo, MD., a professor at UCLA in the Department of Surgery, based in Southern California.

The UCLA research team also includes Dr. Kang Ting, a professor of dentistry credited with discovering NELL-1 and is working to translate NELL-1 therapy to humans; Dr. Ben Wu, a professor of bioengineering and dentistry who modified the NELL-1 molecule to make it useful for treating osteoporosis; and Dr. Jin Hee Kwak, an assistant professor of dentistry who will manage the study’s daily operations.

Dr. Soo explained to Space Flight Insider: “If NELL-1 is successful in that (microgravity) environment, then the chance of NELL-1 being successful on Earth would be significantly greater.”

Dr. Soo also mentioned that NELL-1 is a secreted protein, consisting of 810 amino acids, and is osteoinductive, which is ideal for battling bone density loss. She said: “We still can’t believe we’re doing this, and it would not be possible without groundbreaking work from NASA and CASIS.

“Funded for more than 18 years by the National Institute of Health (NIH), the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Institute (NIDCR), and National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), it is the significant funding from those institutions and others that make this all possible.”

When speaking to Dr. Soo, she wanted to acknowledge all the previous hard work performed by numerous individuals, including NASA crew and scientists going as far back as the Space Shuttle. It was during the investigations aboard the Space Shuttle missions that the Rodent Transporter hardware was designed (Rodent Habitat picture above right) and continues to be key in the successful transport and housing of the rodents during the ISS investigations.

Much groundwork has been laid out by NASA professionals in creating an environment perfect for these kinds of investigations, and Dr. Soo recognizes that she and her team are the beneficiaries of this work and are excited about potential groundbreaking new therapies.

Explaining their work, Dr. Soo said: “There have been so many pioneers before us. Really the work that has gone ahead of us is what makes our experiment amazing and possible.”

Once Dragon splashes down in the Pacific Ocean in July, the live rodents returned from the ISS will then be transported from the Long Beach port back to the UCLA campus where ongoing treatment will continue and further analysis performed by the team.

Video courtesy of NASA Johnson



Jerome Strach has worked within the Silicon Valley community for 20 years including software entertainment and film. Along with experience in software engineering, quality assurance, and middle management, he has long been a fan of aerospace and entities within that industry. A voracious reader, a model builder, and student of photography and flight training, most of his spare time can be found focused on launch events and technology advancements including custom mobile app development. Best memory as a child is building and flying Estes rockets with my father. @Romn8tr

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