Making space exploration healthier

Posted: November 6, 2018


We all want our homes to be healthy indoor environments, free of bacteria and other potentially disease-causing microorganisms. The same goes for the astronauts and cosmonauts whose “home” is the International Space Station (ISS), which orbits more than 200 miles above the Earth’s surface. Mold and other bacteria can adversely affect the health of astronauts and can potentially compromise the structural integrity of the spacecraft. In order to create a healthier environment for those working in space, researchers from Ohio State’s College of Engineering are evaluating dust and other environmental factors such as moisture, found aboard the ISS.

Karen Dannemiller, PhD
Professor Karen Dannemiller, assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geodetic Engineering and Division of Environmental Health Sciences, and her collaborators, have been awarded a grant by NASA’s Space Biology Program to conduct the study, Humidity and microbial growth in International Space Station dust (HUMID). Dannemiller’s Indoor Environmental Quality Lab (IEQ), which includes graduate students Sarah Haines and Ashleigh Bope, will incubate, at various levels of relative humidity (RH), dust samples returned to Earth from the ISS. The samples are then extracted for their DNA and the resulting list of bacteria and fungi will serve as the basis for determining the environmental health of the space station.

Over time, Ohio State and its partners at The University of Rostock’s Center for Life Science Automation (CELISCA) will develop an automated version of this collection, incubation and extraction system. The newly created protocol will allow inhabitants aboard the ISS to analyze the health of their indoor environment onsite without having to send samples back to Earth. Dr. Dannemiller also sees opportunities for implementation of such a system in other unique, closed built environments here on Earth, such as submarines and commercial and military aircraft. “We can simulate various conditions in the laboratory to learn more about the potential for microbial growth in dust in both spacecraft and built environments on Earth,” Dannemiller said. “The knowledge we gain can ultimately lead to enhanced design of these systems.”

Researchers Ashleigh Bope (L) and Sarah Haines (R) at work in the IEQ lab.
Awareness of the health of the microbiome aboard the ISS will enable astronauts to adjust their behavior or to assume additional cleaning and sanitizing tasks to improve their living conditions. The problem of bacteria is not a new one as high concentrations of mold were found onboard the Soviet / Russian spacecraft Mir, which orbited Earth in the late 1980’s. However, as NASA plans more sophisticated missions, optimizing the health of its flight crews and spacecraft while limiting risk to the planet and its population after that spacecraft returns, become even more critical.

Professor and Neil Armstrong Chair in Aerospace Policy, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, John Horack, co-investigator on HUMID said that Dannemiller’s work “will give us better insight into the microbiome of closed human spaceflight environments for better health protection of the crew and flight hardware as we move from ISS to beyond low-Earth orbit.”

Managed by NASA's Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division, the Space Biology Program awarded 28 investigators from 20 institutions in 12 states. A NASA press release stated that "these projects will use bacteria, rodents, mammalian cell culture systems, and plants to study how spaceflight and spaceflight-like conditions affect biological systems."

Watch Dr. Dannemiller discuss her team's research on IAQ Radio: