The International Space Station fills several roles for NASA—providing a toehold in outer space for human activity, testing closed-loop technologies for long-duration spaceflight, and developing international partnerships. But perhaps the station's biggest selling point is science. It was, after all, designated a national laboratory in 2005. And what does a lab need? Scientists.
Yet despite the vastly increased diversity of the astronaut corps since the early, macho days of the Mercury 7, many astronauts today are still fighter pilots, engineers, and surgeons. Relatively few are bonafide research scientists. But Kate Rubins is, and she spent 115 days on the space station this summer and fall. Before becoming an astronaut, Rubins trained in molecular biology and led a laboratory 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 field work took them to Central and Western Africa.
In space, Rubins worked on most of the 275 NASA investigations that were conducted during her four months aboard the station. The most notable project that Rubins led was the first-ever sequencing of DNA in space, of which she completed 211,000 sequences containing 2.35 billion bases. As part of this investigation, she worked on samples of mouse, virus, and bacteria DNA using a commercially available sequencing device called MinION. Onboard sequencing will likely help future astronauts on long-duration missions diagnose health issues with greater accuracy and treat them appropriately.
While working on a heart cells investigation, she described seeing heart cells beat for the first time in microgravity as “pretty amazing.”...