Sixteen sunrises a day and the odor of an overdone dessert

August 25, 2017
Jan Guz
Regenerative medicine and cell biology researcher Jan Guz is a "space geek." She jumped at the chance to tour a mobile NASA exhibit. Photos by Dawn Brazell

“Space smells like burned cookies.” The man who shared that surprising fact, astronaut Doug Wheelock, would know. He’s spent 178 days in space, including stints on the International Space Station, the Discovery and the Soyuz.

The source of that bakery-like smell he described to an audience that included about a dozen researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina? “It’s from the reaction of atomic oxygen that’s trapped in the fibers of your suit,” Wheelock said.

Another fun fact, this one about working on the International Space Station: “We’re orbiting the earth every 90 minutes,” Wheelock said. “So every 45 minutes, you see a sunrise or a sunset. You get 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets every day.”

His space stories were part of a pitch by NASA and the Center for Advancement of Science in Space encouraging researchers to think not only outside of the box but also outside of the planet and consider conducting research on the International Space Station. The event was hosted by the nonprofit South Carolina Research Authority in Summerville.

The ISS orbits Earth at more than 17,000 miles per hour, serving as a laboratory for learning about living and working in space. It’s the size of two Boeing 747s and contains lab modules from the U.S., Russia, Japan and Europe.

Cynthia Bouthot directs commercial innovation and sponsored programs at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, a government-funded program that manages the U.S. lab on the space station. “We’re looking at the International Space Station as the ultimate innovation platform that is open and available for use,” she told the researchers. “The absence of gravity enables quite a bit of phenomena that you can actually learn fundamental knowledge about.”

The earthbound researchers aren’t being asked to become astronauts. The idea is for them to propose studies to be carried out by astronauts, research that might benefit from the microgravity or other extreme conditions on the space station. 

Wheelock said it’s a chance to see science in new ways. “Here, our minds are trapped in two dimensions because everything is being sucked to the floor by gravity. When we do our research in two dimensions, complacency sets in. But what if you go to a place where it’s not so predictable?”

a group of people stand and talk
Astronaut Doug Wheelock talks with MUSC researchers Steven Carroll, far left, Carol Wagner and John Baatz. Tara Ruttley, associate program scientist for the International Space Station, is on the far right.

Research areas on the ISS include health, manufacturing, technology and aerospace, and the astronauts have worked with companies ranging from Target to Eli Lilly. Within the field of health, CASIS suggests that the ISS be used to find new ways to target Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s diseases; discover biomarkers; work on ending the organ shortage through such methods as 3-D bioprinting; produce vaccines; make medical device implants; and produce monoclonal antibodies to fight cancer. 

The ISS helps move research forward by offering extreme conditions, including microgravity, for testing ideas and improving existing treatments and devices. The MUSC researchers were fascinated by the possibilities. Some early ideas:

  • Kidney specialist Josh Lipschutz, a physician-researcher who directs the Renal Division at MUSC, wants to use the ISS to study how gravity may affect cells and tissue in organs.
  • Demetri Spyropoulos, a professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, is interested in studying the impact of microgravity on digestion, metabolism and the microbiome. He and professor John Baatz, who's with the Department of Pediatrics and Neonatology, also want to talk with NASA about how their company might help the space agency improve some existing research and cut costs.
  • Mark Hamann, a professor of drug discovery, is interested in exploring the impact of zero gravity and increased carbon dioxide exposure on people and plants. 

Another researcher who specializes in cell biology but is also interested in stress reduction, Sundaravadivel Balasubramanian, asked Wheelock how astronauts handle stress in space. 

“I never really thought about the physical stress,” Wheelock answered. “I was alarmed at the emotional stress level. I was shocked, although you know hundreds of people are going to work every day to keep you flying. The feelings of isolation and separation come on fairly quickly, within a couple of weeks. You look out the window and say, ‘There’s my planet and I’m not there.’ Psychologically, you start to feel the separation.”

But he said they’re trained to keep stress from becoming overwhelming. “Staying in the present. There’s nothing more important than what you’re doing right now. There should be nothing in your sight except what you’re doing right now. It’s hard for us to do as humans – stay in the present. We brief that, we train that, we talk about that and we do that in practice.”

Outside the building where Wheelock spoke, NASA had a trailer containing the “Driven to Explore" exhibit. MUSC researcher Jan Guz checked it out. “I want to see the moon rock,” she told guide Crawford Jones. “It’s right here,” he showed her. 

“That’s so cool,” the self-described “science geek” said, a big smile on her face.

That blend of joy and awe came through when Wheelock spoke, too. “In 2007 I got a chance to launch on the space shuttle Discovery,” he said during his speech. 

“I remember going out and strapping in, about two and a half hours before the launch. And then we’re lying in there on our backs, ready to go. The last 10 minutes go by really fast. I knew that soon, I’d either be floating around in space or I’d just be another name of an explorer in the history books. Very scary moment for me. When I got to space and looked out the window, it was just amazing.”

The MUSC researchers say it would be amazing to work with people such as him. Lipschutz, the kidney specialist, couldn’t resist a little space pun when discussing his research ideas: “I hope my proposal flies."