What is the nature of science as practiced in micro-gravity? The instrumentation is simple, well-designed and robust; digging below the surface, we discover that this experimental elegance derives from years of preparation, design, equipment construction, and testing. How do we find (and collect!) science within this prodigious enterprise?
In the last two years, Michel Labrecque and I have made several trips to the warehouse of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in Saint-Hubert, Quebec. We are collecting scientific instruments that span the Shuttle era, 1981-2011 as well as Canadian experiments on the International Space Station (ISS). We have sifted through numerous containers of surviving equipment, supplies, documents and instruments. Throughout this process and collaboration, we have gained a deeper appreciation for the practice of science in space, and scientific processes in general.
The instruments acquired by the museum represent several disciplines from botany to material science to physiology, but they all relate to each other through one key variable – they were designed to operate in microgravity conditions. Taking advantage of this unusual experimental resource requires years of testing and design, precision construction, duplication of equipment, large amounts of conformance and verification, good funding and… a spacecraft.
Amidst all these preparations, one finds basic scientific research. When I asked McGill Scientist Doug Watt about his work in space, he emphasized the need to “keep it [the experiment] as simple as humanly possible. Do an awful lot of testing in all kinds of circumstances.” Watt, a lead scientist for many successful Canadian experiments in space, was aware that not everyone could get time and space on the Shuttle or ISS. Whereas many scientific teams suffered failure of equipment, Watt succeeded in getting data from each of his experiments. In space, he said, “no matter what you get, it will be new.” But, one must ensure that the equipment works, which is not easy. One of his more successful experiments related to H-Reflex (Hoffman Reflex) that studied spinal cord excitability related to human adaption from earth to space and back.
When I contacted Walter Kucharski, the maker of many of the instruments for Watt’s program at McGill, he remarked immediately that he appreciated Watt’s ability to ‘’keep experiments simple” and ask “simple questions.” The resulting instruments reflected this principle. It took years to plan, test and produce one set of instruments. Surprisingly, for space instruments, many of the instruments have a rather non-cutting-edge look. Kucharski preferred older generation technologies that were often “one step back,” but with proven performance. For Kucharski, a large part of the success of the Watt team came from working closely with the astronauts to train them, and listening carefully to their feedback.
The instruments and well-worn containers display mission stamps, transportation logistics and inscriptions, extensive safety procedures, material and parts audits, supply chains, mission numbers, and calibration and quality control labels. The materials are space age circa 1970 to 2010 with foils, Velcro and plastics. The boxes and instruments have the smell of overly packaged instrumentation and supplies.
One of my guides in the CSA warehouse was Luc Lefebvre, a veteran project engineer at the Canadian Space Agency who was part of the Watt team on their experiments prior to taking a position at St-Hubert. We talked about how equipment design reflected unique conditions of science in space. One must “plan for science to be performed while you or your grad student are not there,” Lefebvre stated. It is science in an “expeditionary mode.” The instruments and their whole operation have to be incredibly resilient. “You may not get a second kick at the can.”
The designers of the experiments and instruments are not just shaping equipment; they are masters of time, safety, and space management. For Lefebvre “crew time was a precious commodity.” They had to design equipment that minimized complications and took into consideration launch delays and other time problems. This is especially important for life sciences experiments such as the Aquatic Research Facility (ARF) experiments that relied on dozens of micro-aquaria with developing organisms.
Some of the equipment trays have an Ikea meets Apple packaging look and feel. Simple, design equated to flawless execution. Lefebvre comments: “You have to use imagination to try to visualize how crew would interact with the equipment.” Even operations such as opening or sliding a lock could be complicated in micro-gravity. Latches, for example, may have to be designed to operate with one hand using a pinching motion. Relying on a typical push/pull application of force would require that the crewmember hold on with the other hand on supporting structure.
Many thanks for the people who hosted myself and Michel Labrecque during several research and preparatory visits to the CSA warehouse. Thank you to Luc Lefebvre for being our primary guide in researching this collection. Thank you to Patrice Alary, Jean-Denis Bisson and Réjean Lemieux for their time and help at the CSA warehouse. Thank you to Jordan Bimm of the York STS program for joining me for on a warehouse visit, and providing invaluable historical guidance. Thank you to Doug Watt and Walter Kucharski for sharing their memories and insights on the instruments and equipment.