Apollo 14 lunar module
After the successful lunar landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969, there were many who questioned the need for further Apollo expeditions to the moon. After all, America had won the space race with the Soviets, so why were additional flights necessary? In early 1970, the last three missions, Apollos 18-20, had been canceled, and after the near loss of Apollo 13, many NASA critics wanted to cancel the rest as well.

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Written by Greg Kennedy on January 31st, 2014 , Space History

Exposure to microgravity has been shown to weaken astronauts’ immune systems and increase the activity if harmful microorganisms. The news from space medicine is not all bad, however. New research suggests that thyroid cancer cells enter a less aggressive state under the influence of microgravity. By understanding the genetic and cellular changes that occur in space, scientists may be able to develop new cancer treatments for use on Earth.

Differential Gene Expression Profile and Altered Cytokine Secretion of Thyroid Cancer Cells in Space” was published in the February issue of The Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

Daniela Gabriele Grimm, MD, from the Department of Biomedicine at Aarhus University in Denmark, said, “Research in space or under simulated microgravity using ground-based facilities helps us in many ways to understand the complex processes of life and this study is the first step toward the understanding of the mechanisms of cancer growth inhibition in microgravity. Ultimately, we hope to find new cellular targets, leading to the development of new anti-cancer drugs which might help to treat those tumors that prove to be non-responsive to the currently employed agents.”

Grimm and colleagues from Denmark and Germany used the Science in Microgravity Box facility aboard the Chinese Shenzhou-8, which was launched on October 31, 2011. Cell feeding was performed automatically on day 5 of the mission and automated cell fixation was conducted on day 10. An onboard centrifuge was used for inflight control cultures.

On the ground, additional cells were tested using a random-positioning machine, which aims to simulate microgravity by rotating a sample around two axes.

Cells were studied for gene expression and secretion profiles, using modern molecular biological techniques such as whole genome microarrays and multi-analyte profiling. Results suggest that the expression of genes that indicate high malignancy were down-regulated in microgravity.

“We are just at the beginning of a new field of medicine that studies the effects of microgravity on cell and molecular pathology,” said Gerald Weissmann, MD, editor-in-chief of The FASEB Journal. “Space flight affects our bodies, both for good and bad. We’ve known that microgravity can cause some microorganisms to become more virulent and that prolonged microgravity has negative effects on the human body. Now, we learn that it’s not all bad news. What we learn from cells in space should help us understand and treat malignant tumors on the ground.”

Written by Astro1 on January 30th, 2014 , Space Medicine and Safety

Major changes lie ahead for NASA education programs, but no one knows what those changes will be. The education community is being left in the dark, due to the lack of communications from NASA Headquarters. Even NASA insiders are beginning to express frustration. The head of NASA’s Space Math program recently sent the following message to the spacemath@nasa.gov mailing list:

As you may know, NASA has dramatically changed how it funds its education programs during this fiscal year and perhaps beyond. To avoid creating misinformation, NASA has largely decided to keep its detailed plans under wraps even to its many education partners, including its own mission education programs. We are all largely trying to maintain our programs as best we can given that money for continued education work, meetings, workshops and product development has mostly been eliminated during this academic year. Many programs are making ends meet by using last-years money frugally. That means some programs may still be able to support education work through the early part of 2014. 2014 will be a transition year for NASA’s science mission education efforts as you have come to know it, with dramatic changes in how or if you will receive classroom resources from the missions, participate in workshops etc.

Last year, the Obama Administration proposed a sweeping change in NASA education programs, which called for most education efforts to be transferred to other agencies, such as the Department of Education and the Smithsonian Institution, with drastically decreased funding for education at NASA. ($94.2 million proposed for Fiscal Year 2014, spending, down from $136.1 million in FY2012 and $136.9 million estimated in FY2013.) The funding for NASA education programs was not transferred over, however, leading many to wonder if space education programs would simply disappear.

Congress has opposed the transfer of NASA education programs to other agencies. During the Fiscal Year 2014 budget process, it finally settled on a figure of $116.6 million for NASA education: a cut of about $20 million, rather than $42 million, as originally proposed. This represents a 15% cut, rather than the 31% cut proposed by the Administration.

Still, 15% represents a significant cut, given that NASA education is already down sharply from its high of $169.2 billion in FY2009. This represents a total drop of 31% in the last five years.

Since all offices have certain irreducible overhead, the effect on NASA education programs will be even greater than what the numbers indicate. NASA leadership will have to formulate a new plan for how to deal with these cuts. The planning process will no doubt be complicated by the recently announced retirement of NASA Associate Administrator for Education Leland Melvin.

In the meantime, communication is virtually nonexistent and the education community remains in the dark about what to expect.

Written by Astro1 on January 29th, 2014 , Education

NASA Associate Administrator Leland Melvin and Sesame Street's Elmo

NASA Associate Administrator for Education Leland Melvin is leaving the agency. Melvin’s retirement was announced on January 16 by NASA Administrator Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden (USMC-ret.).

“I am sorry to inform the NASA family that my good friend and our Associate Administrator for Education, Leland Melvin, has decided to retire next month after more than 24 years of NASA service,” General Bolden said.

Melvin’s departure is the second high-level resignation in the last six months. NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver resigned last August. While there’s no reason to believe the two departures are related, it is apparent that General Bolden is losing his leadership team.

His departure will no doubt complicate NASA education efforts to deal with a 15% FY2014 budget cut.

Melvin was the first (and so far, only) former astronaut to head the NASA education office. His appointment was considered to be a symbol of the increased importance being placed on NASA education. That symbolism was not reflected in subsequent budget requests, however.

Written by Astro1 on January 29th, 2014 , Education