This decision generated the perception among many scientists outside the agency that, because microgravity life and physical sciences research had no representation at the highest administrative levels within NASA, research in this field was considered unimportant or peripheral to the agency. The acceptance of the life and physical sciences research program waned among many scientists, engineers, physicians, and clinicians working outside NASA. It is noteworthy that these early views of NASA microgravity sciences continue to the present.


By the 1970s, offices for life and microgravity sciences were established at NASA headquarters. In the life sciences, a director position was created and the research mission was formalized as three distinct programs: (1) gravitational biology—understanding the role of gravity in the development and evolution of life; (2) biomedical research—characterizing and removing the primary physiological and psychological obstacles to extending human spaceflight; and (3) operational medicine—developing medical and life support systems to enable human expansion beyond Earth and into the solar system. These three programs had support from specific NASA centers (viz., Johnson Space Center and Ames Research Center), and the three themes articulated by these initial programs continue to define the spaceflight life sciences research missions and focus. In comparison, the development of the microgravity physical sciences program was more diffuse, in part because of its evolution from specific technological research that was related to the development of spaceflight systems. Fluid physics was one of the earliest thrusts because of its relevance to flight systems such as those for propellant control. Broadly, the physical sciences research activities that emerged can be categorized as (1) fluid physics, (2) materials science (crystal growth, metallurgy, soft matter, etc.), (3) biotechnology science (electrophoresis, protein crystallography, etc.), (4) combustion science, and (5) fundamental physics.

The Apollo Program and Skylab

While orbital animal life sciences research began with the V2 rocket in 19481—and the Mercury and Gemini missions can be said to have entailed research to answer some very fundamental questions about space environments and our ability to conduct science and exploration missions—it was not until the Apollo Flight Program (1968-1972) that dedicated microgravity life and physical sciences research began within NASA. In total, eleven crew missions were completed: two involved Earth-orbiting; two lunar orbiting; one lunar swing-by; and six Moon-landing missions. Significant information was obtained from these flights, which were conducted within the framework of the Operational Medicine Program. This program was focused primarily on documenting the physiological effects on crew astronauts during varying flight durations and ascertaining whether there were serious deleterious effects. In the physical sciences, early research focused on small “suitcase” experiments. Specifically, to experience microgravity, experiments could be performed only when the spacecraft was in free flight (no thrusters or engines activated) and within the extremely tight constraints on time and crew availability. Experiments on fluid flow, thermal transport, and electrophoresis of biological molecules were performed. In spite of these early milestones, minimal scientific data were obtained that were publishable in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. However, the Apollo microgravity program established a precedent for hypothesis-driven research in the microgravity sciences.

In the early 1970s, Skylab became the first U.S. space station. Four Skylab missions were conducted from May 1973 to February 1974, ranging in duration from 28 to 84 days. Much of the research in the physical sciences during those flights was targeted at the effects of low gravity on buoyancy-driven convective flow and on materials processing. The reduction in, or absence of, buoyancy in microgravity transforms combustion processes and is important to solidification and crystallization, among many processes. In the absence of buoyancy, many reactions are limited by diffusion, and not only do they change in dynamical character but the length scale of the process also grows and, overall, becomes simpler to understand. Specifically, combustion can become diffusion-limited, and lack of buoyancy transforms solidification of metals under welding conditions and most scenarios of crystal formation. Containerless processing experiments, which were expected to have potential for commercial application, were included but were not deemed successful. In parallel, a range of life sciences missions were also conducted on Skylab. These covered processes such as cellular development and plant growth, but a key

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