Their place in space

Jennifer Dostal

NASA’s chief scientist at the Johnson Space Center, Helen Lane, said women are a big part of the NASA program today.

“Our women are major contributors to NASA and society. Our women are leaders in the exploration of the universe and providing a better life for all of us,” Lane said.

Lane spoke about women’s major contributions to the space program as astronauts, researchers and engineers and how these contributions have added to the lives of Americans. Her speech on Friday night was attended by about 150 people and was sponsored by the Women in Science and Engineering program.

She also spoke about research and development contributions of “pathfinders” in the space program who have helped people all over the world, including research performed in the space shuttle.

Space offers the opportunity to see the human body differently and “add to volumes of knowledge about our physiology on Earth,” Lane said.

The absence of gravity insures an environment during space shuttle exploration that is useful in many experiments, she said.

For example, research in osteoporosis, the loss of bone mass that usually affects older women, takes place during shuttle exploration at zero gravity because osteoporosis is affected by gravity, she said.

Space induces osteoporosis in otherwise healthy people, but scientists don’t know if weightlessness stops bone building or accelerates the breakdown of bone tissue. Through research in space, scientists hope to better understand this poorly understood process, Lane said.

Scientists are also trying to understand cell growth and how to culture cells in space. The absence of gravity lets the cultured cells clump together into tissues which are more viable than single cells, Lane said.

A cure for diabetes, a disease that results when special cells in the pancreas that are active in metabolism don’t function properly, could be found with this research. If these cells are cultured and transplanted into a diabetic patient, they could function in place of the original cells, Lane said. Then the patient would no longer need to be on a strict diet or take insulin to compensate for the malfunctioning cells.

Besides growing healthy cells in a weightless environment, researchers are trying to understand the growth of cancerous cells and how to stop the growth.

Lane researches the effects of antioxidants, a category of chemical compounds found in vegetables, and how they prevent cancer.

The early detection of breast cancer also has connections to deep space technology, she said.

Breast cancer diagnosis advanced because of NASA’s technical developments with the Hubble telescope. The digital imaging system the telescope uses has been utilized in mammography, the X-ray examination of the breast.

This imaging system produces better images of the tissues and can help diagnose cancer earlier, Lane said.

“Americans depend on pathfinders,” and experimentation in space, she said. She said a weightless environment can “open up new areas of research and provide new clues to our bodies,” Lane said.

Lane also spoke about remarkable women in space exploration, including astronauts Sally Ride, the first woman in space, and Shannon Lucient, who holds the record for the longest length of time in space.