NASA is preparing for SpaceX’s fifth astronaut mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Scheduled to launch this fall from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Crew-5 mission will be led by astronaut Nicole Aunapu Mann, the first Native American woman to fly into space. During her time in orbit, Mann plans to carry out scientific experiments on board, particularly ones that use the BioFabrication Facility (BFF), the first 3D printer dedicated to manufacturing human tissue in space’s microgravity.
In a recent interview with Indian Country Today, Mann – of the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes – said, “it’s very exciting” to be the first Native woman in space. “I think it’s important that we communicate this to our community so that other Native kids, if they thought maybe that this was not a possibility or to realize that some of those barriers that used to be there are really starting to get broken down.”
Bioprinting in Space
When asked how she will occupy her time in orbit, Mann indicated that she looks forward to the science on board that will benefit the human race.
“One of the ones that I’m looking most forward to is called the biofabrication facility. And it is literally 3D printing human cells, which to me sounds so futuristic, right?”
Launched in December 2019, the BFF is the first US-built system capable of manufacturing human tissue in microgravity using adult human cells and proteins. Designed by Techshot (now part of the Redwire conglomerate) and nScrypt, the device was created to print organ-like tissues in microgravity. Today it is mounted inside the ISS U.S. National Laboratory (ISS National Lab), where astronauts have used it to successfully print tissue-like constructs with a large volume of human heart cells, as well as human menisci.
Like many experiments at the ISS National Lab, the BFF takes full advantage of the microgravity condition of space, which can help overcome many of the challenges surrounding 3D bioprinting of complex structures on Earth, such as printing tiny capillary networks. Built as a stepping stone in a long-term plan to manufacture whole human organs in space, the success of the BFF could enable potential medical breakthroughs, beginning with the creation of patient-specific replacement tissues or patches. Eventually, it could have a massive potential to one day help mitigate the organ shortage crisis.
Like other astronauts before her, Mann says she is eager to test the printer, which can create “a much more intact structure of the cell” than bioprinters on Earth.
“This facility has flown, and then come and printed cells and then come back to Earth. They made changes, they learned, it flew again, came back to Earth, they made changes, and they’re about to fly it again. So that’ll be our chance to participate.”
Considering that the ultimate goal of the BFF is to print organs, Mann indicated: “we’re not there yet.” Still, she highlighted the crucial breakthroughs that the BFF has made in just three years.
Leading the Next Space Mission
Born in Petaluma, California, the 45-year-old mechanical engineer, Marine Corps colonel, and combat jet test pilot was selected as one of eight members of the 21st NASA astronaut class in 2013. This will be Mann’s first spaceflight since becoming an astronaut, and as mission commander, she will be responsible for all phases of the flight, from launch to re-entry. Once on board the station, she will serve as an Expedition 68 flight engineer for approximately six months.
Currently, the ISS is crewed by Expedition 67, which began in March when Soyuz MS-19 returned to Earth and will continue until Soyuz MS-21 leaves at the end of September. The Crew-5 mission will also carry NASA astronauts Josh Cassada as well as Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Koichi Wakata, and Roscosmos cosmonaut Anna Kikina. The Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon Endurance spacecraft that will carry the crew are scheduled to launch no earlier than September 29 from rocket launch complex 39A.
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