At the Dubai Future Forum 2023, the crew of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-6 mission, Expedition 69, shed light on various facets of their 186-day mission aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Among these discussions, the successful 3D printing of human meniscus tissues stood out as a notable accomplishment. This development, which returned to Earth in September 2023, significantly advances the intersection of space exploration and medical technology.
The mission, marking the 69th long-duration expedition to the ISS, featured an international team of astronauts and cosmonauts. This group included Roscosmos astronauts Sergey Prokopyev, Dmitri Petelin, and Andrey Fedyaev; NASA astronauts Frank Rubio, Stephen Bowen, Warren “Woody” Hoburg; along with Emirati astronauts Sultan AlNeyadi, who completed the longest Arab space mission in history, and Hazza Al Mansoori, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ‘s first astronaut and Increment Lead during the mission. Together, they embarked on various experiments and technological advancements, with the 3D printing of the meniscus being a highlight of their groundbreaking research in zero gravity.
Achievements in space
Hoburg, a NASA astronaut and pilot of the Crew-6 mission, highlighted the significance of this breakthrough. “In the weightlessness of space, we successfully demonstrated the printing of a section of the meniscus,” he explained. This success came after extensive troubleshooting and collaboration between the space crew and ground teams. The importance of this innovation lies in its potential application in healthcare, especially in treating knee injuries and degenerative diseases.
“The idea behind this technology is that these biological structures can’t support their own weight when being fabricated, they would become a puddle if you tried to produce them on Earth,” explained Hoburg. “But in weightlessness, we’re able to produce these complex biological structures so we actually demonstrated the printing of a section of the meniscus. That facility, after that initial success is going to print cardiac tissues in the future and then on to blood vessels, which are even more complex to print.”
This achievement is part of a larger endeavor involving the BioFabrication Facility (BFF) aboard the ISS, the first bioprinting facility in space. Initially developed by Techshot in partnership with nScrypt, the BFF was launched to the ISS in July 2019, marking a significant milestone in space technology. It was specifically designed to address the challenges of bioprinting in microgravity. After Redwire (NYSE: RDW) acquired Techshot, it officially became the company behind the BFF.
In September 2023, Redwire announced that it had bioprinted the first human knee meniscus in space using this facility. This process, impossible on Earth due to gravity, opens new doors in the field of biotechnology and could have far-reaching benefits for humanity. The potential applications of this technology are vast, including for US military service members, paving the way for advanced medical treatments and research.
A new frontier
Beyond the scientific experiments, the Expedition 69 crew’s mission was a journey of discovery and personal growth for most of the crew. Al Neyadi described his spacewalk experience as “incredible,” capturing the vastness and darkness of space. His fellow crew member, Al Mansoori, reflected on the profound impact of viewing Earth from space, emphasizing the newfound appreciation for our planet. During the 45-minute panel, the crew shared unique insights from their time in space, discussing the challenges and triumphs of living and working in a zero-gravity environment.
One challenge the crew highlighted was the emotional difficulty of being separated from their families for extended periods. Cosmonaut Petelin stressed the importance of maintaining connections with loved ones back on Earth. This aspect of space travel often goes unnoticed but is crucial for the mental well-being of astronauts.
The forum, under the patronage of Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, served as a platform for these spacefarers to inspire the next generation. Al Neyadi emphasized their mission’s impact on UAE youth, noting a significant increase in interest in space exploration among students.
The astronauts’ visit to the UAE University in Al Ain and the American University of Sharjah was another highlight of their outreach efforts. Engaging with Emirati youth and students, they witnessed a growing passion for space exploration, furthering their mission to inspire and educate.
Future in space
Bowen, Commander of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-6 mission and US Navy submariner summed up what he believes is the future of humanity, saying, “single planet species don’t survive, so ultimately we need to look ahead and learn how to sustain here as long as possible but ultimately we’re going to end up leaving and these are all tiny steps we are taking right now to allow that future to occur.”
His perspective underlines the importance of current space innovations, like the 3D printing technologies developed and tested aboard the ISS. These advances are not just scientific achievements but essential steps in preparing humanity for long-duration missions in orbit, exploring the Moon, Mars, and beyond. As we venture further into space, the ability to create vital components and possibly even biological tissues in microgravity will be crucial for the sustainability and success of these ambitious endeavors and, like Bowen says, ultimately leave Earth’s atmosphere.
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