Humans Flying to Faraway Asteroids: Johnson Space Center Preparing for a New Era in Space Travel

Michael Coats, JSC Director, To Speak At ASME 2012 International Mechanical Engineering Congress in Houston

NEW YORK, Oct. 26, 2012 — NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston is optimistic about a new and exciting era of space travel involving humans flying to faraway asteroids — and has begun a series of research programs to study the adaptability of the human body to long-duration flights.

"Many believe human space voyages ended with the termination of the Space Shuttle Program," said Michael L. Coats, director of the Johnson Space Center, who will speak at the ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) 2012 International Mechanical Engineering Congress in Houston next month. "However, human space travel has received bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, and there are research programs under way that are dealing with the challenges of deep space exploration."

Johnson Space Center is leading the way in the research, focusing its efforts on biomedical experimentations and programs to study the human health risks associated with prolonged stays in space.

"Even during the Apollo missions to the moon, humans were no more than two-and-a-half days away from home," said Coats, who will speak at the ASME Congress on Nov. 15. "Future missions to distant planets would require months, even a couple of years, in foreign environments."

Coats points to biomedical studies showing that human bodily functions do indeed change in geo-gravity, particularly over extended periods. "We know that the immune system is compromised, as well as alterations in vision, brain function and internal fluid."

In an effort to further understand changes in internal bodily fluids, Johnson and its collaborators developed Overset Grid-Flow, a software program that simulates fluid flow using advanced computational dynamics, one among several biomedical research initiatives in progress at JSC.

In addition to the biomedical studies, JSC is working with Jet Propulsion Laboratory and industrial partners on advanced vehicles that can operate in the extreme environments of deep space. The space center also directs activities at the International Space Station, where NASA and its global partners are engaged in groundbreaking research, particularly in the life sciences.

In one research program on the space station, NASA in collaboration with the Bio-design Institute at Arizona State University have developed the Recombinant Attenuated Salmonella Vaccine, or RASV, an oral vaccine that holds much promise in the fight against pneumonia, meningitis, and other life-threatening diseases. During the experimentation on RASV, researchers observed that Salmonella cultured in the microgravity of space exhibits important biological characteristics to render the microbe more virulent in combating disease. RASV is currently in clinical trials.

Another research study has brought together NASA and the University of Texas Health Science Center and other collaborators on early-detection biomarkers for shingles, a painful malady that affects astronauts as well as tens of thousands of people on Earth. The researchers have developed novel technologies for early detection in saliva and other parts of the body, which allows for prompt administration of antiviral therapy, limiting potential nerve damage and other chronic conditions associated with the shingles virus.

Opened in 1963, Johnson Space Center trains and educates astronauts in orbital dynamics, physics and flight control, among other disciplines. JSC is a huge complex of specialty laboratories, research offices, hangars, and various administrative buildings spread over 1,600 acres.

Coats, a former astronaut who flew on three missions of the U.S. space shuttle from 1984 to 1991, has been serving as director of JSC since November 2005. His presentation before ASME is titled, "The State of the Johnson Space Center."

The ASME 2012 International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition, to be held at Hilton Americas, will draw delegates from around the world to discuss technological advancements in aerospace, manufacturing, transportation, and other industries. For information, visit

About ASME
ASME helps the global engineering community develop solutions to real world challenges. Founded in 1880 as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, ASME is a not-for-profit professional organization that enables collaboration, knowledge sharing and skill development across all engineering disciplines, while promoting the vital role of the engineer in society. ASME codes and standards, publications, conferences, continuing education and professional development programs provide a foundation for advancing technical knowledge and a safer world.