NASA is studying the effect of microgravity on the growth of bacteria, which may become a problem on long space flights, according to chief scientist Ken Souza, who was at NASA Ames this morning to see Atlantis off.
Thin films of slime have clogged water systems and coated mirrors and walls on previous space craft, Souza told me, and while astronauts' immune systems tend to grow weaker during flights, microbes can grow more virulent.
Several colonies of the microbes rode into space on Atlantis, which took off this morning carrying a crew of six astronauts who are headed to the International Space Station with equipment and supplies.
Souza's team will oversee 16 packs of microbes on the space shuttle and 16 on the ground at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Their growth in the different gravities will be tracked, and new coatings will be tested that are designed to kill bacteria but be safe for humans. More information on the experiment, which was designed by Dr. Cynthia Collins at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is here.
Mothers and babies, reporters, and a class of schoolchildren all showed up at Ames to bid goodbye to Atlantis on what may be its last flight. (NASA is ending the shuttle program and plans to rely on help from the private sector to get humans into space).
They stood to sing the Star Spangled Banner and later cheered as Atlantis lifted off at 11:20 a.m., in what appeared to be a flawless launch on a beautiful sunny day.
Former astronaut Bo Bobko, who's flown three missions for NASA, described what was happening to the shuttle as it sat on the launchpad and reminisced about his own space flights.
"Sleeping in space is like sleeping on a cloud," he told the students (who asked the best questions). "You have a tether here and a tether here and you just go to sleep." The first night he slept in his bed at home, he said, he fell out.
And while the astronauts at first gathered around the table to eat meals in space, after a few days they lounged on the ceiling or in doorways in addition to the floor. "You use all the volume you can," he said. "You learn how to use it."
Here's a 10-minute film of the launch from NASA.
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com