Biologist Kate Rubins is headed to space

After leaving the research lab to become an astronaut, she’s now headed for the space station
Jun 10, 2016 — 7:00 am EST
Rubins spacesuit

Molecular biologist and astronaut Kate Rubins puts on a spacesuit at a NASA test lab in Houston, Texas. Astronauts train underwater there to simulate the experience of moving in the weightless environment of space. 

James Blair/NASA/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

On June 24, molecular biologist Kate Rubins will be strapped into a spacecraft in Kazakhstan. Within a few hours she’ll blast off from this central Asian country (directly south of Russia and west of Mongolia). That moment will end seven years of preparing — and 30 years of hoping. She'll finally be on her way to the International Space Station. 

As a child, Rubins plastered her Napa, Calif., bedroom with pictures of stars and galaxies and the space shuttle. She’d proudly tell anyone of her plan to be an astronaut. A week at Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., in seventh grade cemented that goal. But by high school, she figured that astronaut wasn’t “a realistic job.”

space stationFlash forward to 2009. Rubins was running a lab at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. She was studying viruses there when a friend pointed out a NASA ad. The agency was seeking astronaut candidates. And with that, Rubins’ long-ago obsession awakened.

Since then, she’s learned to fly a NASA jet, speak Russian (so she can talk with Russian crewmates), conduct a spacewalk and operate the space station’s robotic arm. She even learned how to fix the space station’s toilet.

Joining NASA meant leaving behind her job running a 14-person lab. But Rubins realized she’d be gaining the rare opportunity to work with dozens of scientists in fields as different as cell biology and astrophysics. On the space station, she’ll be “their hands, eyes and ears.”

Both experimenter and subject

Kate Rubins

Rubins will spend about five months in orbit. While on the International Space Station, or ISS, she’ll conduct about 100 experiments. She will, for instance, study how heart cells behave when gravity doesn’t get in the way. And she’ll test a miniaturized DNA sequencer — about half the size of a smartphone. Such technology will be important to future missions that might, for instance, look for signs of life on Mars.

In fact, much of the research Rubins will do is helping lay the groundwork for taking people deeper into space. When kids who are middle schoolers today “grow up and are ready to be scientists or engineers, these are the kinds of missions that they’ll have the opportunity to be involved in," she notes.

Rubins also will be a subject of research on bone growth, while she’s in space.

On Earth, gravity helps keep bone tissue healthy. Putting weight on bones sends a signal to certain cells to keep building new bone. In space, lack of gravity causes astronauts to quickly lose bone. So astronauts work out using specialized exercise equipment that uses vacuums to provide resistance for bones and muscles. Pushing against that resistance “tells bone, ‘Hey, you’re still being used,’” Rubins notes.

Researchers know the exercise program works to keep bones strong. But they don’t know exactly how it affects the bones’ internal structure. So doctors will image Rubins’ bones with a CT scanner before and after her mission. They’ll be looking for any changes to a portion of her hip bone.

WRING IT OUT See astronaut Chris Hadfield do a quick experiment on the International Space Station to illustrate the odd way that water moves under zero gravity. VideoFromSpace

Rubins is also eager to study how liquid acts in space. In 2013, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield created an Internet sensation. In a video from space, he demonstrated that wringing out a wet washcloth caused water to form a bubble that enveloped the cloth and his hands. (Two teenage girls, Canadian 10th-graders, had suggested the experiment.) “It’s incredibly bizarre,” Rubins says. She wants to know more — especially about how water behaves in space on the scale of molecules. Understanding how fluids move in test tubes will help NASA plan for Mars exploration, among other applications.

Some familiar challenges

In some ways, Rubins says, the challenges of setting up lab space on the space station won’t be too different from what she and other researchers might encounter when working at some remote places on Earth — such as in Antarctica, or on a volcano, or in a rural village in the developing world.

Soyuz launch“When you think about the kind of equipment that you would develop for a space station, you have to think about what would make it portable and suitable for a very extreme environment,” Rubins says. “Most of the equipment must be solar powered. We’re very conscious about water and how much liquid we use, because we recycle all of our water. We have to think about the effect of vibration on equipment.” After all, she notes, “If you are going to launch something on a rocket or put it in the back of a Land Rover and drive it 100 miles over a dirt road, it’s pretty similar!”

Before any of her research at the space station can begin, Rubins must first get off the ground. As dangerous as it may sound to accelerate to 17,500 miles per hour — the speed needed for the spacecraft to escape Earth’s gravitational pull — she’s not worried. “An important part of the training experience is making all the information and skills routine.” She predicts that sitting down in the spacecraft, pulling out her procedures and getting ready to launch will feel a lot like “a normal day at the office.”

Until the engines turn on, anyway. “I think it’s going to feel different when there’s a rocket underneath.”

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

astronauts   People trained to travel into space for research and exploration.

astrophysics    An area of astronomy that deals with understanding the physical nature of stars and other objects in space. People who work in this field are known as astrophysicists.

biology    The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.

cell    The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the naked eye, it consists of watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells, depending on their size. Some organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.

computerized axial tomography   (CAT or CT scan, for short). A special kind of X-ray scanning technology that produces cross-sectional views of the inside of a bone or body.

developing world     A region with relatively little industry and a lower standard of living than industrial countries, such as the United States, Germany and Japan.

DNA sequencing   The process of determining the exact order of the paired building blocks — called nucleotides — that form each rung of a ladder-like strand of DNA. There are only four nucleotides: adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine (which are abbreviated A, C, G and T). And adenine always pairs up with thymine; cytosine always pairs with guanine.

galaxy   A massive group of stars bound together by gravity. Galaxies, which each typically include between 10 million and 100 trillion stars, also include clouds of gas, dust and the remnants of exploded stars.

gravity   The force that attracts anything with mass, or bulk, toward any other thing with mass. The more mass that something has, the greater its gravity.

International Space Station   An artificial satellite that orbits Earth. Run by the United States and Russia, this station provides a research laboratory from which scientists can conduct experiments in biology, physics and astronomy — and make observations of Earth.  

Mars   The fourth planet from the sun, just one planet out from Earth. Like Earth, it has seasons and moisture. But its diameter is only about half as big as Earth’s.

molecular biology    The branch of biology that deals with the structure and function of molecules essential to life. Scientists who work in this field are called molecular biologists.

molecule   An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).

National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA    Created in 1958, this U.S. agency has become a leader in space research and in stimulating public interest in space exploration. It was through NASA that the United States sent people into orbit and ultimately to the moon. It has also sent research craft to study planets and other celestial objects in our solar system.

orbit    The curved path of a celestial object or spacecraft around a star, planet or moon. One complete circuit around a celestial body.

recycle   To find new uses for something — or parts of something — that might otherwise be discarded, or treated as waste.

resistance    (as in exercise)  A type of rather sedentary exercise that relies on the contraction of muscles to build strength in localized tissues.

robot    A machine that can sense its environment, process information and respond with specific actions. Some robots can act without any human input, while others are guided by a human.

space shuttles   The world’s first reusable vehicles, NASA’s five space shuttles (Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavor and Atlantic) ferried astronauts and cargo into orbit, including to service satellites (like the Hubble Space Telescope) and the International Space Station. The first shuttle launched on April 12, 1981. On July 21, 2011, a shuttle returned home for the last time. After that trip, the program was retired. In all NASA’s shuttles tackled 135 missions.

tissue    Any of the distinct types of material, comprised of cells, which make up animals, plants or fungi. Cells within a tissue work as a unit to perform a particular function in living organisms. Different organs of the human body, for instance, often are made from many different types of tissues. And brain tissue will be very different from bone or heart tissue.

vacuum   Space with little or no matter in it. Laboratories or manufacturing plants may use vacuum equipment to pump out air, creating an area known as a vacuum chamber.

virus   A tiny infectious particle consisting of RNA or DNA surrounded by protein. Viruses can reproduce only by injecting their genetic material into the cells of living creatures. Although scientists frequently refer to viruses as live or dead, in fact no virus is truly alive. It doesn’t eat like animals do, or make its own food the way plants do. It must hijack the cellular machinery of a living cell in order to survive.


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Further Reading

M. Chertock. “So, you want to be an astronaut.” Doing Science blog. Society for Science & the Public. May 20, 2016.

S. Ornes. “End of an era.” Science News for Students. May 25, 2011.

E. Sohn. “Strong bones for life.” Science News for Students. Feb. 2, 2004.

Learn more about the International Space Station.

Find when you can see the International Space Station from where you live.

Watch Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield wring out a washcloth in space