Portland State became part of space history Oct. 7 when it sent a research experiment payload to the International Space Station (ISS) on board a commercially owned SpaceX rocket. It was the first shipment by a private company to go to the ISS since NASA’s shuttle program retired in July.
The unmanned SpaceX rocket is carrying supplies needed for an ongoing experiment PSU is conducting with NASA to test the behavior of liquids in zero gravity. This operation marks the 50th round of experiments that PSU has conducted on the ISS, according to project leader Mark Weislogel, professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at PSU’s Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science.
PSU has another 50 or so future experiments planned for the space station. NASA supports all the PSU experiments, including getting the materials into space, Weislogel said.
Weislogel’s ISS experiments—half of which PSU is performing jointly with the University of Bremen’s ZARM Institute in Germany—are controlled and monitored in real time from the PSU campus. The goal is to see how liquids in specially shaped conduits behave in zero gravity. The results they find may change the way fuel systems are designed for the next generation of spacecraft.
“Very few institutions have what we have: a direct communication link with the ISS,” Weislogel said. “PSU is very fortunate to have the level of connection that we have. It is rare.”
In May, SpaceX made history when its Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial vehicle in history to successfully attach to the ISS. That was a test mission that didn’t include cargo. By contrast, the Oct. 7 launch will include about 1,000 pounds of experiment equipment, Weislogel said. The supplies are for 63 science investigations by a variety of institutions and organizations.
The Oct. 7 launch is ushering in a new era in space travel: The debut of a private company in a realm previously dominated by government agencies such as NASA. SpaceX—short for Space Exploration Technologies Corp.—is based in Southern California. It has been awarded $1.6 billion to conduct 12 such launches to the ISS, Weislogel said.