The importance of science in space
General Mills makes food. Astronauts go to space. What do we have in common?
We found out we share a proud legacy of teamwork and innovation when we hosted a visit from NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) at our James Ford Bell Technical Center last week.
Dressed in his astronaut jumpsuit, Michael Hopkins turned some curious heads in our hallways as employees must have asked themselves, ‘Is that a …’
Indeed it was one of the fortunate few in history who have spent time in space.
Hopkins, selected in 2009 as one of 14 members of the 20th NASA astronaut class, spent more than five months (166 days) aboard the International Space Station (ISS) from September 2013 to March 2014.
At a lunchtime event with employees, Hopkins showed videos from his expedition and spoke about his work and experience in space.
Hopkins and CASIS officials were primarily with us to talk about the science of space, and how companies of all kinds can partner to put experiments on board the ISS. He shared how he conducted research for companies, while a team on the ground monitored the experiments.
“It’s a very powerful way to do science up on the ISS,” Hopkins said. “I’m actually talking real-time to a scientist on the ground as I’m executing an experiment. So as they see the results down there, they get to make adjustments to the experiment as we go. A very powerful way, I think, to combine the efforts of people on the ground and up in space.”
Hopkins said that he and the other crew members don’t know which companies the experiments are being conducted for, most of the time.
After the presentation from Hopkins, I spoke with Cynthia Bouthot, director of Commercial Innovation & Business Development for CASIS. She said their visits to companies are important to get the word out about the potential for doing experiments on the ISS.
“We like to bring a group of people that represent science, and operations and business development, and we like to have conversations,” said Bouthot. “Typically we have a lot of brainstorming sessions with companies to explain what our capabilities are, and understand what a company’s research goals are and see where they intersect. Our whole focus is on driving utilization of the ISS for Earth-based benefits.”
So our R&D team made time for those conversations with NASA and CASIS last week, to see what experiments might be worthwhile or possible to pursue.
“General Mills is an iconic company with lots of great brands,” she said. “The types of research that you could potentially do in microgravity on the ISS are really relevant for you and we think really match our capability.”
Companies work with CASIS on a variety of experiments, including opportunities to study phenomena without gravity, like in the areas of material composition, combustion and fluid mechanics. And, the ISS offers access to extreme ambient conditions, for experiments involving radiation and thermal cycling.
The visit included NASA’s “Driven to Explore” mobile exhibit, a trailer employees could walk through to view displays about the ISS and space exploration, as well as a small moon rock and replica of a space suit (perfect for photos).
But Hopkins enjoyed what he saw and heard too, during a tour and meetings with General Mills leaders and employees.
“The culture here reminds me of the culture at NASA,” he said. “I was really impressed with how friendly and motivated people are here and I was amazed at the leadership team, by the number of years that they’ve spent working at General Mills. Clearly the company has created an environment that motivates people to stay here long-term and I think that just says tons right there.”
By the way, Hopkins knew we’d be curious about the food he ate in orbit, so he filled employees in on that as well.
Daily snacks and meals on the ISS include granola bars, dried meats, peanut butter and cereal – more than 200 items in all. Most of it is freeze-dried or requires rehydration, but none of it is branded, Hopkins said. It’s actually packaged up generically in the food lab at Johnson Space Center. Occasionally, their supply vehicles also will bring fresh fruit.
Interestingly, he said space can do a number on your taste buds. He had to use Tabasco sauce and sriracha sauce for some added flavor on many foods to keep them from being bland. At the same time, some of his fellow crew members reported being hyper-sensitive to taste and didn’t need anything extra on their food.
Hopkins also said, for whatever reason, he couldn’t enjoy one of his favorite foods on Earth – beef fajitas – when he tried eating them in orbit.
“Horrible,” he joked.
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