"Gravity on Earth masks a lot of the processes that are going on in living things; we can know more about what's going on at the cellular and molecular level if we can remove the gravity aspect," says Rich Boling, Techshot vice president of corporate advancement. "In space, you have the opportunity to do that. You can't do that anywhere else."
Based in Greenville with an office at the Purdue Research Park of Southeast Indiana, Techshot was founded in the mid-1980s to complete a NASA project. Now with decades of experience, Techshot recently received a total of $1.5 million from NASA to develop the Analytical Containment Transfer Tool (ACT2) and the Multi-specimen Variable-gravity Platform (MVP), two devices to help astronauts conduct research in space. With assembly of the ISS completed in the spring of 2011, NASA says the laboratories "are expected to accommodate an unprecedented amount of space-based research." Listen
The first $750,000 investment from NASA will help Techshot perfect the ACT2 for space. The small syringe-like device seals specimens inside a small chamber, allowing astronauts to safely move samples from one part of the space laboratory to a different area for analysis. Listen
"You have to doubly and triply contain any liquids or substances you might be using for research in space, and the ACT2 does that. With the lack of gravity, a single drop that leaks out could float anywhere in the vehicle and be ingested by the crew; that's not good," says Boling. "We're trying to do as much analysis in space as possible. In the past, payloads were mostly brought back to Earth. If you can avoid that, then you get your data much faster and can repeat tests much faster while still in space." Listen
A second $750,000 NASA contract will fund the development of the MVP, a device about the size of a microwave that contains twin centrifuges. A basic tool for all science labs, Boling compares a centrifuge to a tiny carousel that spins to separate components in a sample. The MVP will also be able to spin at various speeds to replicate the gravity of the moon, Mars, or even an asteroid. Listen
Boling says this is an important tool to investigate the effects of gravity on living things, such as why diseases are more virulent in space and drugs less effective—an important hurdle to clear if astronauts are to undergo the long journey to Mars, which recently took NASA's Mars rover about eight months to complete.
"When astronauts go into space, they lose bone mass. Their bones essentially shrink up, they're more susceptible to diseases, and their bones are weaker; could an astronaut crew function properly when they reach the surface of Mars after such a long trip?" says Boling. "We have to figure out a way to provide drug treatments that are effective, such as making bones stronger for astronauts in space. If you're on Earth and have osteoporosis, you care a lot about what drugs might be effective for those astronauts, because they could be effective for you."
Boling says Techshot's diverse portfolio, including commercial work for Indiana life sciences companies such as FAST Diagnostics and Prosolia, Inc., has helped prepare it for the new space projects.
"Most people know us from the space flight work, and less is known about our commercial development work," says Boling. "We feel like each project informs the other; even though there might not be a one-to-one technology transfer, our saw gets sharpened with this NASA work. The tolerances are very tight, and failure is not an option. We believe our commercial customers benefit from our saw being sharpened with the NASA work."
The contracts call for "high fidelity" prototypes of the two devices. If successful, Techshot will then create space flight-ready versions of the ACT2 and MVP—two tools designed for space that could unravel certain scientific mysteries on Earth.