With five minutes until launch, the high clouds begin drifting away. NASA began fueling the rocket 30 minutes earlier, and the final safety checks are underway. Several team members are watching NASA TV’s broadcast on their cell phones, while others are fixated on the launch pad five miles away.
The pageantry typically surrounding a rocket launch is subdued by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Kennedy Space Center has closed its gates to outside observers — leaving a scattering of research teams spanned across the property to observe the launch.
When UF’s experiment plugs into the International Space Station, an automated tissue chip system will feed nutrients to 3D muscle bundles four times a day. Tiny electrodes built into the chips allow scientists to study muscle contractions, while a microscope camera system moves on a rail above the chips collecting images and data.
The experiment features 16 skeletal muscle cells loaded onto the chips. Half the cells were biopsied from a young cohort under 40, while the other half were collected from adults over 60. Additionally, half the cells in each group will receive electronic stimulation prompting muscle contractions, while the others will not.
“We want to see if there is a difference between young and old cells over time and compare how the cells react to electronic stimulation,” said Shelby Giza, a biological scientist in the UF College of Pharmacy and project scientist for the space research mission. “When the cells return from space, we’ll run the same experiment on the ground, so we can compare results between Earth and microgravity.”
At 11:17 a.m., the countdown clock reaches zero and plumes of smoke emerge from the 215-foot-tall Falcon 9. The rocket lifts with a trail of fire thrust from its nine engines. The anxiety-filled final moments before launch transition into a sense of celebration, as a wave of relief overwhelms Malany and the team. They watch intently as Falcon 9 ascends higher and higher, until the rocket’s only visible reminder is the trail of smoke streaking across the sky.
“It’s been challenging and nerve-wracking these last few months, and the team has put in long hours to get us to this point,” Malany said minutes after the launch. “But it’s exciting to know our experiment is now on a rocket bound for the International Space Station.”
SpaceX’s Dragon cargo ship would arrive at the space station the next day. Malany’s experiment has reached its final destination and the microgravity experiment is about to begin.