‘Outrageous experience’: Researchers recall pioneering experiments on Soviet space station

Drs. Roland Strong and Barry Stoddard were part of the first U.S. group to launch scientific experiments 25 years ago on the Soviet space station
Dr. Roland Strong, left, and Dr. Barry Stoddard
Twenty-five years ago this month, scientific experiments by Dr. Roland Strong, left, and Dr. Barry Stoddard, and other team members became the first-ever commercial American cargo launched up to the Soviet space station Mir. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

If you know just where to look, you can find two pieces of the Soviet space shuttle on the campus of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

They’re ceramic heat-shield tiles from the Buran shuttle, glued to the bases of plastic models of a Soviet rocket and sold two decades ago as souvenirs by a space program hard up for cash. They now sit in the offices of Fred Hutch basic scientists Drs. Barry Stoddard and Roland Strong, amidst the piles of scientific papers, potted houseplants and other detritus of a researcher’s office, where they serve as mementos of the time the two of them were part of a team that made space history.

Twenty-five years ago this month, Stoddard, Strong and their team members working with the U.S. company Payload Systems, Inc. launched the first-ever commercial American cargo up to the Soviet space station Mir, an event that gained global attention and helped to open up international collaboration with the transforming Soviet space program. 

Box containing crystallization experiment
Dr. Roland Strong keeps mementos of his experience with science in space in his office on the Fred Hutch campus, including this box containing crystallization experiments. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service
Crystallization Experiment Slideshow

The group launched a total of three experiments on Mir from 1989 through 1993 as the Soviet Union split apart and birthed a series of independent nations.

“All the science worked, but the science isn’t what sticks out in my head, it’s just sort of the magnitude of being in the middle of that situation in that particular moment in history,” Stoddard said.

Crystals against cancer

Today, many would be surprised to hear that space exploration has anything to do with cancer research. But beginning in 1983, millions were spent to blast molecular experiments into near-Earth orbit in the pursuit of cures for cancer and other diseases.

The experiments had the potential to “lead to innovative new drugs to combat cancer, AIDS, high blood pressure, organ transplant rejection, rheumatoid arthritis and many other diseases,” said a NASA release quoted in a 1989 New York Times feature on microgravity crystallization.

The hope was that the microgravity environment of an orbiting spacecraft would make it easier to turn proteins into protein crystals. Coaxing protein molecules into forming crystals is a tricky business, but an indispensable step in the process of figuring out a protein’s 3-D structure. Knowing the structure of a protein involved in disease means — at least theoretically — that one can design a drug to switch it on or off.

But “the hard part of the process is getting those damn little protein crystals,” Strong said.

If loosening the strings of gravity could help crystals form, or even create crystals that would be impossible on Earth, would pharmaceutical companies pay for access to microgravity to fuel their drug research?

Payload Systems, Inc. wanted to find out. By the mid-1980s, the Wellesley, Massachusetts-based company was the largest in the world dedicated to facilitating research in space. On behalf of its clients, which included some of the biggest U.S. corporations, it helped researchers conduct their experiments in the microgravity of the U.S. space shuttle and on reduced-gravity, parabolic-flight aircraft (better known as “vomit comets”).

But the grounding of the Space Shuttle program after the Challenger accident in 1986 threw the young company for a loop.

“We were looking at that time for what we could do. We didn’t know how long it was going to last. We were just trying to save the business,” said Payload co-founder Dr. Anthony Arrott. That’s when the company decided to get into the microgravity crystallization business, Arrott said — and to try to do it on Mir, whose long orbit might make it more suitable for crystal growth than the relatively short Shuttle flights.

To help them, the company approached three graduate-student protein crystallographers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Stoddard, Strong and their labmate Greg Farber.

The trio was skeptical at first.

“We hated the idea of microgravity crystallization. And we told Payload Systems up front, ‘We think this is a waste of money,’” said Strong. 

The group was especially dubious about the claims being made about the quality of the crystals grown in microgravity, remembers Farber, who is now the director of the Office of Technology Development and Coordination at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. “I think we all thought it was a little crazy. It’s a big undertaking to develop hardware” for these experiments, he said.

Despite their reservations, the three scientists decided to sign on, for essentially no pay, for two reasons.

First was the opportunity to investigate the potential of microgravity in protein crystallization from an unbiased perspective. “We were the only group of actual skeptical inquirers doing this,” said Strong.

But for three young men who were born during the Space Race and came of age in a time when half of the Northern Hemisphere was obscured in the shadow of the Iron Curtain, there was a second important reason, said Strong: “If somebody asks you if you want to do experiments on the Soviet space station, you say ‘yes’!”

The politics of the deal

With Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms parting open the curtain, Payload Systems had already been quietly negotiating a contract since 1987 with the Soviets for the launch.

Getting the necessary approvals from the U.S. government to work with the Soviet Union required some political finesse, as recounted by space-industry veteran Jeffrey Manber in his memoir “Selling Peace.”

Manber, then an official in the Department of Commerce’s Office of Space Commerce, helped get the company the necessary export license while keeping it secret from the Department of State and NASA, agencies that were opposed to greater U.S. collaboration with the Soviet space program.

The wider U.S. government learned of the historic deal by reading about it in a front-page New York Times exclusive after the license was issued, Manber wrote.

“For the first time an American company has contracted to have the Soviet Union carry Western commercial payloads into orbit,” the Times announced in February 1988. The story was immediately picked up by news outlets around the country, and a “shocked” Florida congressman, Bill Nelson, threatened to “do everything we can to prevent the experiment from flying.”

But the permit was legal. The experiment flew.

A momentous launch

The historic launch was scheduled for December 20, 1989, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

“Not very many Westerners even knew where that was, let alone got to stand there,” Strong said about the renowned space facility. Located in then-Soviet Kazakhstan, the cosmodrome was the starting point for the momentous journeys of both Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space.

After arriving at Baikonur, the scientists used the days before the launch to prepare their crystallization experiments. They carried out their work under the watch of the large retinue of Soviet officials accompanying them.

“We used to joke, ‘Which one of these guys do you think is the KGB agent?’,” said Stoddard, who recalled how the Americans were accompanied by an armed guard if they needed to walk down the hall from the workroom to the restroom.

Despite the close observation, they also found camaraderie with the Soviets.

“The Russians just believe that you really don’t know someone until you’ve done serious drinking with them,” Stoddard said.

Strong remembers that brought particular challenges. “There were a lot of hardships in dealing with this. My liver is not young enough to do it nowadays, let’s put it that way.”

He noted that the usual beverage on the technically dry military base was industrial 95 percent ethanol.

Somehow, they made it through to the launch day.

The base was shrouded in deep fog. From where the team stood, the fires of the Soyuz rocket engines were not even visible. Nevertheless, the unmanned Progress vehicle carried their experiment to Mir, where, two days later, the cosmonauts brought their first-ever American experimental payload from the docked Progress into the station.

The hardware was specially designed and tested by the American team to be simple enough for non-crystallographer cosmonauts to operate and hardy enough to withstand temperature fluctuations, changes in gravity and the hard landing back on Earth. The hardware contained 112 separate crystallization experiments using proteins of specific scientific interest to the American crystallographers and others that were easy-to-crystallize controls.

The cosmonauts placed the experiments in the station’s scientific module, near the axis of the station’s rotation to minimize disturbances. Then, they lifted plungers and unscrewed screws to open gates inside the enclosed crystallization hardware, allowing the proteins to come into contact with a liquid that encouraged the formation of crystals. There the proteins sat, crystallizing in microgravity for 56 days, until a cosmonaut brought the hardware back to Earth, cradled carefully in his lap all the way down.

The scientists were later told that when the landing vehicle reached Earth at 7:30 a.m. on Feb. 19, 1990, the team’s crystallization hardware was the first thing the cosmonaut handed out of the door.

A changing nation

The winter of the team’s historic first launch was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union, with revolutions and demonstrations roiling the Communist states of Eastern Europe. By the time the team travelled to their second launch in January 1992, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, and the scientists arrived to find a radically transformed Russia with McDonald’s and new Western hotels.

But life at the cosmodrome had gotten much rougher, Stoddard said. The base’s utilities had been cut off due to a payment dispute with now-independent Kazakhstan, and each day every resident was issued one bucket of water — for all personal needs — from a tanker truck.

This transformation is how the Americans ended up taking home pieces of the Soviet space shuttle, which was grounded after flying to orbit only once in 1988.

“They just started literally taking off pieces of it and selling it for 50 bucks a pop for anybody who wanted a souvenir,” said Stoddard. “That sort of says everything you need to know.”

However, like their first launch in 1989, the team’s second experimental launch went off successfully, on a bitterly cold but beautifully clear day.

But while Payload launched a third crystallization experiment from the cosmodrome the following year, the protein crystallographers — who were starting independent careers and wary of travel conditions in Russia — didn’t go back. And as 1993 came to an end, Payload Systems decided to stop doing business with the Russians, due to the increasingly chaotic environment.

A promised revolution in drug design fizzles out

After each mission, the protein crystals were brought back to the U.S. for X-ray diffraction to analyze the structures they had formed. Over all three missions, the Payload team tested dozens of different proteins, the researchers recall.

The results were never dramatic: Some crystals grew a little better or differently in microgravity than on Earth, some grew about the same, and a few grew worse. And the team’s results were similar to those of multiple previous experiments conducted on the shorter flights of the U.S. space shuttle, they reported.

In reviewing the entire field of microgravity crystallization that year, Stoddard, Farber and Strong wrote, “Ten years of microgravity crystallization experiments, covering over 100 protein species and using several different microgravity platforms, indicates that there has yet to be a single crystallization which has yielded any major improvement, leading to significant structural information, which could not be attained through ground-based methodologies at lower cost.”

Nevertheless, research by other groups continued on microgravity protein crystallization. In fact, in the late 1990s, Stoddard consulted for NASA, which was considering installing X-ray diffraction facilities for analyzing the results of crystallization experiments on the International Space Station. Although the idea for permanent diffraction equipment on the ISS was scrapped, protein crystallization experiments are still conducted on the ISS today.

With the caveat that they are no longer intimately involved in microgravity research, Strong and Stoddard today say that they still are not aware of any important protein structures that have been solved because of microgravity.

A legacy in space and in life

Although the microgravity crystallization experiments failed to revolutionize protein crystallography or drug design, Payload Systems’ launch of these experiments on Mir helped to open the Soviet space program up to the commercial investment that nation had been seeking.

Mir itself was deorbited in 2001, outlasting the Soviet Union that built it. It broke up in a “dazzling” display of fire, rocking Fiji with sonic booms as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and plummeted into the Pacific, taking with it 15 years of history. Today, the Russians are responsible for a segment of the much-larger ISS, which they jointly operate with NASA and three other space agencies.

By the time Mir was destroyed, Strong and Stoddard had well-established labs at Fred Hutch, to which they arrived a year apart in the early 1990s. At the Hutch, the two dedicated their research to analyzing the structures and functions of vital biological proteins, from enzymes that catalyze important chemical reactions to components of the immune system.

And although their research no longer takes place in microgravity, pieces of Soviet space history live on in Strong’s and Stoddard’s offices, just as these two scientists’ long-ago, history-making experiences made a permanent impact on their minds.

“The whole thing was just such an outrageous adventure, because I was really young at the time, and so was Roland, and — especially when we went the first time — the Cold War was still running full blast,” Stoddard said. “And to just all of a sudden to be put on a plane and go to Moscow and then to Kazakhstan, to participate in their space program, it was just so outrageous, from top to bottom, to get to do something like that.”

The two of them “pull these stories out every so often to entertain our labs,” Strong said. But it’s not just the stories of meeting cosmonauts and drinking with KGB agents that stuck, he added. “There are a lot of bigger career and life lessons in that, too, if you have an open mind that is capable of stepping back and seeing what the lesson is,” he said.

Susan Keown is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Before joining Fred Hutch in 2014, Susan wrote about health and research topics for a variety of research institutions, including the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reach her at skeown@fhcrc.org.

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