SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Experiment Design FAQ

Information added or updated since this page went live on September 26, 2016, is in GREEN TEXT below.

Last update of this page: September 26, 2016, 2:21 pm ET

This FAQ is specifically for the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS Flight Opportunity.

To launch this FAQ, we gathered all questions from the FAQs for the previous SSEP flight opportunities that are also relevant to Mission 11, and modified as appropriate to reflect any new information and requirements introduced with Mission 11. This FAQ is updated as questions are received by the SSEP team that relate to all aspects of flight experiment design, e.g., questions regarding how to think about the experiment opportunity, the operation of the mini-laboratory to be used, constraints on experiment design such as the fluids and solids that can be used in an experiment, and the milestones and due dates associated with the flight experiments. These are topics generally addressed on the Designing the Flight Experiment page, the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Mini-Laboratory Operation page, and the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Critical Timeline page.

To submit a question to the SSEP Team, use the Contact Us page, or send an email to


A. Experiments in Microgravity

Q1: Is there a list of microgravity experiments, with descriptions, that have been flown by other student teams?
Descriptions of experiments flown by student teams during previous SSEP flight opportunities can be found on the Experiments Selected for Flight pages. Some general ideas on the kinds of experiments that could be flown in the mini-laboratory used for this flight opportunity are described in the Microgravity Experiment Case Studies document, which is available in the Document Library.

Important caution when Exploring the Experiments Selected for Flight pages:
 Student Teams are encouraged to read summaries of all the flight experiments selected to date. However, these pages list summaries for all 3 finalist experiments submitted to NCESSE by each community, for review by the SSEP National Step 2 Review Board. The Review Board found that many finalist experiments had a critical design flaw that precluded them from being selected as the flight experiment. A common example was a biological sample that would clearly not survive to get to orbit as proposed, and the experiment would fail. These were therefore designated honorable mention experiments. Your student teams should therefore only consider the summaries for the selected flight experiments when exploring the range of possible SSEP experiments.

Q2: How much shaking will the mini-laboratory experience during launch and reentry? Is it similar to bad turbulence aboard an airplane?
Shaking at liftoff and during landing can be severe. Describing the effect of liftoff, astronauts have reported that it is very different from “bad” turbulence because unlike in an aircraft in turbulence, you are shaking and pulling a couple of g’s. The term “g” is used to describe the acceleration you can experience due. If you are standing on the surface of the Earth, you are experiencing the standard 1g – just the acceleration due to gravity, and the force on you is termed your “weight”; if you are in freefall, you are experiencing 0g. But the typical acceleration aboard a ferry vehicle to ISS during liftoff is 3g due to a combination of both gravity and the acceleration of the vehicle, thus your body would experience a force 3 times your normal weight. The reentry environment is similar, though at its highest levels, the deceleration of the vehicle as it reenters the thicker atmosphere at high speed can cause a 4-5g environment for a couple of minutes. For your experiment design, however, there is no need to be overly concerned about the effect of liftoff or reentry on your experiment. While the liftoff and landing environment is memorable for the astronauts, they are not severe enough to be a significant concern for equipment and experiments aboard the spacecraft. The liftoff will not affect mixing of samples in the mini-laboratory, since the experiment volumes are not combined until after the payload is in the “quiet” environment of orbit, and during landing, it is not expected to have an effect on the experiment, either, since all experiment volumes have been combined and mixed in orbit already. For experiment design, the main concern about the landing is the fact that the gravity environment goes from the microgravity of orbit to the normal gravity of the Earth’s surface, which may or may not be an important consideration, depending on your experiment.


B. Samples (Fluids and Solids) that Can Be Used in the Experiment

Q1: What kind of samples can we use in our experiment?
The mini-laboratory used for the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS flight opportunity will have three levels of containment to protect crew, ferry vehicle, and ISS. This provides so much redundancy against an accidental leak that a great variety of samples (fluids and solids) can be used by a student team. However, there are four classes of restrictions on samples that can be used: 1) Prohibited Samples (must not be used), 2) Hazardous Samples (NanoRacks and NASA reserve the right to refuse, so must be reviewed in advance of proposal submission), 3) Problematic Samples (strongly advise the use of an alternative sample, if an alternative sample is not available submit for review ASAP as compatibility testing in a mini-lab with exact volumes and concentrations for the duration of the experiment on-orbit is likely to be required), and 4) Technology (must not be used). A comprehensive overview of each of these four classes is found on  the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Mini-Lab Operation page, Section 6.1. Also, all human samples, such as blood, will need to be tested for Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, HIV-1, HIV-2, HTLV-1, and HTLV-2.

Q2: Can we send food to space in our experiment?
All foods are likely not associated with any of the Prohibited Samples, and would clearly not be considered Technology. But the food samples would still need to be assessed as to whether they might be a Hazardous Sample or a Problematic Sample. An overview of these classes of restricted samples is found on the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Mini-Lab Operation page, Section 6.1.

Q3: Can you tell us if we can use MRSA bacteria [or another pathogenic organism] in our experiment? If not, what could we use instead?
It would need to be determined if the pathogenic organism is a Hazardous Sample that would not be allowed to fly. NanoRacks and NASA reserve the right to refuse fluids/solids based on hazard level. All student teams proposing experiments are therefore advised to consider carefully the level of hazard posed by the samples they are planning to use. If your experiment is making use of something that is known to be hazardous, NCESSE advises you to alert us as soon as the potential hazard is identified as part of your experiment brainstorming so that we can have NanoRacks assess the hazard and any potential impact on NASA Flight Safety Review. Examples of hazardous samples include biologicals with a designated BioSafety Level (BSL) of 2 or higher. MRSA happens to be a BSL-2. This is covered in detail on the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Mini-Lab Operation page, Section 6.1.

Whether you want to use MRSA in your experiment or go with a suitable substitute will depend on how important you think using that particular bacteria is for your experiment. What you could use as a substitute depends on the specific question you want to address. If you want to study the growth of bacteria in general under different environmental conditions, or the resistance of bacteria to antibiotics, you could use many commonly available bacteria for this purpose; for example, many previous SSEP experiments have used E. coli for bacterial studies. You may want to contact microbiologists in universities or research laboratories in your area to see if they might be able to help you make the final decision and act as science advisors in general. You also may want to check out bacteria experiments flown during previous SSEP flight opportunities; see the Experiments Selected for Flight page for more information on previously flown SSEP experiments.

Q4: Can we fly a BSL-2 biological?
Researchers cannot use infectious biologicals (anything above a BSL-2 Moderate) as the NanoRacks mini-lab design cannot accommodate anything above BSL-2 Moderate. Anything above a BSL-1 is likely to take more work from NanoRacks, NCESSE and your community. Anything above a BSL-2 Moderate is not acceptable in any situation.  Note: All biologicals are assessed by the NASA BioSafety Review Board on a case-by-case basis for every flight. Even though a biological may not be hazardous on ground, it may be hazardous in space and could be classified in such a way that it cannot be flown in the mini-lab. It is requested that any BSL-2 biologicals be provided to NanoRacks as soon as they are identified to begin the review/approval process.


C. Fluids Mixing Enclosure (FME) Mini-laboratory Operation

Q1: What is the temperature of the FME while the experiment is being conducted on ISS?
The experiments in the SSEP payload will experience the ambient conditions of the ISS, with a temperature of 21-24°C (70-75°F) – a shirtsleeve environment. During transport to ISS, student teams can request refrigeration for their FME. See the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Mini-Laboratory Operation page, Section 6.4, for more information about the expected temperatures across the different transport legs and aboard ISS for this flight opportunity.

Q2: Can the experiment be videotaped while it is aboard the ISS?
Unfortunately no. There can be no request for the astronaut to: observe what is happening in the FME; take notes; photograph the FME; or videotape the FME. See the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Mini-Laboratory Operation page, Section 5.2 “Allowed Crew Interactions for Mission 11 to ISS” and Section 6.5 “Other FME Constraints”.

Q3: Is it necessary to mix the substances in space? Or can the substances be mixed on Earth, to ensure that they are mixed properly, and then compare the Earth results to the space results?
You do not have to mix the substances in space; it is perfectly fine to mix the materials when you load the FME. But your experiment still needs to be designed so that on return to Earth, after your team harvests both the flight and ground experiments, a comparison of the two allows you to determine the role of gravity by seeing differences between the experiment conducted in gravity (on Earth) and the experiment conducted in the seeming absence of gravity (on ISS).

Q4: Can the experiments be cooled or heated aboard the ISS?
The Fluid Mixing Enclosures (FMEs) containing the student experiments will experience the ambient conditions of the ISS, with a temperature of 21-24°C (70-75°F). The FMEs cannot be heated aboard the ISS, and at the moment there is no refrigeration available aboard the station. Refrigeration is available for transportation of the SSEP payload to ISS. See the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Mini-Laboratory Operation page, Section 6.4 for more information on expected temperatures.

Q5: Can anything be measured while the experiments are on the ISS (like heart rate, rate of growth, etc…)?
Unfortunately, no. There can be no request for the astronaut to: observe what is happening in the FME; take notes; photograph the FME; or videotape the FME. There is also no means of active data acquisition on ISS for SSEP experiments. Only your team can make measurements, and at two times: before you ship the sealed FME to Houston, and after it has been returned to you after the flight. See the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Mini-Laboratory Operation page, Section 5.2 “Allowed Crew Interactions for Mission 11 to ISS” and Section 6.5 “Other FME Constraints”.

Q6: Is there a location where experiments can be placed outside of the ISS (like for exposure to cosmic radiation)?
No, the FMEs will be inside the ISS crew cabin during their stay on the station, and so the payload will be exposed to the ambient radiation (and other) environment inside the station. Note, however, that the radiation levels even inside the ISS are higher than on the ground, so it might not be necessary to consider placing the experiment outside the station, even if it were possible. It has been estimated that the typical daily radiation dose to the astronauts aboard the ISS is approximately equivalent to what they would receive on the surface of the Earth for a year of exposure to natural sources other than radon.

Q7: Can a direction of light or a length of exposure to a light source be specified for the experiment?
No, there is no onboard light source and the FMEs are housed in an opaque payload box and only removed from the box during crew interaction times on the 5 designated crew interaction days. See the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Mini-Laboratory Operation page, Section 6.5 “Other FME Constraints”.

Q8: Can chemicals be used to create a reaction to heat materials within the FME?
Unfortunately, no. Fluids/solids that when mixed result in excess heat and/or pressure inside the tube, can lead to loss of containment. Any experiment that causes an exothermic reaction may be deemed unsafe for flight, and not pass NASA Flight Safety Review. In addition, fluids/solids can also be rejected if there is evidence that excess heat – even chemically generated light – can adversely impact other FMEs that share the payload box on ISS. This is fully detailed on the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Mini-Laboratory Operation page, Section 6.1.

Q9: Exactly how much of a sample can we put inside each experiment volume of the FME?
You can use the dimensions and volumes for different types of FMEs provided in Section 6.2 of the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Mini-Laboratory Operation to assess how much of each sample you can place inside the different experiment volumes of the FME. Note that you can vary the volumes available in the silicone tube by placing the clamp(s) at an appropriate location along the tube.

Q10: Can astronauts extract a liquid out of the FME or add a sample into it on orbit?
Unfortunately, no. Once NanoRacks receives the flight-ready FME, they will heat seal two polyethylene bags around it to serve as a second and third level of containment, load the sealed FME in the Payload Box, and deliver the entire payload to NASA for integration into the launch vehicle. The FME will remain inside the bags until it returns to Earth, so there is no way for astronauts to manipulate the samples inside the bag while the experiment is on orbit. Otherwise the three levels of containment would be breached, comprimising this important flight safety aspect. More information on the operation of the FME mini-laboratory can be found on the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Mini-Laboratory Operation page.

Q11: Can we request that the astronaut invert the tube, or stand the tube upright to allow fluids to drain between volumes? 
Fluid behavior in a microgravity environment is different than what is exhibited here on Earth. On Earth, if one imagines a tube as wide as the FME holding a fluid, then turning it vertically, the fluid would flow to the bottom of the tube. But that is due to the action of gravity. In space there is no such fluid flow. There is no experienced force of gravity. To the fluid there is no up or down in a microgravity environment. Thus no orientation of the tube will assist with mixing or draining. Mixing should be accomplished through a request for the astronaut to shake the tube.


D. Experiment Design

Q1: We wonder if it would be worthwhile to do an experiment investigating the behavior of plant cell walls [or another science topic] in microgravity.
This question is more about framing the essential question to be answered by an experiment, and the basic rationale for designing an experiment, rather than how the mini-laboratory works or the constraints on its operation. NCESSE cannot provide suggestions for experiments, but we can offer the following advice:

i.) You should check out experiments flown during previous SSEP opportunities to see if experiments similar to what you have in mind (e.g. dealing with plant cell walls) were flown by other student teams. To do this, see the Experiments Selected for Flight pages. But a word of caution – these pages list summaries for all 3 finalist experiments submitted to NCESSE by each community for review by the SSEP National Step 2 Review Board. The Review Board found that many finalist experiments had a critical design flaw that precluded them from being selected as the flight experiment. A common example was a biological sample that would clearly not survive to get to orbit as proposed, and the experiment would fail. These were therefore designated honorable mention experiments. You should therefore only consider the summaries for the selected flight experiments when exploring the range of possible SSEP experiments.

ii.) You should make connections with plant biologists (or experts in whatever science topic you are considering) and discuss what kind of specific question could be addressed by your experiment within the operating constraints of the mini-laboratory to be used. Familiarize them with the mini-lab, and the documents available in the Document Library, so they can help you noodle around.

You may not be able to identify such a researcher in your local area. But in the age of Skype, researchers serving as advisors to student teams do not have to be local. NCESSE in fact urges EVERY TEAM to seek out national – even international – experts in the specific area of research the team is proposing. An easy approach is to do a Google SCHOLARS search on the specific topic. Refereed (scholarly) research publications in the scientific literature will come up, with authors listed together with their home institutions – typically a university. The student team can then go to that university’s website and look up the researcher’s contact email and phone number in the university’s online directory. The team can then contact the researcher, in fact can contact multiple researchers. Most researchers will bend over backwards to help, and you can set up a Skype video-conference, or just an old fashioned teleconference.

A helpful hint – when doing a Google Scholars search, set the search parameter to only search literature going back a couple of years to limit the search to recent research. Google Scholar can be found here:

More information about reaching out to local and national experts can be found on the To Teachers – How To Move Forward page.

Q2: We are wondering how organisms can survive in the FME for such a long period of time?
One of the central elements of designing a successful biological experiment for a SSEP flight opportunity is to make sure the organisms are still viable and active during the time the experiment is conducted in microgravity. The experiment design needs to take into account that it will take several weeks to transport the FME from the student team to the ISS, and the mini-laboratory will stay aboard the ISS for several weeks. One way to address this issue is to have the organisms in some dormant form until they are activated aboard the station. A document titled Using Biologicals in SSEP Experiments: Dormant Forms, Fixatives and Growth Inhibitors located in the Document Library discusses these aspects of biological experiment design. As discussed in the document, we recommend that student teams designing biological experiments contact professional researchers in nearby colleges and research labs, or nationally (see the answer to Section D, Q1 above). These researchers can, among other things, help decide the best dormant forms of samples to use, and the best methods to activate them in orbit.

Note that a dormant form may not be available for the biological sample you would like to use. There in fact may be another way to, e.g., slow down metabolism, and maintain viability until the experiment gets to orbit. More generally, understanding how to ensure that an organism will be viable until in orbit is an important part of the experiment design process. The answer may be that a particular organism cannot be used, or a particular experiment concept needs to be abandoned. But this is real science. Professional researchers must always figure out a way to answer the specific question within the constraints of the experiment apparatus made available to them, or recognize that the experiment cannot be done in the available apparatus.

Q3: What has been done in the past with experiments that require an oxygen level to maintain life, e.g., a crustacean or an embryo? Are there past examples of the oxygen concentration in the bag and to what degree it will decrease over the 10 week period?
Regarding oxygen, the volumes available in the mini-lab are what you have to work with. Any teams exploring if enough oxygen is present for their biological experiment need to research oxygen requirements and ‘use rate’ relative to what they put in the mini-lab. An important way to do this is to reach out to researchers who are experts for that organism, e.g., as was suggested via a Google Scholar search (see the answer to Section D, Q1 above).

Also note that biologicals are often fixed (killed and preserved) before de-orbit, which means that if an experiment needs oxygen, then one might fix before oxygen deprivation is reached, if such a point is indeed reached. For more information, see the document titled Using Biologicals in SSEP Experiments: Dormant Forms, Fixatives and Growth Inhibitors located in the Document Library.

Other important points:
i.) There is no accessible oxygen in the poly bags that are heat sealed around the tube. The only available oxygen is what is in the mini-lab tube.
ii.) When considering oxygen deprivation relative to samples used, students must also consider that crew interactions are only possible on the five available Crew Interaction Days. See Section 5 on the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Mini-Laboratory Operation page.

Q4: We are thinking of sending frozen samples in our experiment. Can we make sure the samples remain frozen until they reach the ISS?
Unfortunately, no. In fact, if you send samples that are at below-freezing temperatures in the FME, then the samples will likely be unfrozen even before they are incorporated in the payload and sent for launch. Once received in Houston, NanoRacks does not offer to place the mini-lab in a freezer, only a refrigerator. The reason is that once NanoRacks hands over the payload to NASA, NASA will only provide refrigeration through arrival at ISS. Instead of using samples that need to be kept at below-freezing temperatures, your team may want to think of other ways to preserve the samples, such as freeze-drying, or finding appropriate samples where refrigeration will do. More information on the expected temperature environments through arrival on ISS is found in Section 6.4 of the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Mini-Laboratory Operation page.

Q5: Is there a chance our samples could freeze during transportation to the ISS?
Yes, but only during transportation from your community to Houston, and from Houston back to your community. If you ship in winter via FedEx, the truck may be at below freezing temperatures.

The manner in which the FMEs are transported from Houston to launch, then to the ISS, and later back to Earth and to Houston is designed to keep the samples at 2ºC (35.6ºF) or above, which is above freezing. So, based on what we know of the transportation environment while the mini-lab is in the hands of NanoRacks and NASA, the samples should not experience freezing conditions, just possibly refrigerated ones. Aboard the International Space Station, the FMEs are expected to be at room temperature. More information on the expected temperature environments associated with the different transport legs is found in Section 6.4 of the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Mini-Laboratory Operation page.

Q6: What are the special handling requirements for different kinds of samples?
SSEP defines “Special Handling Requirements” as those specifically dealing with transport of the mini-lab to and from ISS. There are no special handling requirements allowed while the mini-lab is aboard ISS. Aboard ISS, there are only Allowed Crew Interactions (see Section 5.2 on the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Mini-Laboratory Operation page).

It is up to the student team to assess if there are Special Handling Requirements needed during transport, and they would need to be requested by the student team and approved by NanoRacks. Note, however, that Special Handling Requirements are likely limited to temperature (thermal) control. What is possible is addressed in Section 6.4 on the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Mini-Laboratory Operation page.  Also note, that during transportation via FedEx from your community NanoRacks, our flight services providers, the mini-lab will be exposed to the temperatures in the back of a FedEx truck.  In winter the temperatures could be quite cold, even freezing.  In summer, those temperatures can be quite warm, even hot like an oven.  It is important to consider how these temperatures may impact your experiment and plan/ship accordingly (e.g., with cold packs).

In a more general sense, if the samples you are planning to use require any special handling (such as special shipping requirements or permits; for example, some organisms cannot be shipped to schools, just to universities and research labs), these requirements are usually provided by the vendor from whom you are planning to obtain the sample.

Q7: Can you tell us the best samples to use for our experiment?
The SSEP program team at the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) cannot give opinions on the best samples to use, or make recommendations on other aspects of experiment design to a student team. We can say whether a particular sample can be used, .e.g., if it poses no hazard to the crew, ferry vehicles or ISS. We can say whether some  aspect of experiment design is possible given the constraints of the operation of the mini-laboratory. But we cannot suggest what might be the best samples to use or how to design some aspect of the experiment. For example, we can explain the kinds of thermal controls that are available during transportation, but cannot suggest whether it would be a good idea for the experiment to use these controls.

The justification for what we can and cannot do is that NCESSE will have to make the final selections of the experiments that will fly from each community. We would have a huge conflict of interest if we offered advice on best experiment design to one student team, and not to a completing team, since, basically, we would be participating in the actual experiment design at that point!

Instead, two good ways to look for suggestions on best samples to use or the best ways to design a particular aspect of your experiment is to: i.) read about past experiments that may be similar to what you have in mind, and ii.) reach out to a researcher that has expertise in the kind of experiment and science you are exploring. Both these options are discussed at length in the answer to Section D, Q1 above.


E. Timeline for Experiments Aboard the International Space Station

Q1: Where can I find out information about the available times for astronauts to interact with our experiment?
You can find a description of the five available Crew Interaction Days in Section 5 of the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Mini-Laboratory Operation page.

Q2: Can we ask astronauts to manipulate the FMEs on any day during the stay of the payload aboard the ISS?
Unfortunately, no. You can only ask the astronauts to manipulate the FMEs on specific Crew Interaction Days, which are listed in Section 5 of the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Mini-Laboratory Operation page.

Q3: Can we ask the astronauts to manipulate the FMEs at a specific time during the day?
Unfortunately, no. The astronauts will work with the SSEP payload at a time that fits best in their work schedule on each day. The time at which the payload is handled may also change from one day to another.

Q4: If we’ll not know in advance when our FME is manipulated, when will we find out? How can we take this into account in our ground truth experiment?
Ground truth experiments – the control versions of the experiment conducted on Earth while the microgravity experiment is being conducted in orbit – are an essential part of analyzing the results of the flight experiment. Once the flight experiment returns to Earth, simultaneous harvesting and analysis of both the flight experiment and the ground truth experiments allows the research team to assess the role of gravity in the physical, chemical, or biological system under study. It is hard to imagine how the role of gravity can be determined without ground truth experiments conducted at the same time as the flight experiment.

Regarding on-orbit operations, once an astronaut interacts with the SSEP experiments on a specific Crew Interaction Day, (s)he will relay a description of what was done, and the specific time of the interactions, to Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, which oversees communications to orbit. Marshall will relay the information to NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. Johnson will then relay the information to NanoRacks, and NanoRacks will forward the information to the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE). NCESSE will then upload the details and specific time of the on-orbit interactions to the SSEP Experiment Log page, alert all student flight teams that interactions took place, and direct them to the Log page. As an example, see the Mission 8 to ISS: Experiment Log page.

The Log page is what enables the student teams to conduct their ground truth experiments. However, given the long chain of notifications from ISS to NCESSE, it can take up to 1 day (24 hours) for the details and time of interactions on orbit to be reported on the Log page. NCESSE therefore advises student flight teams to conduct their ground truth experiments with a 1 day (24 hour) delay in all interactions. This will allow teams to ensure that the timing of activities they carry out on their ground truth experiments accurately reflects the timing of activities with their experiment aboard the station. This is especially important for experiments that are sensitive to exact timing. For example, if a microbiological experiment is likely to produce different results depending on whether it is active for 40 or 50 hours, the teams will want to match the exact timing of the experiment aboard the station with their ground truth experiment.

Q5: Can we have our FME manipulated more than once on the same day?
Unfortunately, no. On a given Crew Interaction Day, an astronaut will conduct all interactions with the SSEP experiments payload during a single block of time, and will not return to the SSEP payload at a later time that day. The best that can be done is for the student team to introduce a “Wait’ for a prescribed number of seconds, but with the understanding that the astronaut cannot spend more than 120 seconds total on a specific mini-lab on a given Crew Interaction Day. For more details on the allowed “Wait” Crew Interaction, see Section 5.2 on the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Mini-Laboratory Operation page.

Q6: What if the undocking of the ferry vehicle from the station is delayed (or moved earlier) for some reason? Can we adjust the timeline for our experiment in this case to make sure it is performed as close to the return to Earth as possible?
Yes in principle. If the departure date of the return ferry vehicle is modified early enough (that is, the change in undocking time is not at the last minute such as after the SSEP payload has already been transferred to the transport vehicle), NanoRacks can request, and NASA will likely agree to a modification of the timeline for Crew Interaction Days to take into account the undocking modification. This has in fact happened. We would expect to get about two weeks notice of any change, which provides plenty of time for modifications to the timeline for Crew Interaction Days.


F. General Questions about Designing SSEP Experiments and Writing the Proposal

Q1: Do the student teams writing proposals need to test their experiment in advance, or do they just write the proposal, and only the winning group will test and conduct the experiment?
Each student team is writing an experiment proposal to try and secure the experiment slot aboard the ISS for their experiment, just like real scientists writing research proposals. Typically, scientists want to try and test their proposed experiment as much as possible before writing the actual proposal to make sure the experiment is viable. In fact, describing the tests in a proposal shows that the experiment is well thought out, and, since the basic operation of the experiment is now well understood, more likely to succeed. For the purposes of the SSEP, tests done by the student teams can answer simple questions such as “Do the samples fit in the FME experiment volumes?”, “Can I obtain the samples I need?”, “Will the seed germinate in the time the FME is aboard the ISS?” – questions that would not be possible to answer by just thinking about them. Therefore, while conducting test experiments before writing a proposal is not required, it is VERY HIGHLY recommended.

Q2: Will the student teams be given funds to test and conduct their experiments? Will the winning groups be given any money to purchase the experiment samples (fluids and solids) to conduct their experiment?
The costs for purchase of experiment samples (fluids and solids) for: a) all proposing teams to test their experiment designs before submission of proposals, b) the selected flight team to optimize their flight experiment before lock-in of the experiment’s flight configuration, and c) the actual flight and ground truth experiments, are borne by the participating community. This program requirement was provided to your community before joining SSEP, and is detailed on the SSEP Program Costs page.

However, here are some important considerations:

i.) We have found with the earlier SSEP flight opportunities that if you tell a vendor about the SSEP program, and your participation, they will most often bend over backwards to help you, often providing the fluids and solids at no or reduced cost. Also let the vendor know that NCESSE will be very happy to list them as a Local Partner for your community on the SSEP Community Profiles and Local Partners pages for your flight opportunity, and include a link to their website.

ii.) Given that the volumes of samples to be used in the FME are relatively small, the funds required for samples can be quite reasonable.

Q3: We have a question about page limit specifications for different sections of the proposal. Is the two-page limit for the “Question to be Addressed by the Experiment” section the minimum or maximum? We have the same question for the “Experiment Design” section – is the three-page limit a minimum or maximum?
Both of these are maximum limits; that is, the “Question to be Addressed by the Experiment” section must not be more than two pages, and the “Experiment Design” section must not be more than three pages long. However, it is strongly recommended that teams make good use of the page limits available.  Submitting just a few paragraphs for the “Question to be Addressed by the Experiment” or one page for the “Experiment Design” could be considered  incomplete by the Step 2 Review panel.

Q4: Are the proposals supposed to be written single- or double-spaced?
The proposal pages must be single-spaced. See the Flight Experiment Proposal Guide (downloadable from the Document Library) for more details on how to prepare your proposal, including other style requirements such as margins, font, and font size.

Q5:  Where can I find the review rubric that will be used by the Step 1 and Step 2 Review Boards when evaluating student proposals? The rubric is called the Proposal Evaluation Criteria, and is found in the Flight Experiment Proposal Guide: Background for Teachers document, which is downloadable from the Document Library.


G. Miscellaneous

Q1: Where can I get the username and password for the document library?
Your teacher can give you the username and password to access the Document Library. If your teacher does not have this information handy, she or he can contact your SSEP Community Program Director for the information.

Q2: How can I find information about my community’s participation in the SSEP program?
See the SSEP Community Profiles and Local Partners page for your SSEP Mission. It will include information about your community’s participation, including: the grade levels and total number of students engaged, the participating schools, your community’s strategic needs in STEM education and how SSEP can help address those needs, and the names and email addresses for your SSEP Community Program Directors.

Q3: While our vendor for our samples will be shipping them to our community, where our student flight team will incorporate the samples into the FME mini-lab, the vendor still needs to know the final destination for our experiment as a regulatory requirement. What is the final destination of our package? Do we need any kind of export permits to fly our samples to the International Space Station?
The student teams will ship the FME loaded with their samples to NanoRacks in Houston (for the exact shipping address, contact us at NanoRacks will incorporate the mini-laboratory into the SSEP payload and hand it over to NASA for vehicle integration. The final destination of the package is therefore NASA. Once NanoRacks payloads are accepted by NASA safety (on approval of the Phase III Safety Data Package) the payloads belong to NASA for these purposes. As part of the NASA manifest, the payloads are under the IGA (Inter-Governmental Agreement) covering the ISS, and no export is considered necessary.

Q4: Is there any way to access the results of previous SSEP experiments?
Unless a team publishes in a peered reviewed scholarly journal, which is not going to be the case for virtually all teams, there is no formal means to assess if what they conclude as results is scientifically correct. We therefore will not make results available in any formal way given the uncertainty in terms of the accuracy of those results. The only information that is made available are the videos of student presentations at the SSEP National Conference, but again there is no means to assess if the results being reported by those teams are accurate.


H. Required Information for Selected Flight Experiments

Q1: When and how are the Flight Experiments selected? What kind of information must we provide for a Tentatively Selected Experiment to be formally designated as a Flight Experiment?
The Step 2 Review Board will review the three finalist proposals from each community during a proposal review meeting on December 5 & 7, 2016, and will designate a Tentatively Selected Flight Experiment for each community. NCESSE is expected to notify the Community Program Directors and Teacher Facilitators in the participating communities of these Tentatively Selected Flight Experiments on December 9, 2016. The results are not announced publicly at that time.

For the Tentatively Selected Flight Experiment to be formally designated the Flight Experiment, the following actions are required –

i.) NCESSE will provide each community critical feedback from the Step 2 Review Board, including a list of any questions or comments that need to be fully addressed by the student team.

ii.) The student team will need to complete to the satisfaction of NCESSE and NanoRacks a formal document titled Flight Safety Review Form, which must be approved and accepted before the experiment can be designated the Flight Experiment. This Form requires full specificity for the samples to be used including name, source and/or brand, volumes, concentrations, and pH; proposed Timeline of Crew Interactions, which includes both the proposed Crew Interaction Days and proposed Crew Interactions; and any Special Handling Requirements during transport to and from ISS.

iii.) The student team must provide a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for each sample used in their experiment. A MSDS is a document that lists data about the properties of a substance; it is intended to provide information about any potential hazards associated with the material and describe any safety precautions that may need to be taken when handling the substance. If the teams are using human samples, they also must provide certification that the samples have been tested against the list of prohibited viruses.  MSDSs must be secured from the vendor providing the sample and must be dated within 5 years of launch.

This must all be completed by December 15, 2016, when NCESSE must hand over the Forms to NanoRacks for pass-through to NASA to initiate Flight Safety Review at the Toxicology Office at Johnson Space Center. Failure to meet this deadline will likely lead to the community forfeiting their flight to ISS.

This process requires the student flight teams to be exceedingly responsive to all the required actions, working through a weekend if needed, given there is less than 1 week from the time Tentatively Selected Flight Experiments are declared to the time when the Flight Experiments need to be declared.

The selected Flight Experiments cannot be formally announced by the communities until NanoRacks completes its internal review of the Flight Safety Review Forms, so December 15, 2016 is an estimated date.

All these milestones are covered on the SSEP Mission 11 to ISS: Critical Timeline page.

Q2: Are Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) required for all samples?
Yes, NASA Toxicology requires an MSDS for every sample to be flown in the experiment, even for samples that appear harmless, such as water. The tentatively selected experiment team must secure and submit to NCESSE an MSDS for every sample in their experiment, as long as the MSDSs are available. If you are having trouble locating the documents for all your samples, contact us at For those samples where an MSDS is not typically provided by the vendor, e.g., Tilapia fish eggs, NCESSE will provide the team the necessary guidance to submit the needed paperwork without undue burden.

The MSDSs need not be provided when the finalist proposals are sent to NCESSE for Step 2 Review, but they must be provided before a Tentatively Selected Flight Experiment can be formally declared a Flight Experiment.

Q3: Where can we find Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for our samples?
MSDSs should be secured from the vendor from which you purchase the sample as a downloadable PDF file. For everyday samples such as ‘water’, you can do an Internet search for “Material Safety Data Sheet” plus the name of  your sample, and you’re likely to find an MSDS in the search results.  If you are having trouble locating the documents for all your samples, contact us at

Q4: We understand that human samples, such as blood, need to be tested for Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, HIV-1, HIV-2, HTLV-1, and HTLV-2. Does this mean just primary human samples (samples taken recently from a human being, such as blood), or every kind of human sample, even if they are just samples derived from humans years ago, such as cell lines?
All human samples must be tested for these viruses, whether the samples are primary or derived from humans in the past.

Q5: What kind of certification is required to show that a human sample is free of Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, HIV-1, HIV-2, HTLV-1, and HTLV-2? Do we need to provide the actual test results from a medical laboratory?
A certification letter from the vendor providing the sample to the student team is sufficient. The certification letter needs to state that tests for the presence of these viruses in the sample to be used for the flight experiment have been conducted, and the sample is free of Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, HIV-1, HIV-2, HTLV-1, and HTLV-2. If a vendor cannot provide the certification for some reason, the student team must arrange for these tests to be conducted in a medical laboratory. The laboratory must then provide the required certification letter, but sending the actual testing results is not required.

CRITICAL NOTE: A certification letter must be received by NCESSE before a Tentatively Selected Flight Experiment can be formally designated the Flight Experiment. However, NCESSE must have all Flight Experiments designated by the December 15, 2016 deadline for submission of fluids and solids lists to NanoRacks for NASA Flight Safety Review – which is only 1 week after the Step 2 Review Board meets. In other words, a team submitting a finalist proposal to NCESSE cannot wait to first see if their experiment is designated a Tentatively Selected Flight Experiment before having their tests conducted – there will be no time for testing. If a team cannot get the required certification letter in advance of the deadline, the community will forfeit the flight opportunity to ISS. We therefore strongly advise any team submitting a finalist proposal for an experiment which proposes use of human samples to provide the certification letter at the same time they submit their finalist proposal to NCESSE, by November 16, 2016. If this is not possible, the community should strongly consider not submitting the proposal to NCESSE for Step 2 Review, and select another finalist proposal to forward.

Q6: In what kind of format do the MSDSs and certification letters for human samples need to be provided?
The documents must be provided electronically as PDF files; no hardcopies are accepted. In most cases, the MSDSs are available online as downloadable PDF files. In cases where the documents are available in another format, they can usually be converted easily to a PDF file (e.g., by printing to a PDF file instead of physically printing the document). If you have a document just as a hardcopy – for example, a certification letter provided by a medical laboratory – you can scan the document and save it as a PDF file. All required documents for the experiment must be submitted at the same time to NCESSE by the team’s Teacher Facilitator or the Community Program Director.


The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in the U.S., and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with NanoRacks LLC, working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory. SSEP is the first pre-college STEM education program that is both a U.S. national initiative and implemented as an on-orbit commercial space venture.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), and Subaru of America, Inc., are U.S. National Partners on the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. Magellan Aerospace is a Canadian National Partner on the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in the U.S., and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with DreamUp PBC and NanoRacks LLC, which are working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory. SSEP is the first pre-college STEM education program that is both a U.S. national initiative and implemented as an on-orbit commercial space venture.