University of Florida scientist to fly on Blue Origin suborbital mission

University of Florida Distinguished Professor Rob Ferl will be the first NASA-funded academic researcher to conduct an experiment as part of a commercial space crew on an upcoming mission of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket.

Ferl, who is also director of UF’s new space institute, has spent his career studying how biology responds to spaceflight, progressing from experiments in his Gainesville lab to parabolic flight tests to projects on the space shuttle and the International Space Station.

Now, funded through a grant from NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, Ferl has an opportunity to personally conduct experiments on how the transition to and from microgravity impacts gene expression in cells and, more broadly, to develop protocols for future “researcher-tended” suborbital flights.

“The University of Florida is committed to the mission of space exploration and research,” UF President Ben Sasse said. “The discoveries that will result from this work will be breathtaking. We’re proud of Rob, grateful for our partners, and excited about the work ahead.” 

Ferl and colleague Anna-Lisa Paul, also a professor of horticultural sciences, have spent their careers seeking to understand plant gene expression in microgravity, but most of their experiments have been done by astronauts in space. As Paul puts it, on launches to the space station, astronauts now generally fly separately from science payloads, meaning that science is done “in space” and not “on the way to space.”

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket offers scientists like Ferl the opportunity to conduct science throughout the transition from gravity to microgravity and back.

“As commercial space programs have advanced and access to space has become more available, I always hoped I might be able to conduct our experiments myself in microgravity,” said Ferl. “I feel very grateful for this opportunity. After years, decades even, of working with astronauts to conduct our experiments, it's an honor to be at the forefront of researchers conducting their own experiments in space.”

Ferl and Paul helped develop experimental devices called Kennedy Space Center Fixation Tubes, or KFTs, that quickly and safely mix test materials (in this case, a model plant called Arabidopsis thaliana) and preservative solutions to “fix” a moment of gene expression so researchers can study what was happening at different stages of the flight. KFTs are often used on the space station to safely and effectively handle solutions in a microgravity environment.

On the New Shepard flight, Ferl will activate KFTs at four different points in the mission: prior to launch, upon reaching microgravity, at the end of the weightless period as the vehicle begins its descent, and upon landing. New Shepard reaches an apogee above the Kármán line, the internationally recognized boundary of space (62 miles/100 km). On the ground, Paul and members of the UF Space Plants lab team will receive information from the flight that will trigger four identical “control” KFTs. After the mission, the team will bring all the plant samples back to their lab in Gainesville for analysis.

“The successful use of KFTs enables a wide range of biological experiments in suborbital space, as any biology that can fit inside the KFTs can be sampled at any phases of flight chosen, in real time, by the scientist astronaut,” Ferl said.

Blue Origin has not yet announced the full crew or target launch date for Ferl’s flight. New Shepard launches from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One near Van Horn, Texas.

Joseph Kays April 19, 2024