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Behind the ScenesMeet the People

MAGE: John Uri
John Uri, shown here during a visit to the Payload Control Center at Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.

John Uri,
Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas

Leading International Space Station research is a "whirlwind"

July 25, 2002 - As a boy, John Uri, enchanted with humans’ first leap off the planet, built models of the first American rockets and spaceships.

Today, at 42, he still enjoys building models, but hasn’t found time to build a model of the International Space Station. As a lead scientist for the International Space Station, he’s been too busy directing scientific research aboard that orbiting outpost.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” said Uri, who works in the International Space Station (ISS) Payloads Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. “I always compare conducting science on the Space Station to having a dinner party at your house while it is still being built. Right now, we are at a place with science on the Space Station where we have served up the appetizers, and have started on the main course. But the kitchen is still being expanded with new facilities being added.”

Uri has served as the lead scientist for the International Space Station’s first four expeditions. Each research expedition lasts about four to six months, and science experiments being conducted aboard Space Station often continue through several expeditions. The Space Shuttle Endeavour’s STS-111 mission to the Station in June kicked off research on Expedition Five and was the 28th flight dedicated to assembling the Space Station. Including launch of the first Space Station element – the Zarya Control Module in late 1998 — there have been 28 trips to the Station, 14 by Russian spacecraft and 14 by U.S. Space Shuttles.

But even before the first expedition crew took up residence on the Station in November 2000, Uri was working with researchers around the world to prepare experiments and equipment for the first four research expeditions, each staffed by a different three-member Station crew.

From September 2000, when the first Expedition One experiments were delivered, to June 2002, when Expedition Four ended, Uri led the team responsible for executing 52 different investigations in a variety of scientific disciplines.

“Some of these investigations collected valuable medical information that will help humans safely live and work in space and will also improve treatments on Earth,” said Uri. “Others studied how the unique space environment affects materials, cells, and crystals. And of course, the vantage point of space was ideal for studying Earth.”

As a lead Space Station scientist, Uri made sure experiments were conducted as planned, and scientists were satisfied with the operations and results of their experiments. Although he is based in Texas, Uri works closely with the team at NASA’s Payload Operations Center – the command post for Space Station science activities at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. He is also in contact with numerous remote payload control centers and investigator teams throughout the country, as well as internationally.

During Uri’s tenure as lead scientist, the Station evolved dramatically. Only a handful of experiments were conducted on Expedition One. In February 2001, the Shuttle delivered the Destiny Laboratory — the bus-size, modular lab where most Station science activities take place. Five different three-member Space Station crews, with the help of many visiting Shuttle crews, have outfitted the laboratory with seven, floor-to-ceiling, telephone-booth-size, research racks that are filled with scientific equipment.

“Science really hit its stride on Expedition Four,” said Uri. “The crew spent more than 300 hours on U.S. research, conducting the most complex and diverse science agenda of any expedition to date. The Space Station is performing splendidly like a world-class laboratory in space.”

One of the important benefits of research on the Space Station is that scientists can conduct experiments over a longer period of time. Some investigations returned to Earth after the Space Shuttle’s visit to the Station in June were in orbit more than a year. Other experiments have grown several sets of cells, crystals or plants. The Shuttle has returned those samples to scientists on Earth, and delivered new samples to the Station for processing.

“The longer stays in space and the ability to send up new samples and build on what you are learning makes science inside the Station more like science in a world-class research institute on Earth,” Uri said. Since Zarya’s 1998 launch, the Space Station has been in orbit longer than the total flight time accumulated by all 110 Space Shuttle missions since 1981.

Why leave the planet to conduct research?

For one thing, you can’t beat the view of home. The Station crosses the same area of the planet every three days and covers more than 90 percent of the populated Earth. Astronauts have photographed fires, volcanoes and hurricanes. During the four-month Expedition Three research mission that ended in December 2001, astronaut Frank Culbertson even photographed the destruction on Sept. 11, 2001, in Lower Manhattan at the World Trade Center.

“In the past four decades, astronauts have taken nearly 400,000 images of Earth,” said Uri. “These images have helped Earth scientists track both long- and short-term changes, and both natural changes and human-induced changes like forest clear-cutting. And even school kids have remotely operated a camera and selected viewing targets for study from the Space Station.”

Students in dozens of schools across the United States selected hundreds of sites, and digital cameras on the Station took more than 1,200 images of Earth during Expedition Four alone. The images were sent from the Station to school Web sites, where students can use them for studies in geology and environmental science.

“As a student, I was inspired by the early space program, so I think it is great that the Space Station is actually giving students an opportunity to participate in experiments,” said Uri. “Students are experiencing what science is all about — and hopefully will be inspired like I was at their age.”

In addition to taking photos of Earth, more than 500 students and teachers have helped scientists in their labs by loading samples of biological substances into experiment equipment used to grow crystals on the Station. This biochemistry experiment and many other Station experiments study how the unique space environment changes chemical and physical processes that we take for granted on Earth. There is no place on Earth to perform research over long periods in microgravity – the low-gravity environment created as the Station travels around the planet at more than 17,000 mph.

“Microgravity changes everything,” said Uri. “Whether you are talking about the way crystals form, the way materials mix to make metals, tissues growing in cultures, or even something as simple as a candle flame.”

During the first four expeditions, crew members have helped with numerous experiments that study how microgravity affects plants, crystals and other materials and processes. Many of these experiments were sponsored and paid for by industry through NASA’s program that encourages businesses to do commercial research.

Station experiments not only study how microgravity affects physical processes, but how it affects biological processes. On all the expeditions, crew members serve as test subjects — completing physiological tests before, during and after their service on the Station. Scientists are studying the data to learn how microgravity and other aspects of space flight affect the heart, lungs, muscles, bones and neurovestibular system.

“If we are going to leave the planet on even more challenging treks to Mars or even beyond, we have to learn how living in space affects humans,” explained Uri. “All these experiments are examining medical conditions, so results will benefit people on Earth, as well.”

As a life sciences graduate from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Uri has followed this research for most of his career. From 1993 to 1998, he served as the NASA Mission Scientist, leading a team of scientists who conducted experiments on the Russian space station Mir.

“The Mir experience was invaluable as we got science up and running on the International Space Station,” said Uri. “From Mir, I learned how complicated it can be to do science when the laboratory is orbiting hundreds of miles above the planet and scientists are located around the world. The experience has helped me work on this international program that has more than 16 nations working together to build the Station and conduct research.”

Uri is no stranger to the international community. He speaks English, Hungarian, French and some Russian.

He was born in Hungary and lived there for six years before his family moved to Switzerland where he lived for four years. While in Switzerland, he built his first spacecraft model — an Apollo Command and Lunar Module set – shortly before Americans first landed on the Moon in 1969. That same year, he moved to Hollywood, Calif., where he continued building spacecraft models while he attended Cheremoya Elementary School. He still has friends in California where he sometimes visits NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, one of the NASA centers that provide experiments for the Space Station.

In 1971, Uri moved to Philadelphia, Penn. — where he lived for 16 years and attended Conestoga High School in Berwyn, Penn., and the University of Pennsylvania. He considers his hometowns to be both Philly and his current home in Bellaire, Texas, near Houston, where his family has lived for the last 15 years.

In June, Uri handed over the lead scientist job to a fellow Houston scientist, Vic Cooley, a Johnson Space Center physicist who will lead Space Station science on Expeditions Five through Seven. The pace of research is expected to continue on Expedition Five, with the crew scheduled to conduct almost 300 hours of research on 24 new and continuing investigations — bringing the total crew research time to more than 1,000 hours.

Uri will return for another turn in the science driver’s seat on Expedition Eight. Until then, he will help scientists on Earth get ready for future expeditions, and watch the Space Station’s growth as more Shuttle crews continue to assemble the largest, most complex research facility ever built off the face of the Earth.

Maybe he’ll have time for his favorite hobbies — cooking and reading — and even find time to build a model of the Space Station with his young daughter.

“I think a hundred years from now, after we’ve moved out from low-Earth orbit and on to other places, people won’t just look at how many experiments we’ve done or when they were done,” said Uri. “They will say that’s the day the human race left the planet for good — no turning back. The International Space Station is our first true address in space."

All text and photos for this story were provided by Marshall Space Flight Center.

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 06/23/2003
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