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Recent grad helps Ohio State flex space research muscles

Wilson Flores preparing experimentIf you’re a Buckeyes fan, you know Wilson Flores. Or at least you’ve seen him. The recent engineering grad is the focus of The Ohio State University television commercial that airs during football and basketball games. And if you’ve watched the commercial, you will likely remember it has something to do with NASA.

Yesterday in the Chihuahuan Desert of west Texas, Flores watched that something launch into space. An interdisciplinary Ohio State experiment funded by NASA to study muscle atrophy in space was among dozens of research and outreach payloads stowed aboard Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard rocket.

Ohio State team with Blue Origins capsule after landingThe Ohio State team post-flight with Blue Origins crew/payload capsule in background. From L to R: Prof. Peter Lee, engineering consultant Frank Benesch-Lee, Ohio State Wexner Medical Center Research Associate Weina Zhong and Wilson Flores (engineering consultant Miles Lane not pictured)The experiment’s origins date back to 2015, when Assistant Professor of Surgery Peter Lee began recruiting a small team of students to author a grant to NASA’s Undergraduate Student Instrument Project. Members of that team included engineering, biology and pharmaceutical students. Lee ultimately received the grant for a study entitled “Microgravity sensing in tissue engineered muscle.”

Astronauts undergo significant muscle atrophy when in spaceflight for extended periods of time, but the mechanisms behind it are not well understood. The Ohio State experiment enabled miniaturized tissue-engineered skeletal muscle constructs to enter microgravity for at least two minutes on the rocket to determine how expression of key genes change when compared to controlled muscle constructs in the lab.

Flores was an aerospace engineering student who grew up dreaming of space. When he heard about Lee’s project, he leapt at the opportunity to contribute. He joined Lee’s team in 2016 and the project became the focus of his senior capstone. Since then, several groups of pre-med students and Buckeye engineers have honed the experiment to its final form. And Flores has stayed involved since his 2018 graduation; first as an alumni volunteer and now as an engineering consultant.

“Working on a project that could help astronauts stay in space longer has been very exciting,” Flores said.

While Lee and the pre-med students handle the complex tissue engineering, Flores led the design, manufacturing and testing of the technology to capture real-time data in suborbital space. The findings could ultimately help astronauts spend longer periods of time aboard spacecraft.

muscle atrophy experiment moduleThe muscle atrophy experiment module before loading into Blue Origin rocket capsuleHe describes the technology in three phases. A fluid injection system delivers a special solution to the muscle cells at the end of the microgravity period, which in essence genetically freezes the cells’ DNA for comparison to control cells in the lab. The team also has engineered a series of electrodes to stimulate the muscles—making them expand and contract—and a four-camera system to capture footage of the muscle cell aggregates throughout the flight.

“This concept of stimulating muscle cells in space has never been done before,” Flores added.

Currently employed with the U.S. Air Force and pursuing a graduate degree at the Air Force Institute of Technology in Dayton, Flores plans to author a research paper on the engineering technology he helped develop.

Named after Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American to go to space, New Shepard is Blue Origin’s reusable suborbital rocket system designed to take astronauts and research payloads past the Kármán line—the internationally recognized boundary of space. This was the 12th total test flight of the New Shepard launch system, and the 3rd such flight in 2019. Watch a replay of the launch and landing here.

Also on the vehicle are several student art experiments as part of a collaboration with the rock band OK Go, along with thousands of postcards from students around the world. According to Blue Origin, this mission will help inspire future generations of children to pursue careers in STEM and help visualize the future of space travel.