August 25, 2017 – Expedition 52 crew mates on board the International Space Station (ISS) helped raise awareness for pediatric cancer on Wednesday, August 23, with the on-orbit debut of a hand-painted spacesuit inspired by the cooperation between the five international space agencies that built the station. The six crew members took turns answering questions written by children who had contributed to the suit.
Former NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, who launched the Space Suit Art Project to raise awareness of issues surrounding childhood cancer and to demonstrate the benefits of art in the healing process, spoke from Mission Control Center in Houston.
“This suit, Unity, is the third in a series of suits,” Stott said. “Hope was the first suit, Courage was the second suit, and Unity is very special because it was modeled after our peaceful, successful partnership on the International Space Station program.”
During the 20-minute Earth-to-space call, Colorado astronaut Jack Fischer, whose daughter Bethany is a cancer survivor, wore the ‘Unity’ spacesuit and said that it was the coolest thing he had seen in space. He also thanked everyone for supporting the program.
“Just a big space thank you to everyone that’s supporting this program – especially Nicole, who put it together,” said Fischer. “But as the father of my own little cancer ninja, who’s probably there today, thank you for making it happen.”
It all started as a collaboration between MD Anderson’s Arts in Medicine Program, NASA’s Johnson Space Center and the space suit company ILC Dover. The first two space suits, Hope and Courage, were completed before the initiative expanded worldwide.
After a 14-day global art tour in 2016, Stott and the Space Suit Art Program were happy to expand the initiative to involve hospitals in ISS partner countries so as many children as possible could add their own personal touch. Hundreds of cloth pieces were hand-painted by patients in the United States, Canada, Germany, Russia and Japan and then quilted together by ILS Dover, the same company that creates all of the soft goods for NASA’s spacesuits.
“As far as the suit, you know, it’s tricky to get into, but it’s worth it – kind of like the real suit,” Fischer said. “The real suit, you have the reward of getting to go outside and see an amazing view and do all sorts of fun work outside. This suit you have the honor to represent the bravest kids in the world who actually put it together. And you know, it makes a nice fashion statement – a little nod to my eclectic style, so I love it.”
In addition to bringing awareness to pediatric cancer, the Space Suit Art Project also highlights work being done on the ISS to find treatments and cures for various diseases here on Earth. The space program has conducted hundreds of experiments to learn more about what makes cancer tick, to create better pharmaceuticals, and to improve delivery of those drugs. Some investigations have already entered clinical trials on the ground, while others are part of follow-up experiments on the orbiting laboratory.
Astronaut Peggy Whitson highlighted one of the current experiments during the call on Wednesday.
“We are trying a new method that scientists on the ground developed, and testing it out up here, where antibodies that recognize the cancer cells have a drug attached to them and they go out and try and specifically kill the cancer cells, which would be particularly helpful in chemotherapies on the ground as well,” said Whitson. “Because Jack’s a fighter pilot, he named them ‘Cancer Seeking Missiles.’ ”
On the ground, a fourth suit called ‘Exploration’ has already been started.
“We’re really hoping that this project will help us facilitate more art in medicine programs around the world and pediatric cancer research on the space station,” said Stott.
The participating hospitals that helped create the UNITY spacesuit were: