5 Things That Gain Superpowers When We Take Them to Space

Who here’s ready to inject themselves with a serum made in outer space?
5 Things That Gain Superpowers When We Take Them to Space

You evolved to live here on Earth, a place with atmospheric pressure, moderate temperature and a level of gravity that we describe as “pretty normal.” When you go somewhere with different conditions, you won’t fare so well, and that very much goes for space, which has barely any gravity at all. In space, people’s bones get weak. They probably can’t have sex. They don’t even know if they’re hungry or not because we can’t sense what’s going on in our own bodies without gravity. 

So, zero-gravity isn’t great — for you. That doesn’t mean everything shuts down in zero-gravity, though. Some things become even stronger. 


We’ve been shooting creepy crawlies into space for longer than we humans have been managing to reach space ourselves. The very first animals in space weren’t Laika the dog or that cat the French sent up. It was a group of fruit flies we sent up in a rocket in 1947. The rocket came back, and the flies survived the trip. We still ship simple invertebrates up in rockets today, just to see what will happen. 

In 2015, scientists took a bunch of worms up to the space station, after first taking the precautionary step of cutting off their heads (the worms' heads, not the scientists' heads). These flatworms have the ability to regenerate, and if they could function in space, they might grow those lost heads back. We were also open to the possibility that they wouldn’t regenerate anything, because some stuff stops working in zero-gravity. 

When the worms came back down and the scientists examined them, they’d regenerated all right. In fact, some of these isolated torsos had grown two heads, one on each end, something that’s never supposed to happen. Terrified, the scientists did the only reasonable thing and cut both the new heads off.

Morokuma, et al.

They called this Operation Castration Anxiety.

Unfortunately, this did no good at all, as both the heads now grew back. Space had changed the worms, permanently. The only consolation is that each worm did not grow four heads, ruling out the otherwise very real possibility that in space, all matter will eventually be converted to the doubling heads of flatworms. 


Your mouth is filled with bacteria. Even aside from the germs that poop out acid and dissolve your teeth, you’ve got stuff like Lactobacillus plantarum, which is thankfully benign. It doesn’t make you sick, and it doesn’t even taste bad. Hey — imagine if dirty saliva tasted bad. Think about how miserable your every day would be. Presumably, ancestors who had that characteristic lost the will to live, and that’s why they never passed that gene down.

But yeah, Lactobacillus plantarum is harmless. Up in the space station, however? It changes. It still doesn’t taste bad, but it thrives, and it spreads. It transfers to the metal surfaces of the module, where it promptly adopts the task of eating its way through that titanium and steel, even faster than worse bacteria eat through teeth. We wind up with super space germs, which will eat the whole space station, unless we figure out how protect ourselves against this. 

One method may involve treating the titanium to make it more resistant to biocorrosion, perhaps by making an alloy with copper. 

Ti-5Cu alloy against marine bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa

Arroussi, et al.

This diagram loosely inspired the game Space Invaders.

The other solution is just to lock the worms and the bacteria in a room and hope each will successfully kill the other. 


In 2019, astronauts in the International Space Station decided to mix up some cement. That sounds strange. Mixing cement is something you do in a bucket at home if you’re handy; we expect NASA scientists to spend their experimental hours on far more nerdy pursuits. Why, if astronauts are capable of mixing cement, then the next time they need to blow up an asteroid, NASA will probably just have the astronauts do it themselves instead of sending up a handpicked team of oil drillers.

Cement is, in fact, a material absolutely bubbling with science, and we have generations of scientists to thank for why it’s so strong and why buildings don’t fall down. So these astronauts mixed up cement (silicate paste) to see if the stuff can properly mix in space, since we might have to regularly whip up batches up there sooner or later. Take a look at these images showing how cement set in microgravity differs from cement made down here on Earth:

Microgravity Effect on Microstructural Development of Tri-calcium Silicate (C3S) Past

Neves, et al. 

The difference is crystal clear.

Since we lack a NASA-level understanding of cement, let’s get an explanation of the difference from the astronauts themselves. They noted that down on Earth, when cement is setting, gravity pulls the heavier parts down, and air bubbles travel up and escape. None of that happens in space. Space cement is therefore more consistent, with smaller crystals, but also has larger air bubbles. The separation into different layers, caused by gravity, is called bleeding and is bad for cement, and it doesn’t happen in space. This is great news, because from what we’ve previously heard, bleeding can be fatal.


Here’s another comparison between a material made in space and that same material made on Earth. We think this time, you don’t even need special knowledge to detect that the one on the right is smoother and purer.



Though, the left one arguably looks cooler.

Those are images of glass. It’s a special type of glass called ZBLAN, a mixture of zirconium, barium, lanthanum, sodium and aluminum. The substance is useful for lasers and optical fibers, but making it is a challenge down here on Earth. Glass exists in a molten state for a while, and when it cools, you have to set it down somewhere, or hold it in place somehow. When the molten ZBLAN makes physical contact with something, that sets it crystalizing and leads to all sorts of defects. 

In space? You can blow some glass and let it harden in midair, without any gravity acting on it. To keep it from randomly drifting over and burning a hole in your face, you can hold it in place without anything touching it, using acoustic waves. The result is a higher form of glass. Here’s another comparison photo, with the space version of the glass on the left. We don’t need a microscope to see the difference. 



This difference really is crystal clear.

It’s been a couple decades now since NASA discovered this method of making better ZBLAN. We’ve heard no public updates since then, but we have to assume that spacecraft are now outfitted with powerful ZBLAN lasers, keeping us safe at all times. 


So, today we’ve learned that crystals form differently in zero-gravity. So, lets blast off and cook ourselves some crystal. We’re talking drugs — not recreational drugs, but pharmaceutical treatments that involve a process called protein crystallization. 

When we turn protein into crystals, we’re better able to study it, and when we try this in space, we make better crystals than we ever could down here. A little tinkering with protein crystals up there, and scientists came up with a new drug for tuberculosis. They’ve also got what seems to be a new delivery mechanism for cancer drugs

protein crystals


Take that, people who say space research does nothing to help the masses.

Medicine can also come out stronger when we manufacture it in space, which would be useful not just for hypothetical spacefarers cooking their own meds in the future but for all of us right now. This may not sound very practical — schlepping raw materials up to space and finished drugs back down — because of all the bulk involved, but some treatments don’t involve much bulk at all. 

An aspiring space-drug kingpin offers the example of the COVID vaccine. We distributed a lot of these vaccines, hundreds of millions of doses of just the Pfizer variety. And yet, the crystalline mRNA in all those vaccines would take up no more than two gallons, so it could be manufactured in space and then brought down to mix with other stuff. The downside is, we imagine some people might resist the thought of injecting themselves with experimental treatments developed in space. Our new space overlords will simply have to force everyone to comply, using their space lasers, of course. 

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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