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In the 1970s, a NASA employee stepped up to a challenge posed by the National Institutes of Health or NIH: to freeze bone marrow.

“Most people don’t know that NASA’s work isn’t just aerospace,” said Tom Williams , an engineer working on NASA’s space-based communications relay, the Space Network, who responded to the challenge. “Our innovations help people who have nothing to do with the space program.”

Bone marrow presented a unique challenge to medical researchers. To maintain a sample viable for transplant, the cells must be chilled to temperatures unattainable by traditional refrigeration units, colder than the lowest natural ground temperature ever recorded on Earth. Cooling marrow too quickly causes freezing water within the cell to expand and burst the cell wall. Cooling marrow too slowly can result in cell death.

Williams tested communications spacecraft components in artificial space environments at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and thought that process could be adapted to freezing marrow. Goddard’s thermal vacuum chamber uses liquid nitrogen and helium to mimic the chill of space.

While continueing his work with NASA, Williams spent the next few years developing a liquid nitrogen freezer that chilled marrow without destroying the sample.

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