The Journey of a Payload

September 2021


"How do I fly a research experiment to and from space?"

This is a common question I get from the scientists I speak with.


It's also an incredibly important question to ask. Though spaceflight research is becoming more accessible, today the journey to space is highly regulated, complicated and can feel intimidating, especially for those of us who aren't highly technical. Moreover, understanding what's involved in a spaceflight research experience requires a bit of imagination from the scientist: they often don't accompany their experiment to space and may not have experienced space or microgravity conditions themselves, making it even harder to fully appreciate what their experiment will endure throughout its journey to space.


The way I like to answer the question above is to think about the journey of a payload, from the perspective of the payload itself. This payload-centred approach forces us to think about what happens to the payload from conception to flight to research analysis. Understanding the full journey turns out to be a helpful way for scientists to think about how to design their payload. For instance, it's easy to overlook the fact that the payload must travel to and from the launch site or that the payload might spend time waiting in a facility before it takes flight. These are considerations that must be accounted for when it comes to mission planning and ensuring that the payload is ready to fly.



Before diving into the journey, I should also clarify another commonly asked question: "What is a payload?"

The payload is the load that is carried to space aboard a launch vehicle. In our case, the payload is a research experiment that is placed into a container, flown to space where it will carry out valuable science in microgravity (aka in space), and return safely to Earth. Some payloads require a human to conduct the research while others are autonomous and conduct the research on their own. Our focus here is on the latter. Here are a couple of examples of payloads like this:

T-cells in Microgravity


Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University investigated the effect of microgravity on T-cells with the aim to inform future T-cell based therapeutics for patients with cancer. Researchers designed and flew a payload containing T-cells on a suborbital flight. Their results suggest that spaceflight modulates T-cell expression and demonstrates functional differences compared to ground controls.

More info here

Do Fireflies glow in space?


Maggie Samudio’s second grade class at Cumberland Elementary School teamed up with Purdue University to answer the question: “Will fireflies light up in space?” They developed a payload to test firefly glow chemistry in microgravity and recorded the result on video. It turns out fireflies glow in space!

More info here


The journey of a payload is shown below. This journey is a high-level view into the payload experience. It's not meant to be prescriptive and while it visually appears to be linear and equally staged, the process may be non-linear, complicated, and more time-intensive for some stages than others.

Key points about the journey:

  • There are 12 stages: Envision, Build & Integrate, Travel, Review, Load, Launch, Microgravity, Land, Unload, Travel, Analyze and Share

  • Description explains what happens at each stage

  • Timeline gives a sense of how much time before flight ("L-") or after flight ("L+") each stage takes

  • What happens to the payload? describes what the payload experiences at each stage

  • What is important to the payload? describes what the payload needs at each stage in order to be successful


The payload journey is a valuable way to imagine what the payload is doing, feeling, and "thinking" along its journey to and from space. While the payload is an inanimate object, understanding the experience from the perspective of the payload can help research teams elucidate the payload's needs, constraints, and requirements as it is being designed and developed. I encourage folks to envision their own payload journey as a part of their mission planning.

Tags: Payload, Space Research, Space science, Spaceflight, R&D, Research, Journey Map, Experience Map