Every day, astro­nauts afloat some­where beyond Earth’s atmos­phere per­form impor­tant research mis­sions. Not only must these space explorers be pro­vided with safe suits and reli­able equip­ment, but their suc­cess also hinges on staying healthy by eating nutri­tious food and drinking clean water.

That’s where North­eastern stu­dents Danielle Sin­gleton and Grace Bacharach come in.

Both chem­istry majors, they worked on con­sec­u­tive co-​​ops last year at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, specif­i­cally in the Water and Food Ana­lyt­ical Lab­o­ra­tory. Their co-​​op employer, Wyle Lab­o­ra­to­ries, is a pri­vate firm con­tracted by the gov­ern­ment to per­form such analyses.

Sin­gleton focused mainly on ana­lyzing food sam­ples to obtain their caloric value and con­firm they were safe to send to the Inter­na­tional Space Sta­tion and on Space Shuttle flights. She tested food for appro­priate levels of min­erals, metals, iodine, nitrogen, pro­tein, sodium, fat and cho­les­terol. She tested the fish for toxins and the tomato sauce for salt content.

Sin­gleton also helped ensure that the astro­nauts boosted their cal­cium intake, because, she explained, “If you’re just floating around, your bone den­sity decreases. So it was impor­tant for them to have high levels of calcium.”

Bacharach fol­lowed Sin­gleton, but worked pri­marily on testing sam­ples of the water the astro­nauts drink on the Inter­na­tional Space Sta­tion. She oper­ated an Induc­tively Cou­pled Plasma Mass Spec­trom­etry instru­ment that mea­sures the con­cen­tra­tion levels of more than 20 dif­ferent metals in water.

If one of these metals was over the [healthy] limit, we retested it. If it was still over, we would tell them the sample was bad” and not safe to drink, Bacharach said.

Now juniors, Sin­gleton and Bacharach said their first co-​​op expe­ri­ences were incred­ibly valu­able. Working in an area of high vis­i­bility with high stakes, they quickly under­stood the impor­tance of making accu­rate read­ings and testing water for microor­gan­isms, saying the added pres­sure helped them develop a strong pro­fes­sional work ethic.

I felt like what I was doing was impor­tant,” Sin­gleton said. “Telling the astro­nauts whether it was safe to drink their water [and eat their food] was really cru­cial. I felt like I wasn’t just a set of hands in a lab doing busy work.”