Minnesota native arrives safely at International Space Station after shuttle launch

Mark Vande Hei is set to return to the International Space Station next month as part of his second mission to space. (NASA)

NASA says an astronaut from Minnesota along with two Russian cosmonauts have safely arrived at the International Space Station after an early morning space shuttle launch.

Mark Vande Hei was aboard the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft that launched in Kazakhstan around 2:42 a.m. central time (12:42 p.m. local time).

NASA says after taking off, the spacecraft safely docked with the ISS about three hours later. The new additions bring the residents of the ISS to ten people.

While in orbit for the next six months, Vande Hei will do research in the fields of Earth science, biology, and human research, among other studies.

Among his priorities will be research into Alzheimer's disease.

"One of the experiments I’m going to work on is potentially helping out with Alzheimer’s disease," said Vande Hei. "There is something called amyloids."

Amyloids are the complex protein strands that grow in the brain and choke off neurons leading to memory loss.

"So amyloid is a key protein, a defining protein in the Alzheimer's process itself," said Dr. Ronald Petersen of the Mayo Clinic.

Dr. Petersen leads the Alzheimer’s research center at Mayo Clinic.

"And since amyloid is such a fundamental piece of the Alzheimer’s process," said Dr. Petersen. "This is really exciting."

A team of Japanese researchers are conducting the experiments. In a pre-flight interview, Vande Hei describes himself as merely the lab technician.

"Sometimes the scientists will actually look over our shoulders with video and talk us through what they want us to do," said Vande Hei. "Other times we just pull out a procedure to perform and go for it."

Three years ago, the same team of Japanese researchers successfully grew amyloid stands at the space station proving that microgravity is the perfect research environment. Their findings published in the journal Nature showed amyloid fibrilization in space did not grow nearly as fast.

"And what they found was that in the anti-gravity environment in the space station that the process proceeded, but much more slowly, and the structure of the amyloid protein was different than what they saw on Earth," said Dr. Petersen.

Researchers say if we can understand why they grow so much slower in space, then we can come up with therapies to mimic that slow growth on Earth.

Vande Hei will grow more amyloids for the Japanese researchers to find out why they grow so much slower in micro-gravity. That knowledge could one day prolong the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in people.

"And if something we learned from this experiment in the International Space Station can elongate that such that we go out to instead of getting symptomatic, it's 75 maybe, it's not to 80-85 or 90, that's a big deal for the individual for the family and for society," added Dr. Petersen.