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« Continuing To Spiral In | Main | Nanotech Breakthrough »

More Spinning Spinoff

I wish that someone would explain just what is meant by "microgravity technology" in this encouraging article about progress in stem cell production. It could be inferred by an uncareful reader that this research occurred in space (the only place that we can get sustained microgravity), but that doesn't really seem to be the case. Rather, it is apparently a spinoff of bioreactors that were originally developed for use in orbit (presumably aboard the ISS), but perhaps never used there. The reactions seem to be occuring down here, in a full gravity.

This is often the case with all of the predictions of space manufacturing. By the time someone gets around to doing it on orbit, someone comes up with a cheaper and more practical way to do it down here (unsurprising, considering how expensive and time consuming it is to even do an experiment with NASA in space, let alone set up an actual production facility).

Nonethess, this is presumably a spinoff of NASA spending that arguably (though by no means certainly) wouldn't have occurred in its absence, and that's all to the good. But while this is a great benefit, it's not at all obvious that it was worth the cost, or that it couldn't have been achieved in some other (perhaps less costly, with more benefits) way. As I noted a couple years ago (just before the loss of Columbia, in fact):

Certainly there is some spinoff technology benefit from the [space] program--it's impossible to engage in any high-tech endeavor without occasionally coming up with serendipitous results. And of course, there's occasionally some cross fertilization with military space activities (though from a taxpayer standpoint, disappointly little). But neither of these facts is reason, in itself, to either support or oppose it.

Proponents [of the ISS] need to come up with real goals, and real reasons, that can resonate with the American people--something difficult to do with the program as currently planned, in which we spend billions for a Motel 6 in space that can support only half a dozen people, even if current plans come to fruition.

Opponents need to get their facts in order, and come up with good reasons to end it (and perhaps replace it with something more useful for getting humanity off the planet). The manned space program has, so far, been very lucky in its enemies.

I add with some amusement that, when I was googling for that old Fox piece I found this "critique" of it, in a breathless paen to space spinoffs, over at the "Ethical Atheist" web site. Note the logical shredding of my arguments:

Many of you are familiar with the highly-biased commentary of Fox News. In researching for this article we found the following commentary on NASA's space program. At first, we were surprised and outraged. But, considering the source, it no longer surprises us. Fox is known for its highly-conservative, pro-religious, liberal-slamming, uneducated opinions...

[repeat poster's list of "benefits"]

...We hope the "Benefits" listed above 'resonate with the American people' more than the small-minded opinions presented by the Fox News Channel!

Which is to say, of course, note the absence of logic or argument. It's pure ad hominem against Fox News (which of course neither wrote or even solicited the topic--it was purely mine). And I'm "highly-conservative" and "pro-religious"? And "uneducated"? Who knew?

Posted by Rand Simberg at August 19, 2005 08:20 AM
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"And I'm "highly-conservative" and "pro-religious"? And "uneducated"?"

Don't worry, I still like you.

Posted by Joe Athelli at August 19, 2005 08:57 AM

Why do opponents need to provide a reason to end ISS? It seems to me the onus is on the proponents to justify their entitlement to our tax dollars.

Posted by Paul Dietz at August 19, 2005 09:43 AM

It seems to me the onus is on the proponents to justify their entitlement to our tax dollars.

That's the way the world should work, but in Washington, whoever wants to change the status quo has to make the arguments to do so.

Posted by Rand Simberg at August 19, 2005 09:49 AM

Ah, you're arguing the pragmatic situation, not the ideal. In that case, I'll respond that the actuality is that the technical merit of ISS is irrelevant, since the purpose was to distribute federal money to constituents. All the spinoffs/medicine/blahblah are rationalizations for the project.

So, to actually kill ISS, what opponents would need to do is not so much offer good arguments against it, but to mercilessly lampoon it (and viciously mock the bad arguments used to support it) so that its values to the politicians supporting it declines.

Now, I'm not saying that doing that is a wonderful thing, but that's what necessary in the non-ideal political world.

Posted by Paul Dietz at August 19, 2005 10:54 AM

Rand, I never knew I had it in you. You hid it so well. *snort* Then again, I got hit with the same today. Just wish for once to come across a rebutal based in reality and not on logical fallacies.

Posted by Laughing Wolf at August 19, 2005 05:45 PM

I remember the bioreactor from my research paper at ISU. It was tested on the shuttle, but was really meant to be ultimately used here on Earth. It was tested in orbit, but that was to provide a benchmark against results obtained on Earth. I think it was partially NASA funded, because I remember wondering why NASA would go along with something clearly designed to terrestrially compete with the micro-g services they provide.

It works by rotating the sample in the drum. The constant change in the gravity vector is supposed to trick the sample into thinking it's in microgravity.

This was back when I had the foolish notion of buying up used MDL and SDR experiment equipment and leasing them to micro-g sciences types in academia and industry for use on the Shuttle and ISS, accelerating their research since they didn't have to build a whole new apparatus, and it was already flight-tested.

Golly, I was really naive back then...

Posted by ken murphy at August 19, 2005 05:54 PM

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