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« Hit 'Im Again | Main | A Postmortem »

Lindsey Replies

Clark Lindsey talks some more about Steven Weinberg's space and science budget opinions in reply to my interview of him.

Posted by Sam Dinkin at January 15, 2008 12:34 PM
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Don't know if it is strictly a crewed-vs-robotic mission argument but the way that the manned program is almost anti-science.

I think we learned a great deal about the Moon through Apollo, although I suppose robotic vehicles could have brought back samples in the manner of the Russian rover. But when the science community lobbied to have Harrison Schmitt on the Moon (his mentor Eugene Shoemaker wanted to go himself), there was this sense that Schmitt was "taking Joe Engle's seat."

I mean how much can be learned by a group of aeronautical engineers (Aldrin, I believe did his MIT PhD dissertation on the sort of orbital maneuvers that brought him to the Moon and back) who have taken a short course in geology, vs a Caltech Geology PhD, vs an internationally-renowned Caltch professor of geology who in a way rewrote all of the textbooks on planetary science by advancing his impact hypothesis for meteoritic collisions as a major planet-shaping force here and throughout the Solar System.

If you believe the geologists and planetary scientists can learn as much as they can remotely looking over the shoulder of those test pilots, maybe those test pilots could be replaced by robots. If you believe that the human presence has a quality not duplicated by tele-presence, than why was the presence of a geologist on one Apollo mission deeply resented?

Posted by Paul Milenkovic at January 15, 2008 06:24 PM

Gee, Sam, could you have led him any more with those questions? At times it almost seems as if you're helping him answer the question.

This was a difficult read, as the cognitive dissonance was extreme. It's hard to know even where to begin in the dissection. I'm working something up for Selenian Boondocks, but it will take a couple of days because of some research I'm putting into it. Basic thesis: Micro-g science hasn't "proven" itself yet because it hasn't had the time to prove itself. I'm looking at the rough "time on orbit" of experiments for both shuttle and station missions, and the result is miserable, even for the popular ones. One thing that is coming out in the data is that NASA was serving a large number of constituencies. So there were astrophysics missions, combustion physics, life sciences, materials sciences, DoD, and others. This makes focus a little difficult, and why in the 1990s you really started to see the emergence of "project" missions that tried to get a lot of work done in a few fields, Spacelab and ATLAS being two examples. The space science folks sure got a lot of mileage out of the shuttle, and I'm not just talking about Hubble. To assert that nothing really has come out of crew-tended micro-g science (from hearsay no less?) is just patently absurd.

That having been said, the work environment that the industry has tried to blossom in has been absolutely abysmal. From the onerous terms & conditions promulgated by NASA, to the almost total lack of access to the laboratory environment in terms of time to actual run experiments. I do know a thing or three about these things. As a distressed asset banker, I know all about bad industry environments and difficulty of access to capital. I read bank loan T&Cs all the time that have all kinds of ridiculous constraints, but nothing is like the environment in which microgravity science has tried to establish itself. I had a few ideas for commercial "space" products myself, but my low-key inquiries at NASA were depressing and it didn't take long to realize I was on a fool's errand.

I'm working on a spreadsheet that's trying to aggregate days on orbit for particular packages. It looks like MLR (Monodisperse Latex Reactor) spent 34 days in space, averaging just under 7 days at a time, with about 4.5 months between each visit, of which clearly on a small amount of time was actually spent on the experiment. CFES I & III (Continuous Flow Electrophoresis System) was up for 44 days,just over 6 days at a time, and about 6 months between each essay. PCG (Protein Crystal Growth) was up for about 31 days, for about 6 days at a time, about once every 6 months. These are not prodigious amounts of laboratory time. What the heck kind of results do you expect? Oh, and a follow-up flight? Good luck, buddy.

One thing to bear in mind also is that a lot of the "commercial" projects in the mid to late 90s were really ex-NASA guys who had set up shop in academia and were partnering with small start-up companies. Most of the "large corporate" efforts had petered out in the early 90s, crushed under the capital burden of maintaining a team to research under those conditions, and the "new" guys were kind of evolving to fill that niche. Not that that's a bad thing (it helped transfer NASA knowledge to the outside), but does in my mind contaminate the "commercialness" of the results.

One interesting discovery, from a briefing paper I got during a NASA Academy visit to HQ, a Code U OBPR "Commercial Space Center In-Reach Briefing" from May 2002 which notes an experiment manifested for STS-114 on "organic light-emitting diodes". Apparently some folks were working on producing OLED thin films, and having difficulty producing uniform films. They wanted to try physical vapor deposition in orbit to improve the results. Thinking as a short term banker guy, the first thing I'd do compare the data with ground-based results to try to see where the difficulties were arising, and how those might be mitigated in terrestrial manufacturing. Which is apparently the same idea the Bioreactor folks had, as the whole point of flying their experiments was to prove out the extent to which their ground-based process mimcked micro-g results. There was a big splash back in the day. I'll have to see if I can find out what happened to them.

Still compiling the data, but actually having the hard data is illuminating. I just wish I had the time to put more granularity into the raw data.

As I said, a difficult interview to dissect. My favorite is the logic puzzle from the last paragraph on ISS:
-Solar flare danger greater on trip to Mars than on ISS
-ISS protected by Earth's magnetic field
-Ergo, don't see point of ISS

Of course, you didn't help, Sam, serving up softballs like
-"they didn't really even schedule any science for the first couple decades of the project"
-"It hasn't really even started to do any research on that score [biological studies, crystal growth]"
-"I agree with you that the crystal growth and the industrial and research justification of the ISS seem weak"
-"it's not like we're solving diseases of millions by subjecting one person to trials"

Okay, on that last score I've got to respectfully disagree in a big way. Space medicine research has gone a long way in helping to understand the condition of orthostatic hypotension. I faint when I stand up suddenly, often if my blood sugar is low, but especially if I've been prone or squatting. I'm not the only one by a long shot. I've no doubt that there are lot of folks out there that have the same condition. Perhaps millions. I'm thankful that they're conducting this research, and wish them to continue the research on our Moon so we can start filling in the gravity spectrum with hard results instead of SWAG postulations. Have the Baby Boomers of the world completely forgotten about osteoporosis?

As far as research on the ISS goes, I'm seeing BIOPSY, CBTM-OPG, FOOT, H-REFLEX, HPA, RENAL STONE [Ouch!], SUBREGIONAL BONE, ADUM, EPSTEIN-BARR, MIDODRINE, MOBILITY, PUFF, XENON-1, BBND, DOSMAP, EVARM, TORSO fOR the physiological and radiation studies side. On the physical and biological sciences side we have BCAT-3, CSLM-2, EXPPCS, FMVM, FOAM, INSPACE, MFMG, PFMI, SUBSA, ZCG, APCF-CPCG-H, DCPCG, PCG-EGN, PCG-STES, ADF, CBOSS, CGBA, MEPS, STELSYS, YEAST-GAP, ADVASC, BPS, PESTO, AND PGBA. There's also the technology stuff and more. This was published in September 2006, so there's been more since then. A link to the Internet-available text "ISS Research Summary Through Expedition 10" can be found over at the Lunar Library, IIRC in the High Frontier - Facilities/Infrastructure section, end of May 2007 entry

So I ask, Sam, can micro-g research get at least a little respect? Sure, the ISS suffers from the same issues as the Shuttle (lack of access). Sure, most of the folks who worked on micro-g science have likely moved on to more fruitful endeavours. Sure, trying to deal with accessing ISS through NASA is a capital and time intensive process that few will endure for long. Sure, the ISS has a few...issues (but then again, isn't that part of the point? Figuring out where we're going to have problems by moving from CAD theory to real world affects?). But you have to admit that folks in the thick of it are sure giving it the old college try and toughing it out.

I pray for transport to the Bigelow balloons. $760Mn in launch money waiting to be claimed. These could be labs for scientists to sit at lab benches and run experiments again and again in days and weeks instead of once every six months. What a concept!

Posted by Ken Murphy at January 15, 2008 07:17 PM

Ken, I respect micro-g research, but the money spent on NASA science and ISS is about the amount spent on NSF each year. Would you say NSF gets more than twice as much science per dollar? I would say more. I am guessing. I would bet dollars to pennies that more osteoporosis science is being done at NSF too. Count the NASA papers? Count the NASA cites? I counted the NASA patents. Fewer than the rest of the economy per dollar.

Sorry I was not in the mood for hard balls. My goal was to give Prof. Weinberg lots of opportunity to make an affirmative case for science and a negative case for manned spaceflight. I wanted to start with the softest of softballs and end with him justifying space science with the same arguments he derided in the first half of the interview.

Come down to Austin and interview him yourself you Texan you.

Posted by Sam Dinkin at January 15, 2008 08:08 PM

Sam, having spent several decades involved in osteoporosis research, I feel compelled to comment. Most osteoporosis research is funded by the National Institutes of Health in universities or as clinical trials performed by drug companies, not NSF. The mechanisms of bone loss in microgravity are reasonably well understood, but most knowledge in this area has flowed from the ground to space and not the other way around. The big application of space technology to medicine has been in physiological monitoring and tele-medicine.

Posted by john jurist at January 22, 2008 06:40 AM

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