ISS: an Extraordinary Environment for Research

D oes anyone know why we would spend $30 billion (so far) to build the international space station (ISS), then cancel all the U.S. programs that might want to use it? When I asked these questions of my friends in NASA, those that didn’t immediately try to change the subject mumbled something about needing the money for exploration and implementation of the president’s vision — then quickly talked about something else. This was so entertaining that I decided to press further.

I recently learned that the ISS user programs that NASA’s Exploration Mission Systems Directorate (ESMD) have cut include Space Biology — whose spinoffs in microelectromechanical systems alone would pay for the Mars Exploration Program — and Cellular Biotechnology, which sponsored discoveries on Mir and shuttle that piqued the interest of at least three Nobel Prize winners . These are the programs that were supposed to bring the biotech revolution to space.

But, hey — aside from transforming the biological sciences on Earth and spawning an extraordinary series of life-saving and wealth-generating products in an incredibly short period of time — what good is the biotech revolution?

Well, you might want to use the tools from the biotech revolution in space to confirm data suggesting that long-duration space flight provides important insights on the aging process. In her new book, “The G-Connection: Harness Gravity and Reverse Aging,” world class researcher Joan Vernikos points out very convincingly that space research, especially long-duration research on animals on the ISS, can accelerate advances to let us live longer, healthier lives. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty interesting to me.

The demographic is aging. NASA is answerable to a constituency marked by experience and time on their hands to express highly motivated concerns about health and quality of life as they age. We will want answers and will not be sympathetic to politicians who failed to plant the seeds for the breakthroughs that could help us live longer and better.

I’ll be nearing retirement about the time our Mars mission is en route. I’ll be watching, and my own health issues and quality of life will be daily reminders of the choices made today regarding space biology on the ISS. Even if the space research on aging doesn’t pan out, the extremely expensive ISS is flying right now. Shouldn’t we at least take a look before killing the capability to investigate something that could benefit so many in such an important way?

Like most non-ISS enthusiasts, I was persuaded by the kicking around that ISS got from the non-biological science community. Little did I realize at the time that the phrase uttered by those colleagues who said, “ISS science is not good science” actually meant “ISS science is not my science — gimme their money.”

So I did some homework and was fairly astonished to discover that a stellar array of Nobel laureates and world-class scientists were most interested in using the ISS for discoveries in biotech. They point out that ISS provides long-duration exposure to microgravity, an environmental force that has never been encountered in Earth’s history.

Extraordinary environments reveal extraordinary biologies, which is why top biotech companies worldwide sprint to every hellish environment on Earth to harvest the buff life forms that manage to thrive there. Revenue from these critters is in the billions of dollars and their products have saved countless lives.

Space is the unexplored country for biology, and Earth orbital space presents the extreme environment of very low gravity. Everyone who has studied it agrees that the biological responses seen in space are unique and have spawned products that more than repay the taxpayers’ investments over the years.

But NASA — where the biologist population is so low that they should be protected under the Endangered Species Act –apparently has decided that superiority in the space biosciences should reside in other countries. NASA is so magnanimous that it seems to be willing to empower other countries to get rich off the space station that our taxpayers have built. As one of those taxpayers, I’m having quite a bit of trouble with this notion.

On the other hand, just to show they’re no softies, NASA has dissed the Japanese by considering not bringing the centrifuge module into space. Basically this means that the device that could tell us the most about living on other worlds before we get to them — and remember we are cutting these programs so that we can live on other worlds — will not fly. Nor will there by a biolab on ISS because the centrifuge module is not a device, it is the whole biological research laboratory for the space station.

Let’s ponder this a moment. NASA is not bringing into space a device that will tell us how the most likely technology for mitigating zero gravity will

function on the Mars mission?

The savings these cannibalistic program cuts will produce is miniscule compared to the financial commitments that have been made to finish the ISS, which will then achieve no productive function — at least for the United States . As my grandparents often said, that is penny-wise, pound foolish.

I guess you have to be a pretty sophisticated rocket scientist to follow the logic trail that NASA’s ESMD has blazed.

Speaking of rocket scientists in the ESMD at NASA headquarters — are there any? Some space friends and I had a scavenger hunt through the NASA headquarters organization chart to find someone in a senior decision-making capacity in ESMD who ever built or fielded a large spacecraft system. We couldn’t find any.

We could find people who had ridden in rockets in senior positions, but not those who had built them. Apparently, these personnel assignments were made with the idea that if you can buy a car or drive a car, you can direct the building of a car. Adding to the fun is that the current head of the NASA Biomedical Research Programs is a physicist. I wonder if NASA’s next move is to appoint a botanist as Chief Engineer?

But let’s move on, the fun isn’t over.

The Space Biology program (which NASA just killed) is the U.S. organization with the expertise to use animal models in space for research that is pretty important for removing the biological risks to exploration. You see, the biological barriers to human exploration of the planets reside deep in the cells and tissues of astronauts.

Not surprisingly, most astronauts resist being dissected. So if NASA doesn’t use animal models in space to understand space medicine problems, they have only noninvasive or minimally invasive techniques for resolving the biomedical issues of human exploration. This is sort of like trying to figure out why your car won’t start by staring at the hood.

Considering that NASA is about to ask for a lot of money to send people, which are living organisms, to the Moon and Mars, wouldn’t you think one of the science objectives would be to study the only life in the universe we know in its first generations on another world? After NASA goes to all that trouble (at the taxpayers expense) to build life support systems and habitats and other life-sustaining features on the Moon and Mars, wouldn’t it be good to send a few other critters up there for a few generations just to see what happens?

The cost is so miniscule in comparison to all the other costs, that the decision not to study Earth life for the first time on other worlds almost defies logic by any thinking creature. After all, it might be kind of interesting to learn what biological costs — and opportunities — are inherent in living on the Moon and Mars over life cycles and ultimately over generations. This sort of research has paid off handsomely in the past with far poorer tools than we have today. In fact, someone you love might be alive because of it.

So NASA has decided to send human animals into space but has decided not to learn how animals (which have pioneered so much of contemporary biology and medicine) live, grow and age in space? If we’re going to send people to Mars, two years away from the next medical facility, don’t we owe them the basic research over the next 20 years to establish the ground rules that life operates under in space?

At worst, we will learn unique new information about the workings of life that we most likely would not find in any other environment, and information like that has always paid off.

So, let’s see what we have to work with. There is a space station overhead for which we paid a lot . There are launch vehicles lying fallow on the ground. There is a whole laboratory of space biology research hardware bought and paid for and ready to fly and make discoveries . During the 1990 s, NASA fought like a tiger against politicians who wanted to kill the ISS before the money was spent … and NASA has decided to cancel the use of ISS now?

Here’s an idea … let’s put it all back together, bring back the space biosciences programs, invest in the nation’s universities and research institutions, and bring the biotech revolution to space — now .

Come on NASA, provide some payback to the hardworking taxpayers who wrote the check for the ISS. Let’s get our country a piece of the sky — now. Frankly, NASA, you have a credibility problem. Who is going to believe that you can deliver an exploration program worth doing on the Moon and Mars if you can’t deliver one in low Earth orbit with all the pieces already in place now.

It isn’t enough to go there and plant the flag. If we aren’t accomplishing material goals (as opposed to political gestures and grand programs hearkening to the Kennedy-era space program), then we need to rethink things. Otherwise this is just a lot of industrial complex pork and political gravy. The taxpayer is looking for healthier fare.

Allen Wessels is a systems engineer and a member of the Silicon Valley Space Club.