Status Report

Statement of Mary Ellen Weber at Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space Hearings on International Space Station Research

By SpaceRef Editor
April 20, 2005
Filed under , , ,

Dr. Mary Ellen Weber

Vice-President, University of Texas, Southwest Medical Center

U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation

Science and Space Subcommittee

April 20, 2005

Testimony by Mary Ellen Weber, Ph.D.

For thousands of years people have looked to the heavens trying to imagine what could be out there, what could those points of light possibly be. We are the generations – those fortunate to be alive at this blink of time in the history of the universe – at the dawn of humanity’s quest to become a space-faring civilization. Momentous endeavors such as this cannot be accomplished in day, or a year, or even a decade, and yet it is a time when it seems everyone seeks only instant gratification.

Someone recently lamented to me that we really had not come very far, since fifty years ago it took several hours to fly across the country, and it still does today. However, this is ignoring that an enormous infrastructure has been created, that simply flying a few hundred people a few thousand miles is an entirely different undertaking than moving millions about the globe each and every day. Indeed, aviation has progressed from simply a remarkable feat lasting mere seconds to become an inextricable part of billions of lives and an infrastructure without which our economy simply could not function. Likewise, in creating a space-faring civilization, it is not merely the one-time feats of venturing into new territory that matter. Creating the infrastructure and operations that will enable space to be woven into our daily lives is the more difficult – and perhaps more important – feat.

It is easy to only applaud the flashy events, the Super Bowl, golf’s major tournaments, or the Olympic gymnastics. But to eliminate the arduous tedious daily practice, the minor competitions, or the daily workouts would eliminate the major events entirely. Similarly, creating new space vehicles that will take us once again beyond earth orbit is certainly an alluring attention-getting element of the centuries-long quest to become a space-faring civilization. Yet we cannot eliminate or diminish the value and benefits of programs such as the Space Shuttle or the International Space Station. These programs provide necessary elements for success in the major events of human planetary exploration. They have been extremely important, both necessary to prepare us and the next generations to whom we will pass the baton.

The Shuttle program has focused on the most dangerous, challenging, and risky aspects of any space venture – leaving from and returning to a celestial body. The challenge, danger and risk arises from the irrefutable fact that to go into space, you must go mind-numbingly fast, at least 25 times the speed of sound, and then return. The required speed alone creates a need for amazing power and technologies and for complex operations coordinated around the world. Understanding and developing technologies, which will allow us to control complicated and delicate operations at these incredible speeds and over vast distances, will take decades and perhaps centuries. For two decades, with the Shuttle, we have been mastering launch and reentry, learning lessons – and learning just how much we have yet to learn – over the course of a hundred or so flights. It is only the beginning, a small and critical step in the long journey to becoming a space-faring civilization.

Similarly, the International Space Station is allowing us to master yet another important aspect of space travel to other heavenly bodies – long-term, non-stop operations in space. This involves mastering living and working in space, including the challenges of performing in weightlessness and the debilitation that happens to a body that has evolved for millions of years to use the strong force of gravity. It also involves mastering long-term, non-stop operations on the ground that involve multiple agencies and countries. The importance of this cannot be diminished, since undoubtedly, venturing to other planets will involve such enormous collaborations. The Station has moved us forward lightyears in our ability to operate globally, and to understand and withstand long-duration space travel.

Aside from the operational lessons that we have learned, the Shuttle and Station have provided us an unparalleled scientific opportunity in research experiments. We have the chance to probe biological systems and physical materials by varying a force that we could not otherwise vary. Will all research experiments aboard the Station make an immediate and dramatic impact? Unlikely. Even ground-based research does not work that way. But I would like to highlight just two types of research done in space that promise great rewards and promise to return the investment many times over. Both tie in to the next big wave in biomedical research, that of understanding the basis for disease both at a cellular and molecular level.

The first area of research I would like to highlight is growing human tissues outside the human body, using the NASA bioreactor. Of course for over a hundred years, we have been able to grow cells – we all did it back in Petri dishes in eighth grade biology – but cells are not the same as tissues. In fact, when a cluster of cells gets large enough, they begin to differentiate, to take on different roles in the larger organ. Consider a cancer tumor. It has a blood vessel system and glandular structures that enable it to secrete chemicals, chemicals important for metastasis. In the NASA bioreactor, we have the opportunity to grow many types of tissues, outside the human body, on a large scale, with cells differentiated, and the Station allows us to do it for months on end. This is an unprecedented opportunity to gain answers about the cellular basis for diseases affecting every organ of the human body. Hundreds of researchers across the country are studying many different types of tissue, using a ground-based NASA bioreactor, and those that get to fly their experiments in space have an incredible opportunity to study the largest, most stress-free, and highest-fidelity tissues.

The second area of research is protein crystal growth, and these experiments have been flying since almost the beginning of the Shuttle program. The end result is not crystals themselves, but structures of protein molecules. Proteins are enormous gangly molecules with thousands of atoms, and nothing happens in our bodies without proteins being involved. Each protein has an active site, a specific place in a specific structure that allows it to combine in a specific way with other proteins to either make something good or bad happen in our bodies. If we knew the complete structure and that active site, it would be relatively simply to come up with a chemical to fit within that site to prevent something from happening.

Protein crystals are the way to determine the structure. Imagine shining light on a glass prism; from the pattern of colors on the wall, we could determine the shape of that prism. For protein crystals, the dimensions are much, much smaller, so instead of light, we use x-rays to reveal their shape. With either glass prisms or protein crystals, any flaws in them will disturb the resulting pattern and prevent the true structure from being revealed. This is why growing protein crystals in space is so beneficial. The protein crystals are extremely delicate, and in the environment of space, they can grow more quiescently and more perfectly to reveal more accurate – and in some cases, the only available – structures.

Protein-structure-based drug design is now being done all over the world, and it has been the source of some of the most effective drugs for some of the most challenging diseases. These include HIV drugs that can eliminate the presence of the virus and make possible a relatively symptom-free life for many years. Another example is a recently introduced prescription flu drug that can make any strain of flu possibly a one- or two-day annoyance instead of a serious multi-week, sometimes lethal, illness. Hundreds of billions of dollars are lost each year in this country due to common but untreatable illnesses, and the use of space to discover even one effective drug would return many-fold the $16 billion we spend each year on the entire space program.

It is critical to put in perspective the level of this $16 billion investment in space exploration and research. In fact, it is exceedingly small compared to the other agency budgets that must focus on the here and now. For instance, we have spent far more paying farmers not to grow crops than we have each year on our entire Shuttle program. There are good reasons to provide farm subsidies, and yet there are equally compelling reasons to invest even more in space research, an activity that has yielded substantial return on investment over the past four decades.

For research in general, either space based or ground based, finding immediate applications is a challenge that requires patience. Yet there is a prevailing demand for instant gratification in our society, with Wall Street and corporations responding almost exclusively to current quarter earnings. Since I received my Ph.D. in 1988, virtually all elite corporate basic research centers America have vanished – including those at Bell Labs, Exxon, Xerox, and Texas Instruments. Instead, research is supported only if it can be tied to business units, with researchers having to justify their existence only by having a positive impact on profit and loss in the current quarter. The most important discoveries in our society would never have been made if subjected to such restrictions. Research, like the quest to become a space-faring civilization, is a long but critical road. Since companies must focus on the here and now, it is the responsibility of our government to look to the future, to invest in research and activities that will pay dividends in the long run.

For Congress to continue to make this investment, however, I believe that receiving an economic return from it is absolutely vital. Therefore, while at NASA, I became intensely involved in efforts to attract private sector investment in space research. Commercializing research is always a daunting prospect, but space presents some additional formidable challenges. In some successful ventures – one involving the bioreactor that resulted in the most ever paid to NASA for a single experiment – we learned successful private investment is possible with the right approaches. I have been asked to comment on lessons learned. First, the bridge between the laboratory – space-based or otherwise – and the marketplace must be built starting from the marketplace. This contrasts markedly with prior NASA efforts, in which amazing scientific phenomena observed were the starting point, with finding potential links to processes here on earth second. Second, there must be an extremely compelling market need, since only with intense need will there be sufficient upside to bear the cost, the bureaucratic overhead, and the rare accessibility to space. “Nice-to-have” just is not good enough to warrant the investment. Third, there must be a specific source of revenue. The phrase repeated to me over and over, “hopefully they can learn something up there that might be applied to a process here on the ground,” simply does not work. For instance, exactly what question, if answered from a space experiment, will lead to revenue? What physical lightweight product can be produced? Is there a “gold standard” that can be identified in space that will guide product development on the ground? Fourth, it is NASA’s responsibility to identify that need and revenue source, not the investor’s. While this may seem a simple concept, time and again, NASA has put the onus on investors to create the value proposition and business plan, and market it to NASA. Top-tier credible investors simply do not work this way, leading only investors with motives other than viable business prospects to solicit NASA.

Despite all tangible benefits from the space program, I believe the most important comes from deep within the human spirit. There is no better testament to the importance of this than from the tragedy of Columbia, just two years ago. As one might expect, the entire astronaut corps and NASA family was deeply affected. It is a small community, and not only did we lose colleagues and friends, this loss was a deep and pervasive fear realized. What was entirely unexpected however – at least for me – was the effect this tragedy had on the world. The entire world essentially came to a halt. No other news was covered. People wept, people who had never met an astronaut. Friends I had in other countries at the time received condolences, simply because they were Americans. I received condolences from people I did not know. Columbia captivated and moved our entire society. But the reality is that seven lives were lost. Seven lives. It happens all the time. People across our nation and around the world did not weep for the loss of seven lives. I strongly believe people wept for something far deeper in us all, a deep rooted need to progress our civilization, to go beyond our bounds, beyond our own lives and the lives of our children. People wept because a part of this was lost, and because our whole space endeavors would be at risk.

I have been exceedingly fortunate to have had a small but exciting role in our quest to create a space-faring civilization. But we are all pioneers, everyone in our country because of the bold commitment that we have made to space. For many years I have felt great pride that it would be our generations upon which future generations would look with envy that we started it all. But we are now at a pivotal point in the quest. We are now retiring the Shuttle, and even with the most promising budget proposal, there is still insufficient funding to get us much beyond test flights with a new vehicle. I greatly fear that rather than being the generations to have started it all, we will be the generations to bring it to a grinding halt. We simply cannot let that happen.

SpaceRef staff editor.