Shuttle science; is it paying off?
Experimenters could be in for a rough ride as NASA readies its science program for a return to orbit. SEALED INSIDE A cocoon of scaffolding at Kennedy Space Center, FL, the shuttle's thermos-shaped Spacelab module awaits a December launch aboard Columbia, its first mission since the Challenger explosion of January 1986.
But space scientists, astronauts, and experts familiar with Spacelab and shuttle experiments are worried that NASA's science mission for the 1990s already is off course.
"NASA is very concerned about making sure things work from an engineering standpoint, but they don't have a lot of the detailed scientific expertise to really make sure things are going to work from the scientific side," says Byron Lichtenberg, who was a payload specialist on Spacelab 1 in 1983 and is training for an April 1992 shuttle laboratory mission. "They like to throw out numbers, [saying things] like '90% of our experiments were successful,' in order to have quantified measurements of how well they're doing.
"For engineers, it's a success if you throw the switches and the lights come on, but for scientists, that's just the beginning of the story."
Other space industry leaders say NASA officials are forgetting the facts of the pre-Challenger science program in the planning of future shuttle science objectives. They note:
* Official records of Spacelab
experiments often overstated the number
of scientific successes. * In one highly publicized space
science program, only 38% of the
experiments ever worked at all. * Only 18% of the novice scientists
who participated in this program
ever retrieved useful scientific data,
yet NASA plans to continue the
program without review.
These critics point to other disturbing trends that continue today:
* NASA fails to maintain adequate
records of past experiments that could
help researchers learn from
previous mistakes. * NASA packs incompatible
experiments together in cramped lockers
aboard the shuttle, often ruining
results. * Although preflight testing has been
proven to increase the chances of
success in space experiments, NASA
has only one test plane and does
not mandate its use for shuttle-bound
experiments. NASA has no
plans to buy or lease another test
To summarize, says Taylor Wang, a former payload specialist who performed experiments aboard the pre-Challenger Spacelab 3 mission in 1985, about half of the projects scheduled to fly into space on the orbiter will do so with little or no practical proof that they will work once they reach microgravity.
"A lot of experiments are getting rushed [into the program] by somebody who says, `Hey, that looks interesting,' without giving any thought to it," says Wang, who is developing shuttle experiments at Vanderbilt Univ., Nashville, TN. "Sometimes it becomes a matter of how much the investigator is willing to exaggerate the possibilities of an experiment."
But Joseph Alexander, NASA's assistant associate administrator for space science, says his office's peer review panels approve only "worldclass" projects for shuttle flights.
"We're not going to let ourselves get into the situation where we pick a couple of experiments without setting clear objectives for the research we fly," Alexander says.
"[Taylor Wang] has flown and seen things I haven't. Early in the shuttle program, there was a tendency for people in NASA to exaggerate where there was overpromising and hype."
A case in point
Consider the fluid physics module flown on Spacelab 1 from Nov. 28 to Dec. 8, 1983. Six European researchers designed the module to study the behavior of fluids in microgravity. This information is crucial to the design of fuel tanks and garden irrigation systems for the planned Space Station Freedom.
The module contained a reservoir of silicon that was to be injected between two circular plates. According to the European researchers, pulling the silicon-saturated plates apart would create a 3-in.-tall cylinder of suspended liquid.
By heating the disks unevenly and rotating them in opposite directions, the researchers hoped to study a phenomenon called Marangoni convection, a boiling motion caused by a change in fluid surface tension with respect to temperature. On Earth, the experiment is almost impossible to perform because gravity compresses the column of fluid into a cylinder as tall as two stacked quarters.
When payload specialist Byron Lichtenberg ran the experiment on Spacelab 1, however, he discovered that the silicon fluid would not stick to the plates. Instead, it overflowed into the chamber, forming a viscous, free-floating blob.
Lichtenberg tinkered with the device for three days before he got any results. The delay reduced the amount of data he collected for the European researchers and limited the amount of time he spent with the 71 other Spacelab 1 projects.
NASA listed the experiment as a 100% success in its post-flight mission report.
Two years later, the Europeans reflew an updated version of the fluid physics module on another Spacelab mission. But first, they tested it on NASA's KC-135 plane, which creates short periods of microgravity during parabolic loops. This time, the equipment worked perfectly.
Despite the proven effectiveness of preflight testing, NASA allows untried experimental hardware to fly on the shuttle.
This practice, along with other shortcomings inherent in NASA's plans for future space experimentation, is rooted deeply in the past.
Spacelab always has been the jewel of NASA's space science program.
While its predecessor, Skylab, had been built with cannibalized Apollo hardware, Spacelab was designed expressly for the sake of science. About the size of a school bus, the Spacelab module was expected to house nearly 100 experiments and fly up to five times a year.
Cost overruns in the shuttle program forced space scientists to cut back on other projects in order to keep their dream lab. NASA reduced the orbiter middeck, which would house experiments between Spacelab missions, from 2,000 [ft.sup.3] to 700 [ft.sup.3].
But the Spacelab module made it into orbit only three times from 1983 to 1986, forcing experimenters to use the middeck for most shuttle science.
From 1981 to 1983, more than 150 experiments rode into space inside middeck lockers designed to house food, clothing, and spare parts.
One of these was the continuous flow electrophoresis shuttle middeck experiment sponsored by McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Co., St. Louis. Newspapers heralded the device, designed to purify proteins, as a "pharmaceutical plant in the sky."
McDonnell Douglas's Charlie Walker, the first commercial U.S. astronaut, accompanied the equipment on one November 1985 shuttle mission. He discovered that the crowded middeck--the crew's bathroom, bedroom, and gymnasium--was anything but an ideal science laboratory.
"Imagine putting your laboratory in a broom closet, with eight hours of power a day," says Walker, now a ground-based researcher at McDonnell Douglas. "You have to get all your data completed within four to five days, and your only communication with other researchers is by one or two indirect reports each day. It puts very severe constraints on what you can do."
Samples returned from the shuttle were only slightly purer than the material produced on the ground.
McDonnell Douglas scrapped the $50 million project after its fourth flight, when ground-based electrophoresis technology advanced beyond its cumbersome shuttle-tailored prototype.
Still, NASA and private companies promised incredible, almost immediate, cash returns from shuttle science.
Based on claims NASA made in 1983, the Center for Space Policy Studies, a Cambridge, MA, aerospace consulting firm, reported that $40 billion in rare space-processed pharmaceuticals and microchips would be produced on the shuttle by the turn of the century.
Others insisted that breakthroughs such as a cure for cancer and perfect ball-bearings were right around the corner.
Then Challenger exploded.
Today, officials at the Center for Space Policy Studies, renamed CSP Associates, admit the 1983 report put egg on their faces.
Even if the orbiter were being launched on a monthly basis, CSP officials now say companies cannot expect any returns from shuttle science until well beyond 2000.
"Because the shuttle is up so infrequently now, NASA is trying to do six or seven different things in addition to its main payload," says Marc Vaucher, CSP's vice president for NASA programs.
Corporations, universities, and NASA's own program offices must fight for space. NASA's Office of Commercial Policy, for example, puts a big squeeze on the shuttle.
Each of its 16 Centers for the Commercial Development of Space (CCDS) designs shuttle experiments for specific technologies, such as materials processing, life sciences, remote sensing, or protein crystal growth. NASA provides seed money and shuttle space; corporations pick up the rest of the tab.
Because no Spacelabs have flown since Challenger, CCDS experiments have been relegated to middeck lockers. That's seven lockers for 193 companies and 53 universities exploring 61 different technologies.
Some companies already have begun to look elsewhere for access to space.
Payload Systems Inc., Cambridge, MA, a space services company co-founded by Byron Lichtenberg, the Spacelab 1 scientist, has signed an agreement with the Soviet Union for use for the Space Station Mir. This past December, Payload Systems' protein crystals were grown for 61 days--longer than five shuttle missions--in the undisturbed microgravity of Mir.
The Center for Macromolecular Crystallography at Univ. of Alabama, Birmingham--the "darling" of NASA's commercial development centers--can't compete with Payload Systems, says its director, Charlie Bugg.
The center has the largest staff of crystallographers in the world yet only a fifth of its protein crystals grow successfully on the shuttle.
Most failures are caused by g-jitter, vibrations from crew activity and movement of the orbiter. On a March 18, 1989, mission aboard Discovery, for example, astronauts pounding a middeck treadmill shook the center's crystals to pieces, making any resulting data useless.
Still, its experiments have flown more times than any other CCDS.
"We've flown eight times and that sounds like a whole lot of experiments," says Bugg. "Well, it is, in NASA terms. But eight experiments in my lab is nothing--it's the first two weeks of a project.
"We're so early in the game, there's no telling where this is going to go."
NASA is going for broke with protein crystals. Expected to revolutionize the pharmaceutical industry, protein crystals have science, health, commercial, and congressional appeal.
"Sprinkle that with a few successes," says Bugg, "and you've got it all."
NASA brochures contain dramatic before-and-after shots of Earth- vs. space-grown crystals with allusions to upcoming cures for influenza.
"I wish they'd stop putting so much emphasis on protein crystal growth," Bugg says. "I have people talking to me at [NASA's] Space Station Office that make me feel like the only reason they're building the Space Station is so they can grow protein crystals. I'm the first one to tell them, 'Back off on that stuff.'"
Lodewijk van den Berg, a Spacelab 3 payload specialist, says Bugg himself is rushing his experiments in order to get the data he needs for continued corporate funding. He faults Bugg for putting his experiments on the middeck without designing shock-absorbing hardware to minimize the impact of g-jitter on his crystals.
But, according to Bugg, such equipment redesigns require extensive paperwork, safety approval, and engineering scrutiny, a time-consuming process that inevitably would result in missed flight opportunity.
"I can understand it, especially in view of the public relations impact of doing things like that," says van den Berg, now a researcher at EG&G Energy Measurements Inc., Goleta, CA. "They are in a hurry to do as many experiments as possible, so they make short cuts.
"The thing that really gets me is that you listen to official statements and everybody says, 'Oh Wonderful! It was a very successful experiment and everything went fine.' Then three months later you hear, things like, 'Well, there was too much vibration.'"
Van den Berg says NASA exaggerates successes on most missions. On Spacelab 1, for example, he estimates that only 12 of the 72 experiments achieved scientifically significant data, compared with the 53 successes reported.
"Sometimes I am very generous. I say, 'Well, it's so darned difficult and you take so many chances, no wonder it doesn't work 100% all the time,'" van den Berg says. "But given all these things, why don't people recognize that and honestly say it?"
Clarke Prouty, who heads NASA's Get Away Special (GAS) program at Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, says he can't afford to report failures.
Lack of reporting
NASA never supervises its GAS customers or asks them for post-flight summaries. This supposedly cuts red tape and stabilizes GAS costs at $3,000 to $10,000 a flight.
"If we tried to assure success for our payloads, we would price ourselves right out of business," Prouty says.
According to a report filed by astronaut Bonnie Dunbar, NASA has no comprehensive database cataloging the wealth of scientific research that has been conducted on the space shuttle. NASA isn't acting on the report, Dunbar says.
A few NASA employees have accumulated some records on their own. Cheryl Winter, a materials scientist at Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL, has compiled a computer database of 700 shuttle experiments.
But more needs to be done.
"If we're really going to help everyone, we need to establish a good database requiring [experimenters] to give us back information on the quality of their data and the success of their hardware, even if it didn't work," Dunbar says. "That's useful information for the person who's just starting out."
These experimenters also need more access to a NASA test plane.
But NASA has only one KC-135, which can't accommodate every researcher who is developing new hardware for the shuttle. R.E. Shurney, director of Marshall Space Flight Center's KC-135 program, says he has been asking NASA administrators for years to buy another plane but has repeatedly been told that there aren't enough funds.
NASA's test plane is out of commission until November due to extensive repair work. To make up for the lost time, Shurney crammed 26 experimenters into the plane on its last flight this June. Usually, he limits flights to 12 experimenters.
"When you have to stack that many people on board, things get all congested, and it's not the optimal environment," Shurney says.
There's a backlog even when the plane flies on schedule. As a result, Shurney says, experiments "that should be flown are not being flown to meet experimenters' objectives."
Without the KC-135, some scientists either miss shuttle flights or resort to a bit of fudging to make up for a lack of preflight data.
"It happened on the Spacelabs, it's happening now, and it will happen in the future," says Wang, the Spacelab 3 payload specialist." NASA needs more concrete proof that these experiments will work, and it's not doing [anything] about it."
The majority of shuttle experiments undergo extensive testing on the KC-135, says NASA's Alexander. But he admits that mistakes happen.
"We're developing new technology against a tight schedule," he says. "There is a risk that if we're not careful we will be forced to unacceptably compress the ground checkout schedules."
Enter Payload Systems Inc.
The company, which acts as a sort of travel agency for the space shuttle, is run by space scientists who know what it takes to get an experiment to work on the orbiter.
Clients range from university researchers to big industrial names like Boeing, General Electric, Grumman, and Hitachi.
For a fee, chief scientist Lichtenberg and president Anthony Arrott, engineers who both designed experiments for Spacelab 1, will help researchers plan shuttle projects and take care of all the details needed to get through NASA's red tape.
"After going through this experience, we realized that NASA had all of its engineers busy with power and safety requirements," says Lichtenberg, who is on leave from Payload Systems to train for his upcoming Spacelab flight." As engineers and scientists, we thought we could interface between scientists and NASA to make experiments more productive."
Testing on the KC-135 is crucial to the success of shuttle experiments, Lichtenberg says.
Under an agreement with NASA, Payload Systems leases the agency's test plane two or three times a year for small groups of experimenters. With four months' notice and $8,000, the company provides instruction and 120 periods of parabolic microgravity for experiment testing.
Now that NASA's test plane is out of commission, Payload Systems is considering buying its own KC-135. To make the $6 million investment worthwhile, the company asked NASA to agree to lease the Payload Systems plane. But NASA couldn't make any commitments without opening a bid to other companies.
NASA has failed to capitalize on one of its most valuable and rarely used resources: the astronaut corps.
Bonnie Dunbar currently heads NASA's mission specialist advisory group at Johnson Space Center, Houston, which meets regularly with novice space researchers.
The astronauts point out ideas and experiments that didn't work, providing insight found nowhere else in the program. But, according to Dunbar, "the word hasn't gotten out" that the group even exists.
When they meet, the astronauts can only do so much.
"Bonnie's group ... can't really get into the guts of [a problem]," says Lichtenberg. "The astronauts don't have the time to go in and spend days with people."
To make the most out of its resources and prevent researchers from making avoidable mistakes on the shuttle, former payload specialists, shuttle astronauts, NASA employees, and industry experts say NASA should:
* Expand the role, size and
exposure of its advisory
group. * Develop a comprehensive
network, accessible by
modem, detailing past shuttle
science experiments. * Require reports from all future space
experiments and review them
annually to assess the results' validity. * Purchase another KC-135 test plane
and mandate its use. * Expand the shuttle's science
capacity by following through with
projects such as Spacehab, a privately
owned payload bay module
containing 50 experiment lockers. * Contract services it cannot provide
adequately--such as KC-135 flights,
experiment consultation, flight
readiness review, and science
database compilation--to experienced
space services companies.
As Lichtenberg prepares for his upcoming Spacelab mission, he's far from discouraged.
"Spacelab is a unique laboratory, like none other we can create on Earth," Lichtenberg says. "We only have three or four weeks of real lab time in space, so to try to say what will happen is foolhardly.
"Things are different up there--the way fluids behave, the way crystals behave--all those things are so different in orbit that we just don't know how to take advantage of them yet. But we will."
PHOTO : Seated in a mock-up of a space shuttle (upper left), payload specialist Byron Lichtenberg
PHOTO : studies the controls he will need to master for an upcoming shuttle science flight.
PHOTO : Lichtenberg (lower left) loads a protein crystal growth experiment into a glove box inside
PHOTO : the Spacelab training module.
PHOTO : Mission specialist Owen Garriott (left) takes a blood sample from payload specialist Byron
PHOTO : Lichtenberg during the 1983 maiden flight of NASA's Spacelab module.
PHOTO : Charlie Bugg, director of NASA's Center for Macromolecular Crystallography, uses x-ray
PHOTO : diffraction to determine the molecular structure of protein crystals grown on a space
PHOTO : shuttle. Bugg has flown experiments on eight shuttle flights.
PHOTO : Manuel Navia, an x-ray crystallographer at Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Cambridge, MA, prepares
PHOTO : to examine protein crystals. Vertex sponsors Bugg's research and gets space crystals in
PHOTO : return. "We can see details we've never seen before," Navia says.
PHOTO : NASA engineers prepare Charlie Bugg's protein crystal growth tray for shuttle flight.
PHOTO : Typically, only two out of every 10 proteins grow successfully in space due to shuttle
PHOTO : vibrations.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||space science; includes related articles|
|Publication:||R & D|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1990|
|Previous Article:||The alchemist.|
|Next Article:||Computer package puts chemistry at your fingertips.|