Astrodigital Space Exploration Home Page
Concepts and Tutorials about Space
The History of Space Exploration
Interviews with Astronauts and other Persons of Note
All About Space Stations
All About Space Technology
Space Exploration Home Page
Space Exploration –> Interviews

Byron Lichtenberg
Speaks on Space

By Jim Plaxco

On the afternoon of Saturday, October 23, I had the good fortune to be able to sit down and talk with Dr. Byron Lichtenberg about space based research. Following is a transcript of that conversation.

Q: As a scientist, do you think that there is value in doing experiments in orbit?

A: I really think that there is a lot of value in carrying out experiments in orbit. In the Spacelab program, in the last 10 years we have only had seven weeks of dedicated laboratory experience in space. So if you try to compare doing research in space versus research in a ground based laboratory, we are really at the beginning stages. I know in my heart that there are a lot of things that we are going to find out in the future - either processes that we can elucidate in space or new crystal structures or a variety of things that we can learn from going into space and doing primarily life science and microgravity science experiments in zero gravity that we just can not predict yet.

A lot of people say "where's the beef, where's the payoff?" and we can't say that yet. Having been there twice and knowing the changes in the physical parameters of doing an experiment, there are going to be things that we find out when we get to the station - when we get to a permanent laboratory existence in space - that nobody can predict yet.

Q: What is it that you can do with an experiment in space that you can't do on the ground? What is the added value that we are getting?

A: The added value comes in the areas of - lets start off with materials science and microgravity science. When you go into weightlessness, you don't have what's called buoyancy effects. That is, if you have two materials, for example lets say lead and tin, and you melt those together and mix them up. On the ground the lead would immediately settle to the bottom so it would sediment. The tin, which is lighter than the lead, would rise to the top. If you were trying to freeze those, they would freeze into two separate materials. In space you don't have those things going on so you can form new types of materials that are unperturbed by gravity. If you try to set up a column of fluid, lets say water, here on Earth you can only make a very thin capillary column on the order of several microns thick. If you try to do that in space, you can make a column the size of a soda can, 12 ounces of water, without the can around it. So you can start to look at large scale activities. You can start to better understand the fundamental physics of what's going on.

Another area is protein crystal growth. Here on Earth as you grow the crystal, the concentration of the fluid around the side of the crystal changes and that induces flows or currents so that now you have material being swept past the growing face of the crystal which distorts how it grows. It changes the regularity of the crystal itself. In space you don't have those things so you can start to understand the basic process of crystal growth or the basic process of crystal nucleation, or how a crystal starts to grow from a solution.

Things like that really are experiments that just can't be done here on Earth.

Q: On your two shuttle missions which experiment did you find to be the most interesting?

A: The most interesting one was the creation of artificial auroras. When we set out to investigate how the Sun's energy gets transferred into the Earth's atmosphere and to try to understand more about the Aurora Borealis, one of the things that we had set up to do was a very controlled experiment where we had a specific known amount of energy in an electron beam coming out of the Shuttle and going into the lower atmosphere. By using a very sensitive low light level television camera, we could measure the amount of energy that the atmosphere gave off as it fluoresces. It's almost like a fluorescent light. To do that experiment for the first time was really exciting for us. It was the first time and the only time that has been done so far and it helps the scientists to better understand the mechanisms of how the Sun's energy gets coupled into our atmosphere and how the auroras are formed.

Q: With respect to conducting experiments in space, a common criticism is that we really don't need people in space to carry out these experiments _ that they can be automated and launched aboard robotic laboratories similar to the Industrial Space Facility. How do you feel about that position and the validity of those criticisms about people being an unnecessary, costly component?

A: I think that it is costly to have humans in space but I think that humans are vitally necessary for a variety or reasons. Clearly we can do astronomy and observational kinds of experiments from space without humans, but when you get down to life sciences - for example keeping living organisms alive, tending them, to understand the effects of weightlessness on humans or other living organisms, you need people up there to take care of the plants and animals and the people.

If you try to do the materials sciences experiments, some of those now are to the stage where we can pretty much do an automated experiment. For example, some forms of crystal growth can be done in automated furnaces. But so much of the work, and we have seen this in the U.S. International Microgravity Lab mission just a year ago - that having a trained protein crystallographer in space in just a few days could narrow down the conditions for successful protein crystal growth in space. Something we hadn't done before and if you go up there with an automated system, you are kind of fishing and what we really want to do is have the human up there with the experiment initially so that you can set up the proper conditions. Then what you would like to be able to do is take those conditions, put them into a box or chamber or an Industrial Space Facility and then put them out there. So we need the human being first to understand what the experiment is and to really make sure that you have it set up to work properly. Then some of these can be benefited by long duration human tended experiments. So it is not an either or question.

For materials sciences, you need humans for the beginning parts of it and then you need the quiescent state. For life sciences, you need the humans there virtually all the time.

Q: Do you think the arguments being made in support of the space station program in terms of its importance in carrying out these types of experiments are valid arguments?

A: I think absolutely they are valid. It's always a matter of priorities and where you want to put your resources and those things are debatable. But certainly the value of humans in space in my mind is not debatable. It's a proven theorem. I guess what I see is that we need a mix, we need a balance. We need to have some people in space to do things. You also need some human tended facilities where you can put something out there and let it go off and do its thing for several months at a time.

Q: When you were with Payload Systems you were breaking ground by developing ventures with the Russian space program to carry out experiments aboard Mir. What was it like working with the Russian space agency in terms of differences and similarities with NASA?

A: The ability of the Russians to respond quickly was something we enjoyed seeing. When we started out, the Russians hadn't done this sort of thing before. They had never gone out and done any kind of a commercial service where they sold a microgravity service to a foreign company - let alone a company in the United States. So we were breaking new ground and what we found at every step was that they really hadn't thought of this before. For example, we went to produce what NASA calls a Payload Integration Plan, a PIP, and the NASA one is maybe a foot and a half thick. When we sat down with the Russians, within four days we hammered out a PIP that was no more than half an inch thick which covered all the tests, all the responsibilities on both sides, the crew training, the operations, the way the whole thing was going to be done. So that was kind of interesting that they had never really worked with an outside customer before. They had always done things inside their own organization.

So a big difference was a reduction in paperwork and their willingness to be flexible. There were several times when they came up with a requirement that we thought didn't make sense and when we tried to understand the rationale, we could then propose an alternate solution to meet their requirement and they were willing to go along with that.

Things that were very similar - they are very safety conscious, they want to know how this thing is going to work, they want to satisfy themselves that its going to be safe, that it's not going to harm their spaceship or their crews. They are also very good about the training aspects. They want to make sure that their cosmonauts are well trained, that they understand the experiment. So they are very thorough and they do a good job. And they launch on time.

Q: What was your reaction when you learned that we had signed the "Joint Agreement on Cooperation in Space" on September 2 with Russia?

A: I think that it was a validation of the things that we in Payload Systems and I had been doing for the last seven or eight years which is to try to enhance cooperation. In the early days we were getting a lot of attacks from the press and congress - now its a sort of validation of our forward thinking activities of several years ago. So I'm really happy to see it. I've got a lot of good friends who are cosmonauts and people in the Russian Space Agency and I think that as a group of people, if we work together we are going to be able to accomplish more than two groups working apart. So I'm pleased.

Q: Do you think there is any substantial risk involved? There has been a lot of gloom and doom talk during the year about the state of the Russian space program, some of it from the administrator of the RSA himself saying its possible that they could fold in a year?

A: There are always some risks to doing something like this. I think that if we are reasonably prudent it's going to work pretty well. In fact, I read an editorial a month ago that suggested that maybe a way to go about doing this cooperative aspect with the Russians with space stations is to have two stations up there. One, the Mir 2, the Russian follow on space station, that would be in a higher inclination orbit that we would share for life sciences and for human interactive experiments like I described earlier. Then have a U.S. sponsored space station maybe in a lower inclination orbit that would be more of a human tended, almost an ISF type of thing where once we had perfected the human interactive experiments, we would then move them to the human tended free flyer. What this would do is to operationally combine the programs but keep the hardware somewhat separate because that's a big concern - how do we hook up our modules and our systems to a Russian system? Once the hardware is intricately entwined then it makes it more difficult in terms of hardware operation. There may be ways to combine operations to use the Soyuz return vehicles, to understand and take advantage of their experience in long duration human flight and yet have two programs that build upon each other and are mutually synergistic.

Q: How do you feel about space station Alpha being one half of this joint space station?

A: I think that space station Alpha is a good start if you look at it as a building block, as an evolutionary point rather than an endpoint in itself. I think that's the key. What we need to do is start out similar to the way the Russians did, which is an evolutionary program that gets something up there that we can use that's going to support science. Then as you grow and mature and understand what capabilities you need next, then you add on to it, whether its more module space, more crew, more power. Clearly those things are desirable but rather than sit here and berate ourselves yearly over a paper design, lets put something in space even if it's not totally optimal. There is no such thing as an optimal space station. You put up a facility and you start to work within that constraint. Then as you start to push the edges of the constraint, you figure out what do we need next. Do we need a hab module to put more people in or do we need another lab module. Clearly you probably need some more power, so are we going to maybe work with the Russians to develop solar dynamic power or what have you. I think that there are ways of doing this and the Russians clearly need some Western financing. There is no doubt about that. And that's a political problem as much as it is an economic problem. I can't really address the political parts but I think we'll get there.

Q: You were involved in one of the science committees that had input into the redesign of the space station?

A: A little bit. I was on a subcommittee on Operations and Utilization that was chaired by Professor Dan Hastings at MIT and he reported back to the Space Station Science Applications Advisory Subcommittee. We were a sub-subcommittee looking at ops and utilization.

Q: What was the process? What type of information were you feeding back, how did that whole thing work?

A: The way the Ops and Utilization subcommittee worked is that we would attend meetings and get briefings. We would try to use a sort of an independent means to push concepts such as the Express Rack which is a program being developed for the space station now which would allow scientists and investigators to very rapidly get their experiments up to a space station. Basically you have a standard set of interfaces with standard cables, connectors, data power services and if you have got a container that's already been certified by NASA, you can build your equipment there and run a few simple checks to verify that the interfaces are correct and then ship it up in say a foam package so that you don't have to worry about launch loads, plug it in, turn it on and it works. The object here is to speed the access to space for experiments and to try to be able to do experiments in an iterative manner so that you are not spending years and years designing one big facility.

Q: Is that something that is long overdue because it seems that the experiments that do go up on the shuttle have a very long lead time?

A: Yes, and you know it's almost a chicken and egg problem here. You have on the one hand people who say lets do something cheap and quick - it may not be high reliability but we want a quick turnaround and that's a good goal but the problem with the Shuttle is that you don't get a quick turnaround on the Shuttle. NASA has so many paperwork stops that you have to go through, and in many cases rightly so, that its hard to do things rapidly. And because the Shuttle is only flying seven or eight times a year, you don't get the rapid reflight.

When we get to the space station, its up there all the time, and every couple of months you've got an exchange of experiments. Now investigators can afford to do the iterative kind of science - to try something and if it works, you move on to the next part. If it doesn't work, you find out what went wrong, you fix it, and you go do it again. That routine access is what we really need.

Q: Are you worried about the space program becoming too conservative because it seems that every time anything goes wrong there is a lot of bad press. What kind of impact does this have on the people who work on this stuff day to day?

Byron Lichtenberg and Jim Plaxco at the PSF Science Learning Center A: It certainly has a lot of impact. I think what we need to do is take a step back and put this whole thing in perspective and realize that things we do here on Earth are not 100 percent successful. I guess that what I would like to say is that we have been trying to do science on the space shuttle under the glare of the TV lights. Every day we've got to come up with some new discovery to keep the media happy and to keep their interest going. To be honest with you, that is not the way science is conducted. In science, if you're doing a real experiment, it's done in a laboratory and it's done over a period of weeks, months, and even years. It's a very iterative process and when you finally get to a result that's publishable or noteworthy or something significant that could change the way our human condition is here on Earth _ that's generally the result of years of experiments where you start out and you understand the problem better after the first one and then you modify it and modify it. You don't put out a press release about whether today's experiment was a success or a failure because anytime you learn from something it's a success.

I think that as we get to the station era we need to change the way we do this. That is, let the scientists go off and it may be months to a year or more before you hear anything back from them in terms of a definitive result that can then be applied back here on Earth. It's a tough problem but we just need to take that little step of faith and realize that's the way science works and we're going to learn a lot from it. There's no doubt.

Q: To end up here on a lighter note, what is your fondest recollection of your involvement with the space program.

A: I think that the fondest recollection really is all the wonderful people that I've met. I've been lucky to be exposed to scientists and engineers and managers from around the world _ I mean space programs of Europe, Canada, the United States, and even Russia. It's just amazing if you step back and think about what we have accomplished as a world in just 30 years of space exploration. It's really remarkable. We've gone from one person in a little can to orbiting space stations and spaceships and people on the Moon, and probes to planets. I'm just waiting for the next 30 years.

This article originally appeared in the January-March 1994 issue of PSF News.

Home Concepts History Interviews Space Stations Technology
Visit these other AstroDigital web sites
[Astronomical Adventures]  [Astrodigital]  [Digital Excursions]
[Explore Mars]  [Space Exploration]
[Mars Society Chapters]   [National Space Society Chapters]

This Space Exploration Web Ring site is owned by
Jim Plaxco.
Want to join the Space Exploration Web Ring?
[Skip Prev] [Prev] [Next] [Skip Next] [Random] [Next 5] [List Sites]

Copyright 2000-2001, Astrodigital, All rights reserved.
Email address