Space Exploration > Interviews|
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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.