ACES Conference Summary Part II: Keynote Speaker and Demand Panel

After Phil’s intro, a keynote speaker, Nobel Prize winner, Dr Baruch Blumberg, started things off. Dr Baruch was one of the scientists who discovered a lot about how infectious diseases like Hepatitis B spread and his research led to the development of the first HepB vaccine, which has saved many lives. In an effort to be kind of brief, I’ll just highlight a few of his good points:

  • Basic science almost always leads to unanticipated discoveries and results, and those discoveries are what can then lead to practical inventions.
  • It’s hard to have real continuous innovation in practical applications without continuing to do basic science research.
  • In the robots vs humans debate, he pointed out that robots are only really good at finding what you expect to find–that they weren’t any good at asking questions and synthesizing unexpected observations. Sometimes you luck out and are able to adapt the robot to further studying the new discovery, but humans are much better at adapting to the unexpected, or for drawing new conclusions.

Demand Panel: Tourism, Biotech, and Protein Crystals, Oh My!
After Dr Baruch’s address, the first panel of discussions talked about the demand for space access, ie real markets for commercial space launch.

The first presenter was David Gump of t/Space, and he discussed the potential for orbital space tourism. His presentation was very similar to the part of t/Space’s CE&R presentation that I previously discussed on the blog back in August. David discussed a bit about Air Launch’s progress, and on t/Space’s CXV bid. He mentioned that t/Space was going to push for NASA to allow them to retain the IP on their CXV if they ended up winning the bid for commercial ISS resupply that NASA is supposed to releasing “Real Soon Now”[TM]. He also mentioned that if Air Launch is able to win the Falcon SLV downselect, they hope to be having their first launch (of a Falcon I equivalent booster) sometime in late 2007. He stated that t/Space was hoping to market it’s flights at a price of around $5M per seat per flight, which it figures could lead to hundreds of people flying to orbit per year by the middle of the next decade. Noting Mark’s mention over on Chair Force Engineer that there have been a total of 250 manned space flights in human history so far, it’s exciting to think that we may soon have worked our way up to the point where we launch that many passenger flights every year.

One of the key take-aways from David’s presentation was the fact that the high potential flight rates caused by space tourism make it easier to do space research by providing assured, reliable, affordable, and frequent access to space. If you know that there’s a flight up to the Nautilus station or ISS every week, it makes it a lot easier to slip a researcher and some cargo into the manifest on the way up with only short notice, and equally easy to come back when the experiment is done. An analogy I can think of, it’s a lot easier to do field research when it is near somewhere that has regular commercial flights–instead of having to charter a plane or a boat or something, you can just buy a ticket, and pay for FedEx to ship your stuff.

The next presenter was Dr Neill Pellis of JSC. Dr Pellis talked about various interesting aspects of microgravity biotech research. It’s sometimes hard to communicate technical concepts clearly to someone outside of your field, but I had a fun time trying to tease out what the various jargon actually meant in layman’s terms. Apparently one of the big issues with growing tissues for research, or for producing various chemicals, antibodies, or other useful things, is that gravity causes the cells to settle to the bottom of the growth dish. When the cells reach the bottom wall, they tend to grow outward in a very thing 2-D layer along the wall of the dish. The problem is that these 2-D tissues apparently lack many of the important morphological properties of real 3-D tissues, which limits their utility in biological research. Not only that, but in cases where surface area matters, the difference between even a small 3-D tissue and a 2-D tissue can be several orders of magnitude more surface area.

Dr Pellis described a rather neat invention that was used to do ground-based research that could partially avoid this problem, it is called a bioreactor, or a rotating wall vessel. Basically imagine two concentric tubes, lined up with their mutual axis going horizontally compared to the ground. The annulus between the two walls was filled completely with growth media and a suspension of cells that you wanted to grow (with all air bubbles removed). The two walls are then slowly rotated, at the same RPM, which quickly causes the whole fluid to rotate with the walls at the same RPM. This allows the cells to stay in suspension, as though they were in free-fall, without inducing the kinds of shear forces that you get when you stir the solution. Apparently, a lot of the cells they study can easily be harmed or destroyed by even the amount of hydrodynamic shear you see in a blood vessel! These bioreactors can provide a free-fall like analog for days, weeks, months, or even years. The problem that Dr Pellis pointed out is that while this allows them to grow some limited 3-D tissues, it still isn’t really anywhere near as good as doing the same thing in genuine microgravity. It allows some preliminary work to be done inexpensively on the ground, but is not a complete substitute for eventually doing the micrograv research.

Dr Pellis also made a few suggestions about what they would need to do this research. First he highlighted the fact that they would need frequent access to space. Probably in some sort of a free-flyer. He pointed out the fact that leaving the equipment in orbit, and only exchanging the samples and researchers was a far better approach than hauling the whole facility up and down each time. He quipped that he “had a lab here on earth, but he didn’t pack it up and take it home with him every time he went home for the night”. It’s a good point.

The last presenter on the panel Larry DeLucas of the University of Alabama. Larry’s work revolved around Protein Crystallography. Apparently all proteins have complicated molecular layouts or “structures”. Apparently, the structure of a protein can greatly effect how the protein actually interacts with other objects, thus making it very important in the development of new drugs. Better structural information can help design drugs that produce less side effects, reach the market faster, and run into less snags during their development. Saving even one year in the development of a drug could be worth 10s of millions of dollars. But, in order to get good structural data via X-ray Crystallography, you need large, high quality crystals.

Dr DeLucas pointed out that after the Human Genome Project finished mapping out the human genome, his group as well as several others were asked to start getting structural data on the various proteins within the human genome. Over the past several years, attempts have been made to get structure on somewhere above 10,000 different soluble proteins, but of the ones that made it to the crystallization process, only about 1/3 of them actually succesfully yielded structural information. Counting both soluble and insoluble proteins, apparently somewhere less than 1% of the proteins investigated to-date have succesfully yielded structural data!

This is where microgravity Protein Crystal Growth comes into play. In orbit, the microgravity environment allows for much purer, larger, and higher resolution crystals to be grown. From my previous dabblings with microgravity materials science, I think this may be partially due to the lack of natural (ie gravity driven) convection.

[As an interesting aside, this ultra-pure crystal growth phenomena is not isolated to protein crystals, many inorganic crystals can also be grown of exceptionally good quality on orbit. Dr DeLucas mentioned as an aside that he had suggested growing artificial rubies on orbit, and then selling them on earth to get revenue for some of the science projects, but got shot down by NASA. It’s an interesting idea nonetheless. While at least by my experience, artificial gemstones have a bit of a stigma to them, space-grown artificial gemstones might be valued high enough in the jewelry market to make a tidy profit off of such a venture. Gems are a high value per weigh and value per volume product, and the demand might be high enough to close the business plan even with the cost of doing stuff in space.]

Anyhow, Dr DeLucas pointed out that there is a quantitatively measurable improvement in protein crystals grown on orbit compared to on earth. There have been some problems in the past with microgravity PCG, particularly due to flying the particular protein only once, and having too-short of a flight (due to the fact that they were done on a 2-week shuttle mission). Apparently the crystals were finer than terrestrial grown crystals, but they were too small for good crystallography, having had too short of a time to grow. There are ways to overcome these issues, but they require frequent flights, and sufficiently long growth periods. Basically, the more times you fly the protein, and the longer you can keep it up per flight, the higher the probability of producing a substantially better crystal. As Dr DeLucas put it, if they could fly every two weeks, he’d guarantee that they could produce better crystals than were possible on earth.

In fact, Dr DeLucas was confident enough of the technical maturity of the process, and of the real delivered benefit, that he’s going to try and craft a business plan between now and the next ACES conference. He wants to get some feedback and then try and carry out the plan. ACES really wants to see at least one or two succesful proof-of-concept businesses launched in the near future to start showing that space has real commercial potential. One of the keys to that plan as he sees it is to couple the space PCG capability with a very high quality terrestrial protein crystal growth and X-ray crystallography capability.

Key Take-aways for Launch Providers
There were a couple of important lessons for potential future launch providers:

  • There are several real markets that could buy rides on commercial vehicles if the launch costs drop a bit.
  • All the major markets benefit greatly from much higher flight rates, ie they need frequent access to space as much as they need low-cost access.
  • High-G ballistic reentry for biotech specimens are doable with extra complications like freezing the samples and such, but lower-G reentries are preferable.
  • Most of the applied biotech phenomena require microgravity timescales of several weeks, with most of the needing 4-6 weeks per experiment.
  • Space Tourism may be an enabler for these markets.
  • Before either of these markets will really take off, they need at least one or two solid, visible successes.
  • Of the microgravity research areas, Protein Crystal Growth is probably the closest to producing profitable businesses.
  • Space Tourism is a lot more dependent on low-cost to orbit, while the applied biotech research is more dependent on frequent access.
  • Timescales matter! While most of the timescales for microgravity biotech research is on the order of days or weeks, there are a few specific areas of basic biological research that can be carried out on suborbital flights. However there are lots of other areas of non-biotech microgravity research that do have short enough timescales to benefit from suborbital flights.
  • Having the ability to either have man-tended operations, or at least teleoperations for biotech research is a lot better than trying to do things autonomously.
  • It is better to fly the lab up only once, and then you only have to fly the raw materials and personel back and forth.
  • Most of the markets are either selling an experience, or selling information. There are very few products that have a high enough price/lb to actually be profitably made on orbit (though artificial space gems might be one of them).

Anyhow, hope that much was informative. I sure learned a ton about the market. I’ll have to get to the other panels, and then the workshops on the second and third day later on tonight.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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12 Responses to ACES Conference Summary Part II: Keynote Speaker and Demand Panel

  1. Anonymous says:

    Isn’t stuff like long-duration free-fall crystal growth
    experiments _precisely_ the sort of thing the ISS was
    supposed to have been able to support?

  2. Ben Reytblat says:

    I’m not sure, but if I remember correctly, the microgravity environment aboard ISS is not good enough due to frequent attitue corrections and vibrations produced by the on-borad equipment.

    Crew-tended free-flyers have been proposed in the past, but looked way too expensive in the BoLocMart implementation.

  3. Jon Goff says:

    Anonymous,
    Yup, PCG is something they’ve known about for years. You can in fact do some of it there, its just that the transportation issues suck. As Dr DeLucas pointed out, you really want to be able to send up new samples every two-four weeks, in order to be competitive with the ground.

    They have in fact done PCG work on the shuttle, and I think on ISS too. Just nowhere near the scale that they’d like to do (or the scale that would actually be commercially valid).

    ~Jon

  4. Jon Goff says:

    Ben,
    Well, you’re partially right. The ISS microgravity environment is good enough for PCG, but not as good as one would hope. It’ll give you better results than the ground, but some sort of free-flyer would be a lot more ideal. Something like a SpaceHab Apex launched on a Falcon V or IX, replenished by a small capsule flying on a Falcon I would be good.

    ~Jon

  5. Anonymous says:

    Seems like a teleoperated free-flying lab might
    be best for really “precision” microgravity, then, if autonomous is awkward:
    humans move around, and their life-support systems have wiggly machinery like
    pumps and fans… a teleoperated lab with small sample exchange capsules
    might be a low-mass way to go…

  6. dave w says:

    Ack! The interface is broken.
    I’m trying to sign my comments,
    and it shows on the preview,
    but they publish as “anonymous”…

  7. Paul Dietz says:

    I think a less potentially biased assessment of the potential of the fields could be obtained by looking at how much interest drug and other medical corporations are showing. Drug companies find protein structures all the time — do they think microgravity is really going to help?

    As far as I know, no protein has ever had its structure first determined from u-gravity grown crystals. There are also increasing numbers of competing technologies for protein structure determination. Advanced NMR, for example, and techniques with intense coherent x-ray pulses that can work on single molecules. Even if microgravity were valuable, its effect at suppressing convection could be emulated on a small scale by using a strong magnetic field to produce enough diamagnetic repulsion to counter the water/protein density difference.

  8. Jon Goff says:

    Dave W,
    Yeah a teleoperated free-flyer makes a lot of sense. You might still want some life support functions, to make the actual experimental equipment cheaper and easier to make (much easier to use convection and air to cool something than merely conduction). But not having humans bouncing around inside all the time would likely be a big win.

    As I said, something on the scale of one of the smaller APEX vehicles that SpaceHab is making would likely be ideal. I’d pick one with reentry capability, but have a small manned vehicle dock with it, swap out experiments/raw materials on a bimonthly basis, and leave the thing in orbit for a few years at a time. By having it with the reentry option, you allow easier upgrades to the overall hardware as more and more efficient ways of doing things are figured out, while not requiring you to haul the thing all the way back to the ground after normal flights.

    ~Jon

  9. Jon Goff says:

    Paul,
    It’s always nice to get your input on these things. However, I think that Dr DeLucas was right on this.

    First off, you need to understand where he’s coming from. He runs a group that is colocated with Argonne National Labs that uses their big synchotron to generate X-rays for doing the X-ray crystallography. His group does many of the various ground-based methods for generating protein crystals. If microgravity PCG ended up being a complete flop, his group would still exist, would still be profitable, and would still be doing these analyses for drug companies. However, in addition to his perspective from within the ground-based PCG and X-ray Crystallography community, he’s also been intimately involved with the microgravity PCG work. In fact, I think he’s flown on the shuttle at least once doing some of the work in this topic.

    He was quite clear that the drug companies aren’t on-board yet with this technique. He’s positive from his experience that he can get better X-ray crystallography results from protein crystals grown in space. He showed a few cases where the ground-based protein crystals had actually had low enough resolution that the structural data they could get from X-ray crystallography was actually incorrect–it completely missed a key part of the structure. Those misanalyses are expensive. And that still doesn’t even get into the fact that only 1 in 3 of the proteins that have made it to the crystal growth stage have ever yielded crystals good enough for analysis.

    I think there is a solid case here that microgravity provides benefits over ground-based systems. And I think that if there were really some trivially easy way of doing the same thing here with magnets that he’d be all over that. His company makes money off of selling the analysis, regardless of how the crystal is grown. He has no huge vested interest in doing microgravity PCG except that he feels it is the best way to solve the problem.

    All that said, he fully acknowledges that the way things have been done in the past, (with short flights on the Shuttle, lousy marketting, etc) that it hasn’t yet gotten to the point where the Drug Companies are fully on-board. There still needs to be a solid case of space based protein crystals helping people deliver a superior product faster. That’s what he’s working on right now.

    If we can at least get reliable and regular access to space (ie at least monthly or bimonthly visits to the orbiting lab), I think he’ll be able to pull it off.

    While I know that everyone is biased, it’s important to remember that groups who can’t do microgravity PCG are going to be just as biased at claiming it isn’t useful. They’re the ones who stand the most to lose if VCs actually start backing a competing technology.

    ~Jon

  10. Paul Dietz says:

    Dr. DeLucas has been receiving NASA funding for years. His web page at UAB says he’s PI on five active NASA grants and one private company grant. Sounds like it’s still mostly NASA funding. Granted, if I were him, I’d be trying to move to non-NASA funding with all due speed, given how NASA will be deemphasizing microgravity.

    Space gadfly Robert Park has also had some unkind things to say.

  11. Jon Goff says:

    Paul,
    I didn’t have enough information to really make heads or tails of Park’s testimony. However, having done a little Googling, it looks like at least part of his story is incorrect, or at least misleading. He stated that: “Nevertheless, in 1997, Larry DeLucas, a University of Alabama at Birmingham chemist and a former astronaut, testified before the Space Subcommittee of the House that a protein structure, determined from a crystal grown on the shuttle, resulted in a new flu drug that was in clinical trials. It simply was not true. Two years later Science magazine (25 June 99) revealed that the crystal had been grown in Australia, which is a long way off, but it’s not in space.”

    First off, if you google around until you find the testimony in question, you find that what Dr DeLucas said, and what Dr Parks claims he said isn’t exactly the same:
    http://www.house.gov/science/delucas_4-9.html

    Dr DeLucas said that: “Neuraminidase is a protein that occurs on the surface of all strains of the influenza virus and is necessary for viral multiplication…Although the structure of neuraminidase was solved with earth-grown crystals, space-grown crystals have been used to optimize the design of the inhibitor, (the drug). Pharmacology and preclinical studies are ongoing and human clinical trials are anticipated in 1997.”

    Notice the difference? Dr DeLucas was merely saying that space based proteing crystals were used at some point during the drug optimization process. Also note that he didn’t mention anywhere that that work was done on the Shuttle? If you actually look at the articles (back and forth) in Science that can be found at the following link, even the guy Parks quotes admits that space grown crystals were used in the process (albeit he claims they weren’t very important).

    http://undergrad.physics.sunysb.edu/phy311_f2003/phy311_space.pdf

    While Dr DeLucas may have overstated the importance of space PCG on the development of the drug, Parks wasn’t being entirely forthright himself.

    More info here:
    http://pubs.acs.org/hotartcl/cenear/991011/7741gov1.html

    There definitely is some controversy here, but with the number of glaring factual errors in his testimony that I was able to find with about 30 minutes and a few Google searches, I have a hard time taking it too seriously.

    Yes, I can imagine that doing PCG on short two-week stints on the Shuttle, with a total amount of flight time equal to about 9 months in a terrestrial lab, wouldn’t yield results that were phenominally better than ground based methods. The fact that in some instances they really did have substantially better results leads me to believe that with good, reliable access to space, that you could have a profitable commercial PCG business, especially if it was done in conjunction with a good ground-based program.

    ~Jon

  12. murphydyne says:

    The thing is, Mr. Dietz’s pessimism with regards to microgravity materials sciences seems to be in part based on the assumption tha PCG is the only area of interest.

    I happen to have in my space library (as opposed to Lunar Library, which is much more comprehensive) a nice little tome entitled “Space Industrialization Opportunities”, Jernigan (no, not the sexy astronette) & Pentecost. ISBN 0-815-51045-4. 601 pp.

    Under specific microgravity science applications they list:
    -Electronic materials
    -Solidification of metals, alloys & composites
    -Fluids & transport phenomena
    -Biotechnology
    -Glass & ceramics (I’m more curious about the anhydrous glasses on the Moon)
    -Combustion science
    -Experimental technology

    So we’re actually looking at a wide variety of industries that may have frustrated interests in space sciences.

    Look at the environment these folks have had to work in – difficult and untimely access to space, loooong time to conclusion (far longer than even grad students stick around ;-), and flight risk. And by flight risk I mean the possibility of getting your paid payload bumped back at the whim and vicissitudes of NASA.

    I know this was true because I asked. Back in 2002 I found out that there where about 60 GASCans backed up. There was no way that by paying you could advance in line in front of the freeloaders funded by NASA. And if an experiment came along afterwards that was considered to be of scientific interest, it could be moved ahead of your crass filthy lucre “private” payload.

    You know, and like who else was I going to turn to to manufacture my glass vacuum spheres in space?

    It quickly became a no-win situation, with a lot of frustrated ambitions choked instead of nurtured. The book was published in 1985. How much of that potential has been realized?

    For Ben, the International Standard Payload Racks (ISPRs) are supposed to have ARIS (Active Rack Isolation System). Think adaptive optics, but for g-jitters instead.

    I’m kind of curious as to what ever became of the ExPA. I once had an ambition to quietly buy up all of the old, flown experiment packages (MDLs and SDRs), clean them up, and then lease them to folks that didn’t want to have to take the time to start from scratch but could jump start with an already flown set-up. The answers to those inquiries were even less compelling for this wanna-be space entrepreneur.

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