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.