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August 11, 2011

Making Space for Other Experiments: Biotech Could Learn from NASA

  • Last month as the last operating space shuttle finished its final trip into space and began its journey toward becoming a museum piece, a symbol of space travel retired as well. With its distinctive plane-like design, the orbiter looked like the future; everything else was just rockets.

    To the uninitiated, the 2002 Atlas V might as well be the Saturn V that first brought men to the moon in 1969. It is only fair to mention that this is the same public that, when asked how much funding NASA received, would generally overestimate by orders-of-magnitude. Why?

    When it comes to superprojects requiring large investments and the cooperation of political, corporate, and academic entities, image is everything. After putting a man on the moon (and getting him back), how did NASA make the case for continued investment in projects such as space shuttles, space telescopes, and space stations?

    Initially, space travel was bolstered by the idea of the space race, a proxy arms race. However, even as the Soviet Union crumbled, NASA continued to reap high approval ratings (usually the best among federal organizations) and resist turning into a federal agency with nothing to do.

  • How Much Space Do You Need?

    The continued stream of successes (even dotted with catastrophic failures) certainly was helpful, but it is not the full story. NASA managed to convince the American people that they were getting their money's worth, even when they had no idea how little NASA cost.

    It did that by engaging the public at all ages—kids wanted to grow up to be astronauts and "space" was up there with dinosaurs in the imaginations of the young. The life of an astronaut was extraordinary and exciting, surrounded by the smartest engineers and the best technology. "Rocket scientist" remains quite a compliment, and terms such as "NASA-grade," "space-age," and "developed for the space shuttle" are still used to sell everything from the utilitarian to the luxurious.

    It's not fair to give NASA full credit for this marketing triumph. Science fiction from H.G. Wells to Isaac Asimov emphasized space travel as an integral part of the future of humanity. Whether it was aggressors coming from the great unknown of space or humanity conquering the galaxies, space travel was a de facto necessity. The fascination with space was already well entrenched in the American culture: NASA needed only to feed this great desire to reach the stars.

    Space travel is exclusive and accessible at the same time: Only a select few will become astronauts, but high schoolers can get their experiments sent up alongside those select few, and everyone can watch the entire event. Of those space-based experiments, most focus on improving future space travel and colonization by seeing how materials and lifeforms stand up to microgravity.

    These experiments do have uses outside of space travel; for instance, the altered behavior of cells in microgravity is useful for studying the role of forces in biology. Amgen's bone-regulating antibody tested in mice in space could reveal previously unknown pathways for bone loss if the mice experience a different response from the earthbound ones. But these experiments focus most on extending the space program, ultimately building up to the idea of humanity's colonization of the stars.

  • Lab Space vs. Outer Space

    Now compare this to biotechnology: many can be scientists, engineers, professors, and technicians, but high schools rarely do distinctive projects of this sort, and research is seen as a private, mundane activity. Biotechnology is inclusive when it comes to professionals, not public relations, and bioengineers are often expected to produce a nasty lab accident rather than a healthier form of rice.

    Space experiments are fun, cool, and contribute to the future of the space program. How about something similar for biotechnology? The rise of synthetic biology and the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competitions have started to bring biotechnology projects to undergraduates, high schoolers, and the public.

    Even so, biotechnology could still use a face lift. Perhaps that will come in the form of media-friendly shared labs, where ideas from enthusiasts could be safely developed and tested with regular publicity.

    Furthermore, a far-reaching, readily-visible project could be initiated: The human genome project was a triumph, but how about energy generation or garbage disposal? The appeal of space experiments is partly founded in the idea that humanity will establish self-sufficient, extraterrestrial colonies to preserve the species. In the meantime, though, Earth is the only independent space station we have, and preserving it is at least as important an objective.

    Furthermore, biotechnological advances in sustainability, efficient production, and environmental engineering could be used to help space programs build a self-sustaining space station, and space stations can be used to carry out experiments with extreme isolation by ensuring that escaped organisms will receive lethal doses of solar radiation and vacuum.

    Consider that the Department of Energy received $1.6 billion (in 2011) for renewable energy and efficiency research, of which only $0.2 billion went to biomass R&D. When that $0.2 billion is compared to the $2.5 billion NASA has for space exploration R&D, it suggests that bioengineering needs a central champion to back more ambitious projects. If NASA can provide a single focus (space exploration) to take on the biggest engineering challenges (preserving humanity), why can't biotechnology do the same?