[EAS]WHAT'S NEW Friday, 21 Feb

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Fri Feb 21 19:06:51 EST 2003

Mail*Link¨ SMTP               WHAT'S NEW  Friday, 21 Feb 03

Dear Colleagues -

With my sympaties hardly a secret, here is another copy of the "What's
New newsletter.


Date: 2/21/03 3:38 PM
From: opa at aps.org
WHAT'S NEW   Robert L. Park   Friday, 21 Feb 03   Washington, DC

In the first of the many hearings that will examine the accident,
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe found himself having to defend
the independence of the Investigation Board he had appointed (WN
14 Feb 03).  So O'Keefe added MIT physicist and aeronautical
engineer Shiela Widnall to the Board, and is considering adding
additional scientists.  Best known for work in the fluid dynamics
of aircraft turbulence, Widnall is a former Secretary of the Air
Force (1993 - 1997), and is certainly independent. But finding
the failure mechanism that led to the breakup of Columbia is less
important than understanding the NASA culture that risked sending
a crew into space at enormous cost to do trivial science.

In the days following the Columbia tragedy, NASA repeatedly cited
protein crystal growth as an example of important microgravity
research conducted on the shuttle.  NASA knew better.  It was 20
years ago that a protein crystal was first grown on Space Lab 1.
NASA boasted that the lysozyme crystal was 1,000 times as large
as one grown in the same apparatus on Earth.  However, the
apparatus was not designed to operate in Earth gravity.  The
space-grown crystal was no larger than lysozyme crystals grown by
standard techniques on Earth.  But the myth was born.  In 1992, a
team of Americans that had done protein crystal studies on Mir,
commented in Nature (26 Nov 92) that microgravity had led to no
significant breakthrough in protein crystal growth. Every protein
that crystalizes in space, crystallizes right here on Earth. 
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.  Meanwhile, the American Society for Cell
Biology, which includes the biologists most involved in protein
crystallography, called for the cancellation of the space-based
program.  Hoping to regain some credibility, an embarrassed NASA
turned to the National Academy of Science to review biotechnology
plans for the Space Station.  On March 1, 2000, the National
Research Council, the research arm of the Academy, released their
study.  It concluded that the enormous investment in protein
crystal growth on the Shuttle and Mir had not led to a single
unique scientific result.  It might be supposed that programs in
space-grown protein crystals would be terminated.  It was a shock
to open the press kit for STS-107 and discover that the final
flight of Columbia carried a commercial protein crystal growth
experiment for the Center for Biophysical Science and
Engineering, University of Alabama at Birmingham.  The Director
of the Center is Lawrence J. DeLucas, O.D., Ph.D.

Opinions are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the
University or the American Physical Society, but they should be.
Archives of What's New can be found at http://www.aps.org/WN.
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