Friday, February 21, 2003

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 Sheila 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.

Bob Park can be reached via email at
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