SpaceX and Arsenic


Bad for NASA(?) Good for science(!)

December 9, 2010

We’ve had a lot of NASA in the news recently, and not necessarily for things that NASA is/should be happy about. I want to get one thing straight from the outset of this post. NASA is one of the finest drivers of science/engineering/innovation that the United States has ever sponsored. They continue to produce unmatched science and promising young scientists and engineers (many of whom I personally know and completely admire).

However, one of NASA’s perceived missions is that it is around to do the completely impossible (note: this is the my opinion of the public perception of NASA). NASA is supposed to go to the moon. NASA is supposed to give us the Mars rovers. NASA is supposed to do things that we can only imagine. The public face of NASA today seems to show an organization that is about upkeep rather than going big (this is a flaw that I think many people see in the current American trajectory as a whole). As someone who admires NASA, I know how difficult/important/inspiring the work that they are currently doing is. But, it just feels like big isn’t really on the horizon. The shuttle program is being cancelled. We’re sending probes to look at planets and comets (these are really FANTASTIC but they seem routine and don’t have the same feel as going to the moon).

NASA’s apparent decline was highlighted by two news stories from the past week. The first that I’ll mention is the successful launch, orbit and reentry of a commercial rocket and capsule by SpaceX. (We’ve talked about them before here. The Dragon capsule did a couple of orbits around the Earth and splashed down into the ocean right on schedule. Granted, NASA has been doing this for years. But this is a first for a commercial enterprise. First is supposed to be the purview of NASA. We need some new, big-vision firsts from NASA. SpaceX has a billion dollar contract for future shuttling of equipment, supplies, and people to the space station. This launch was great news for progress. We can continue to push boundaries even though NASA has better things to do (more on this in a bit) than perform upkeep on an aging rocket system. Because NASA is out of this game, it is going to take groups like SpaceX to help us really see what engineers are really capable of making science do. This launch is a good thing.

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Check out this awesome video from the SpaceX launch yesterday!

The other NASA story in the news is this whole arsenic in bacterial DNA fiasco. There are too many other stories in too many other places to warrant me commenting too much on this. Just the facts. Some NASA researchers found bacteria that can grow in the presence of lots of arsenic (a poisonous element). They state in their paper that arsenic is being substituted for phosphorus in the backbone of the bacteria’s DNA. There was lot’s of ambiguous NASA hype and individual speculation before the findings of the paper were announced. Lots of people disagree with the science. The blogosphere exploded. The authors made some responses. The blogosphere exploded again. Here are some of the highlights:

The Guardian is running an up-to-date account on all of the responses and counter responses and articles from the initial NASA announcement. This has everything that you could want to read on the subject.

The best individual coverage of the scientific counterarguments to the study was done by Carl Zimmer in Slate.

My favorite analysis of the chemistry implications of the work was done on Derek Lowe’s In the Pipeline blog.

My personal feelings on the science and the response are in agreement in this excellent post by Isis the Scientist.

Now, what about all of this can possibly be good for science? First, lots of people are interested in this story. Second, this is how science should work. Not all of the hype surrounding every aspect of this story, but the fact that results will be challenged through more experiments and a consensus will eventually be formed. This is how science works. We never have a full understanding through a single paper. Scientific understanding isn’t reached until experiments are corroborated. Third, scientists performing peer-review are going to be doing a better job of looking at new articles before they are published. David Kroll talks more about the peer review process here. My opinion is that this paper should have been published … just not in Science or Nature. The authors should have been forced to temper their statement that arsenic is in the backbone of the bacterial DNA. An accurate review would have done this. The science itself is good enough for publication. For their analysis, and the hype surrounding it, to be justified, they needed more data. Carmen Drahl tells us how to do some of these experiments in her post today. Fourth, it is fantastic that the blogging community has been trying to root out some of the science going on here. I have learned a ton (about bacteria, arsenate esters, ultracentrifugation, etc) from people commenting on this research. They have brought this story some visibility. Now the important part is for people to go out and actually do the experiments to test the authors claims.

So, NASA hasn’t had the best week. But, for science, I think, it’s been pretty good. What do you guys think about SpaceX? Is there anyone out there who has an opinion on the arsenic story that hasn’t been stated already? We’d love to hear from our NASA and aeronautical engineering friends out there.

Cheers
-mrh

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5 Responses to SpaceX and Arsenic

  1. Jeff says:

    @Arsenic. I agree with what you are saying.

    I think that what bothers me the most is the following:

    The published manuscript passed the quality control of 12 authors and another 13 people in the acknowledgments. (And the reviewers and editor(s)) Wasn’t anyone saying “Wow – there are a few pretty strong statements in here. Are the data really that compelling?” If my name goes on to something then I really want to be OK with, and be able to defend, the work. Given the explosion of pretty reasonable criticism, I am surprised that all of the ~25 people directly involved with the research were 100% convinced by the data. But, I guess that your paper has less of a chance of getting into “Science” if you don’t make bold/assertive statements.

    Overall? I agree that this type of discussion is great for science (not the publication). There is no denying that. People are really engaged over this, and it is great. It’s too bad that it is over a paper that doesn’t necessarily serve as a sterling example of what I think is rigorous research techniques and scrutiny.

  2. Mike says:

    Matt, your use of the word “upkeep” is spot on, not just for NASA, but for the USA in general. Politics, government, all agencies in their current bloated form are more self-serving than ever. Tough to break out of his mentality…

  3. sciencegeist says:

    @Jeff … I see an As-modified-azurin paper on your horizon!

    @Mike … Nice to have you back around! it is too tough to shed the old so that you can add the new. (much like what will happen with my diet in a week)

  4. nasaengineer says:

    The Space X success is not bad news for NASA. NASA policy is to work on heavy lift capability and let commercial space do the rest. NASA doesn’t have a crew rocket to replace the Shuttle on the drawing board, even though the new heavy lift is supposed to be “man-ratable” for backup.

  5. sciencegeist says:

    @nasaengineer,
    Thanks for joining the discussion.
    I do appreciate the focus on the heavy lift rockets. I worry that all of the good work that NASA is doing with this (and their reasons for doing it) is getting lost in the noise.

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