Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

 
 
CHAPTER 16
 
LIFE SCIENCES: NO PLACE IN THE SUN
 
 
 
[274] Throughout the 1960s the life sciences were something of an enigma to the highest levels of NASA management. Partially this was because no individual near the top of the hierarchy had training in any of the life science disciplines. But there was more to it than that. One could sense an ambivalence in the life science community concerning the space program, a fascination with its novelty and challenge mixed with skepticism on the part of most that space had much to offer for their disciplines.
 
Not that NASA wasn't concerned with life sciences in a variety of ways. The list of NASA interests was a long one: medical support to manned spaceflight, environmental control and life-support systems for manned spacecraft, spacesuits and other protective systems, nutrition, aviation medicine, man-machine relationships, space biology (the study of terrestrial life forms exposed to conditions in space), exobiology (the search for and study of extraterrestrial life and life processes), plus occupational medicine and employee health programs. But much of this interest was incidental to other, primary objectives of the agency. Aviation medicine and man-machine relationships supported the development of aeronautical instrumentation and techniques. Although an extensive amount of work was required, nevertheless spaceflight medicine, environmental control, life support systems, spacesuits, etc., were narrowly constrained to the minimum needed to ensure the attainment of the Gemini, Apollo, and other manned spaceflight objectives. Only space biology and exobiology could be regarded as pure science, and these fell into the space science program.
 
NASA's philosophy concerning the life sciences was simple: where science was the objective, make the most of space techniques to advance the disciplines; in other areas do only what was essential to meet the need. A natural outcome of this philosophy was to disperse the different life science activities throughout the agency, placing each in the organizational entity it served. Thus, except for the brief period from March 1960 to November 1961 when the agency had an Office of Life Sciences Programs in headquarters,1 [275] space biology and exobiology were placed with the other space science groups; aviation medicine and related activities were in the Office Advanced Research and Technology, which had responsibility for NASA's aeronautical program; and space medicine was placed under the direction of the Office of Manned Space Flight. The single life sciences office had not worked, doubtless for a variety of reasons; but one reason suggested itself was the separation of the life sciences activities from other activities with which they were most naturally associated in the NASA program. The Office of Space Sciences, for example, already had a group producing and launching sounding rockets and unmanned spacecraft for space research. Rather than duplicate such a group in another office it seemed to make sense to place space biology and exobiology close their tools in the Office of Space Sciences.
 
While the dispersion of the life sciences throughout the organization made sense to NASA managers, and the arrangement appeared to function more effectively than had the temporarily integrated one, the, setup was not the liking of the outside life sciences community. Dissatisfaction with way NASA handled its life sciences program endured throughout the 60s. Since it was principally the researchers who were most vocal in expressing their displeasure, NASA space science managers came in for a great deal of the flak directed at the agency.
 
Although space medicine, which in the NASA setup formed a part of manned spaceflight organization, achieved extensive results, space biology and exobiology produced only modest returns during the 1960S.2 Even though some interested experimenters had used sounding rockets in the pre-NASA period to expose seeds, mice, and other biological specimens the rigors of rocket flight and high-altitude radiations,3 nevertheless when NASA came on the scene the life scientists were not ready to keep pace with the astronomers and physicists in the space science program. Whereas the latter could bring space instrumentation directly to bear upon fundamental problems already engaging their attention-earth and planetary atmospheres, solar activity and sun-earth relationships, stellar spectra, cosmic rays, and cosmology, to mention some-the same was not true for the life scientists. During the 1950s and 1960s a revolution was in progress in the life sciences for which the center of action was the ground-based laboratory. There researches in areas like molecular biology, the genetic code, immunology, and information storage and transfer in biological systems held the attention of the best investigators. It was not clear in what way space research could make more fundamental contributions than these ground-based studies.
 
A number of experimenters however, wanted to try their hand at space research. Catering to this interest, a small but determined group within NASA worked hard to promote the field of space life sciences.
 
[276] The first biologists in NASA Headquarters included Richard S. Young, who in 1958 and 1959 had flown sea-urchin eggs in recoverable Jupiter nose cones launched by the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. In February 1960 Young went to the Ames Research Center to start NASA's first life sciences laboratory.
 
In the space science group, which initially was almost entirely preoccupied with the physical sciences, the author persuaded Freeman Quimby, a biologist from the Office of Naval Research in San Francisco, to come east and work with NASA to make a place in the space science program for space biology and exobiology. Later, at the time John Holloway and Donald Holmes joined the NASA university program staff, their boss-Orr Reynolds, head of research in the Office of Defense Research and Engineering-also came to NASA to take charge of the biology division in the new Office of Space Sciences. A physiologist, Reynolds was skilled in the ways of government programs and how to make them work. Appreciating the opportunities for biological research afforded by rockets and spacecraft, yet at the same time recognizing the factors that would militate against any widespread interest, he set about trying to acquaint his colleagues with what might be done in space. He was remarkably successful, and under his guidance interest in space biology grew.
 
In fact, many important questions could be examined with space experiments. What effects, for example, might prolonged weightlessness have upon living organisms? What would happen to plants grown in the absence of gravity? How would frog's eggs and sea-urchin eggs fertilized in space develop in a weightless environment? What light could space experiments cast upon the role and importance of gravity in the development of such eggs on the ground? How would a frog's otiliths-the tiny stones in the ear that sense the direction of gravity-function in the absence of gravity? What might exposure to radiations in space do to biological specimens, particularly in the production of mutations? Although the physicists insisted that order of magnitude considerations showed that there could be no significant effect, still some biologists wondered if exposure to radiations under weightlessness might produce different effects from those observed at one g on the ground. Then a whole class of intriguing questions concerned the rhythms that organisms exhibit in the environment existing at the earth's surface. Many of these rhythms are linked in some way to external periodicities such as the day-to-night variation in sunlight or the lunar month. In orbit a new set of periodicities would exist, those associated with the spacecraft's period of revolution in its orbit. How would these influence the circadian-i.e., nearly daily-and other rhythms plants and animals in orbit? How would these rhythms respond to flight on an escape trajectory from the earth on which there would be no orbital periodicities?
 
[277] To enable experimenters to study some of these questions, NASA flew a number of sounding rockets and several recoverable satellites named Biosatellite.* Of the three Biosatellites placed in orbit, two were recovered for further studies of the specimens after flight.4
 
Although the experimenters themselves were enthusiastic about the opportunity to experiment in space, many scientists considered NASA premature in the Biosatellite project. There were two different philosophies. The satellite experimenters were willing to conduct exploratory investigations, to learn what they could from their experiments, but-more important-to use the early research for obtaining an insight into just how rockets and spacecraft could contribute in future experiments. To others such suggestive experiments were not enough. More in keeping with life science tradition, they would hold off from experimenting in space until laboratory research had made it virtually certain that definitive experiments could be performed. To these persons the results from the first successful Biosatellite (Biosatellite 2, 7-9 September 1967, in which plants, flies, and other living organisms were flown to determine the effect of space conditions on living organisms) were perhaps interesting but not particularly significant. When in Biosatellite 3 (29 June-7 July 1969) prolonged weightlessness appeared to generate critical fluid imbalances in an instrumented monkey, who actually died from the stresses produced, that was considered significant but not definitive, since the experiment was marred by incomplete preparatory research and inadequate ground and other controls.
 
In the light of these thoughts, the Space Science Board, NASA advisory committees, and various members Of the life sciences community continually advised NASA to support a great deal of advanced research on the ground to establish an adequate basis for experimenting in space. NASA did support such research, but the program was considered inadequate. Indeed, many life scientists would have preferred to see all the money that went into satellite work devoted to laboratory research until a better basis could be laid for going into space.
 
In this respect those interested in exobiology were in better shape. For one thing, hardly anyone would disagree that the discovery of life on some other planet would be an exciting event with tremendous philosophical and scientific implications. The study of such life in comparison with earth life would be of fundamental importance. Even if no such extraterrestrial life were to be found in the solar system, the opportunity to investigate other planets in pristine condition and to study the prebiological [278] chemistry of these bodies would be a valid line of investigation for the life sciences. In the United States a number of competent investigators-Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg, Wolf Vishniac, and Norman Horowitz among them-were attracted by the intriguing possibilities.5 Worldwide interest in the subject stimulated much discussion in the Committee on Space Research and other scientific circles, and led to international agreements on planetary quarantine (pp. 303-05). Since at NASA's inception it would still be many years before an automatic laboratory might be landed on Mars (the primary target of the United States) or on Venus (where the Russians made their first successful landings), time was ample for the sort of preparatory work that NASA's advisers urged. More than a decade of such advanced research preceded the launching of Viking in 1975, which was instrumented to probe the Martian surface for evidence of microbial life.6
 
In the intervening years, scientists did their best with photographs and spectrograms of the planets to glean any hints on the possibility of extraterrestrial life. They searched for signs of water or other molecules that might be associated with life. The pictures of Mars obtained from a Mariner spacecraft in 1964, which showed a moon-like surface that appeared to be perfectly dry, held out little encouragement for exobiologists. But when Mariner 6 and 7 in 1969 and Mariner 9 in 1971 obtained closeup pictures of the planet revealing features that looked like ancient water channels and alluvial fans, and a considerable amount of water ice in the polar caps, hopes ran high once more and experimenters bent more vigorously to the task of preparing for the Viking lander flights to come.7
 
Nevertheless, in the 1960s criticism of NASA's life sciences program remained high. During the decade almost every advisory committee meeting on the subject deplored some aspect of the program. The critics were impartial in bestowing their criticism. While the space science program was called to task for not supporting enough preparatory research and not including adequate controls in the space experimenting that did take place, manned spaceflight was berated for not doing enough background research to ensure the safety of the astronauts. This latter criticism increased following the monkey's demise in Biosatellite 3. Even though the experiment was thought to have been carried out poorly, the results were alarming to many who felt that similar disasters might befall astronauts unless proper steps were taken to forestall the difficulties. To do this would require understanding thoroughly what was going on, and research was needed to get that understanding.
 
As the scientists criticized the substance of NASA's program during the 1960s,they also had much to say about its organization. The dispersal life sciences activities throughout the agency was the main target of their displeasure; indeed, this criticism often seemed more intense than their [279] dissatisfaction with the program. In fact, the two criticisms were related. The various disciplines in the life sciences, including the applications of research results to medicine, were interrelated, the critics pointed out, and an effectual total program could be achieved only if all parts were properly integrated into the total. This could be done only by someone trained and competent in the life sciences who had the authority to pull it all together; Such a person would have to be in top management so that he could bring adequate weight to bear on planning, budgeting, and the use of funds.
 
Such were the thoughts of the biologists and medical researchers at the space science summer study in Iowa City in 1962, when they urged NASA to reverse its recent action in dispersing the different life science activities throughout the agency.8 Much was made of the fact that all of the technical people in NASA's top management were trained in the physical sciences or engineering. Along with this recommendation went a related one, that NASA use the peer review system used by the National Institutes of Health to decide which research proposals to support.
 
Although Associate Administrator Robert Seamans did engage a physiologist, Nello Pace of the University of California at Berkeley, to review and recommend on NASA's life sciences organization, still when the time came to make a decision Seamans was not prepared to accept the summer study's recommendation. For one thing, NASA's life sciences effort was relatively so small that a separate office for it would be incongruous alongside the other much larger program offices. More important, except for space biology and exobiology, NASA was not conducting life sciences research for its own sake. As pointed out before, most of NASA's work was directed toward other ends. Finally, with regard to using a peer system for reviewing research proposals, NASA did not have large sums of money set aside specifically for university research. As with the physical sciences and other areas, the program offices distributed their monies where they would best support the flight objectives of the agency.
 
The life scientists, however, were serious and constant in their recommendations. In spite of their paradoxical general disinterest in space life sciences, the community continued throughout the 1960s to send the same recommendations to the agency. And for the reasons that Seamans had cited originally, the agency continued to hold back until in 1969 and 1970 two different committees once again urged on NASA the importance of strengthening its setup in the life sciences.
 
In November 1969 the President's Science Advisory Committee released a biomedical report from what was called the Stead Committee of PSAC's Space Science and Technology Panel.9 The committee noted that manned spaceflight afforded a good opportunity for biomedical research and urged that the necessary ground-based research be done to develop the cadre of people needed to take best advantage of this opportunity. The recommendation [280] derived from the long-standing complaint that NASA tailored its biomedical program too closely to the operational needs of manned spaceflight and that hence a great deal of potentially valuable research was being left undone.
 
Half a year later the Academy of Sciences conducted a space science summer study at the University of California at Santa Cruz, under the chairmanship of Kenneth Thimann. The subject was space biology. The study presented its report to the Space Science Board on 13 January 1970.10 The report was critical of NASA's space biology program, strongly recommending that more preparatory work be done on the ground. NASA people who had audited the summer study discussions were already aware of what was coming. In fact, Wolf Vishniac-research biologist from the University of Rochester, experimenter in the NASA program, and a member of the Space Science Board-complained to the author and John Naugle, then head of space sciences, that the board was rigging the study of space biology in such a way as to kill the program, by choosing participants who could be expected to return a negative report.11
 
Because of the continuing displeasure being expressed, which had seemed to increase in intensity in the last year or so, the author wrote Philip Handler, president of the Academy, asking that the Academy conduct still another study on life sciences in NASA.12 The letter was discussed at the same Space Science Board meeting at which the Thimarm Committee report was reviewed. There was some reluctance to make another study in the wake of so many previous ones. It was pointed out that NASA already knew the scientific community's views on the subject and could, if the agency so wished, even now take the advice it had been receiving for a decade. But many of the more recent studies had specialized in only one aspect of the life sciences, such as space medicine or space biology, whereas NASA wanted an up-to-date look at the entire program, including questions of organization and management. The Academy agreed to do it.
 
It was an illustrious group that met at Woods Hole in the summer of 1970 under the chairmanship of renowned biologist Bentley Glass to go over the NASA life sciences program once more. After weeks of thorough review and discussion, the committee prepared its report. As predicted, the recommendations updated those that NASA had been receiving for the past 10 years: strengthen the ground-based research program; use various devices to attract better researchers into the program, such as NASA life sciences fellowships much along the lines of the resident research associateships that Robert Jastrow had instituted 11-years earlier; pull all life sciences in NASA together into a single office of equivalent status to the other program offices; and provide a more effective arrangement for getting advice from the life sciences community.13
 
This time, at the author's urging, NASA decided to accept the main thrust of the summer study's recommendations.14 At the time, declining [281] budgets and the political climate made it unwise to create a whole new office of life sciences. Nevertheless, the agency decided to do the following:
 
 
Also, the agency would support a number of life sciences fellowships along the lines recommended by the summer study. Since most of the life sciences budget went into the biomedical program associated with manned spaceflight, the new office was placed administratively under the associate administrator for manned spaceflight. In mid-November the author called Bentley Glass, chairman of the summer study, to inform him of NASA's plans relative to his committee's recommendations.15 Although NASA's plans did not go as far as the committee had asked, Glass was pleased with the agency's positive response. NASA's failure to put the program office for life sciences at the same level as the other program offices was a disappointment, but in the circumstances understandable. Placing all life sciences under a single director was the improvement most sought by the scientists.
 
The Academy of Sciences made a long list of potential candidates for the new job available to NASA, and several Space Science Board members offered their assistance in trying to get one of these to take the job. But here again, as Administrator Webb had found years before in searching for a chief scientist for NASA, it was not possible to lure first-rate researchers away from their academic posts to take on the bureaucratic headaches of administering a program that had yet to sell itself. So, after considerable search for someone from outside, Dale Myers, head of the manned spaceflight office, appointed a NASA man, Dr. Charles A. Berry, a clinical M.D. [282] who had achieved phenomenal success in dealing with the needs of the medical program for Gemini and Apollo. NASA's advisers were worried about two aspects of this appointment: first, Berry was not a research man; second, he came from the Johnson Space Center, which had consistently frustrated efforts of the community to get NASA to expand the research component of the biomedical program. But having failed to come through with anyone from the outside research community to take the job, the scientists were in a rather weak position to complain.
 
Under Berry the new arrangement made sluggish progress toward the objective of a properly unified life sciences program. When Berry left in 1974 to assume the presidency of the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at Houston, Dr. David Winter from the Ames Research Center was named to replace him. Winter, a research man, was closer to the sort of person the life sciences community had hoped to see as director of NASA's life sciences program. In November 1975, after the close of the Skylab project, the life sciences office was transferred from manned spaceflight-now renamed the Office of Space Flight-to the Office of Space Sciences. Although this still left life sciences lower down in the organization than the scientists would like, nevertheless the new location afforded the research atmosphere they desired.
 
Thus, in the 1970s NASA was in a better position than before to work closely with members of the life sciences community in putting space techniques to use for medical and biological research. Inasmuch as the 1970s were to be a period of transition from the use of expendable rockets to the use of the Space Shuttle-which appeared to hold particular promise for life science research in space-it was doubly satisfying that NASA had found a way of accommodating itself more closely to an important group of its clients.
 

* The NASA program drew extensively upon Air Force technology; and Air Force interest in aerospace medecine, which antedated the creation of NASA, continued after NASA was formed.

 
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