May 12 2013

Would someone please think of the whiskey?



Both gloves have fingers and thumb, a right-hand will fit only one

Both gloves have fingers and thumb, a right-hand will fit only one

Space has a lot of resources, technically it has all the resources. Some of them are obvious, some serendipitous. Aside from the mountains of platinum group metals or nickel-iron and oxygen floating around free for the taking, in addition to the nearly inexhaustible energy sources, micro-gravity is a new and to date poorly utilized resource in itself. Back in the 90s, research into drug production helped inform our friends in molecular biology about making pure isomers. Today similar experiments may yield kickass space whiskey. There are many other examples but there’s one big international obstacle, the Russkis. If politics makes strange bedfellows, and we can strain that metaphor to the breaking point, this deal has the GOP rolling in the hay with some strange denizens indeed.

Let’s begin at the beginning: Drugs often work by fitting snuggly into a receptor site. These sites come in three-dimensional left-handed and right-handed versions, much like gloves. Just like you can’t get your right hand to fit nicely in a left-handed glove, you can’t get a right-handed molecule of an allergy medicine into left-handed receptor. The two versions of the same substance are an example of isomers: substances with the same chemical formula but different physical manifestations. Left-handed versus right-handed isomers are in turn an example of a property called chirality.

You don’t have to understand organic chemistry to understand why this is so cool. It turns out that in some cases, the therapeutic effect of a drug is due more to one isomer and the side effects more associated with the other. So, if you could make a pure isomer, the good one, you could administer larger doses of that med and reduce the risk of side effects in the bargain! Better yet, commercially, this is a sweet spot for any biotech firm that can pull it off. Because a pure isomer is patentable, but the underlying drug has already gone through the comprehensive FDA approval process. A niche not unnoticed in the biotech community, most notably by the most innovative division of pharma firms like Sunovion, a division once known as the stand alone company Sepracor. Microgravity experiments in the 90s helped make that possible.

Of course there are a lot of drugs, not all of which need an Rx to procure. Say for example ethanol—can I get a hallelujah? How about a whiskey from spaaaaaaace?

Ah brown liquor, so sweet on the lips, so soothing on the central nervous system. Well, up to a point, eh? What a lot of people don’t know is whiskey and a lot of other colorful spirits start out more or less as moonshine. Clear white lightning. The word spirit gives them away: Unlike wine or beer which ferment, spirits are distilled. Which means some Peloponnesian drug dealer actually figured out that alcohol, produced by fermentation, boils at a lower temperature than water. That it could be captured by some apparatus as a vapor and would then condense and drip out into a pure brain destroying, mind altering clear fluid that made wine and beer look like Tang. That’s the problem with moonshine, it’s strong, it’s harsh on the body and taste buds, it will fuck you up good, you can easily OD on it, even when it’s made right.

Somewhere along the way our early distillers figured out a bunch of ways to take the sharpest edges off that stuff. One of the ways was to let the raw product sit for a long time, years or decades, in oak barrels, maybe a secret ingredient or two sitting and slowly stewing in with them. In the light of modern science we now know some of the complex substances produced in this manner which make the concotion more palatable are called terpenes. Eureka! Space meets whiskey:

Sorry, I didn’t explain what terpenes are did I? Terpenes are a race of recently-discovered space beings set of chemicals which are often very aromatic and flavour-active, the sort of thing that helps give whisky its flavour. But what space whisky will taste like no one will know… not yet anyway. Ardbeg’s Head of Distilling and Whisky Creation Dr Lumsden, a chemist by training, said in a statement: “This experiment will throw new light on the effect of gravity on the maturation process. We are all tremendously excited by this experiment: who knows where it will lead?”

No doubt it will take much trial and error, and of course many, many samples carefully tested deep inside the most complicated sentient walking talking laboratories we know of, to find out if microgravity can help do for whiskey what it helped do for pharmaceutical drugs. Sacrifices have to be made for science …

The point is this microgravity manufacturing environment is barely explored, much less exploited, and exploited is not always and necessarily bad. Aside from all the stuff we know is up there, just the production platform alone for stuff we have down here is promising and almost completely untapped. Alas, that’s where the Russians come storming in.

Projected Soyuz Price Increase

Houston, we have a problem. Ten years ago, back when the shuttle was flying regularly, the Russkis gave us a bargain rate on manned and unmanned launch costs. About $30 million a seat for a living person. Richard Garriott confirmed to Daily Kos that’s what he paid for a ride to and from the ISS as recently as 2008. As the shuttle shut down, they bumped the cost to $50 million. During this time a senior NASA administrator confirmed that to me and was quick to add there were other services we got along with the giant price increase. Now they’re planning on charging us 70 million bucks, and they can get away with that because we don’t have a manned rocket or a spacecraft to put on top of it.

They know they have us over a barrel, and like any U.S. corporation they’re happy to take max advantage and rip our faces off in the pursuit of profit for as long as they can. Worse, maybe we taught them a little too well if you know what I mean. It’s a fair inference they’re smart enough to figure out that by soaking us they not only make way more per flight, they’ll reduce competition by bleeding resources away from our own space program, resources that might be tasked to develop new domestic launch options.

There are a lot of private companies in the U.S. belonging to an emerging industry called NewSpace that could do just that. SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, and Sierra Nevada just to name a few. Setting aside NASA dollars to help accelerate that process, by paying the NewSpace firms for cargo delivery and other services while they refine those designs until they’re deemed “human-rated,” is refered to as Commercial Crew. One such design, the Falcon and the Dragon, looks like this.

If I were going to try and explain this to a conservative friend, I would start out saying that Commercial Crew simply means using “free market magic” conjured up by ultra successful entrepeneurs willing to risk huge sums of their money to greatly lower the cost and speed up the development of launch capability, instead of the clunky, expensive cost-plus big government defense contractor aerospace approach. We would no longer be captive customers to a former communist nuclear super-power we were recently locked in an End-o-World Cold War with, and with whom we don’t always get along with great to this day. The cost to put an American in orbit could easily dip into the single digit millions using this idea, we could do lots more experiments in microgravity drug production and anything else.

The real payoff is global commercial domination of the most lucrative, life-saving, planet-preserving technologies we will ever dream up as a species. Best of all, we don’t merely think this will work, we know it it will, because these vehicle already exist. They’re in late stage operational testing and they already they blow the doors off any commie design. Then I would ask them, which political party do you think is for that idea and which do you suppose is fighting it tooth and nail?

But I don’t even need to finish that for you guys, do I? Space policy experts have carefully laid this out to the president, and because he is an intelligent, thoughtful, surprisingly non-partisan critter despite what Fox News would like us to believe, he understood the ramifications, saw the benefits, and has thrown his considerable support into NewSpace. Or he’s tried to anyway. Since many of the traditional aerospace concerns and related Big Gubmint facilities are located in conservative districts, and of course because the Republicans are fated to despise Obama and anything he so much as tacitly approves off, many conservative lawmakers have to now fiercely oppose their own free market ideology to the last breath.

That’s politics. And sometimes politics are so depressing you want to shoot yourself in the head.

Until this changes, we’re stuck with whatever the Russians want to charge us, assuming we want an active space program and all the benefits we can dream might come with it, and our own program, our own innovators, our own workforce, and this nation are all held in check. That’s why some of us here in the progressive community support NewSpace and try to explain it to others who are skeptical.

If you hear someone complaining that Obama killed the U.S. space program, now you know. And now maybe you’re better equipped to appeal to their better nature: If they won’t support it for your kids or their planet, not for the jobs or even the country, would they at least think of the whiskey?


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  1. 1

    “Back in the 90s, research into drug production helped inform our fiends in molecular biology about making pure isomers.”

    Is there any particular reason for that designation? I’m not a molecular biologist, so feel free to explain.

  2. 2

    It is friends, not fiends.

  3. 3
    Stephen "DarkSyde" Andrew

    Correct, fiends=friends. I posted that on DKos earlier, it was copy edited on Friday. In all fairness the poor girl might have thought I meant fiends, I use colorful terms sometimes.

  4. 4

    Look, if you’re going to talk about Scotch (Ardbeg), you have to spell it Whisky, not Whiskey.

  5. 5

    Maybe if they make space vodka, the Russians will be more interested

  6. 6

    As I pointed out last time it’s Scotch Whisky not crappy whiskey.
    Next thing you’ll be like the chap Darwin-awarded when ‘what he thought was H2O was H2SO4′

  7. 7

    And here I thought that there was an interesting backstory. Ah, well….

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