Plaintiffs in embryonic stem cell suit left with few options

Plaintiffs seeking to prevent the federal government were dealt a legal blow last week. Judge Royce Lamberth of the US District Court for the District of Columbia issued that decision on July 27, 2011, recognizing a higher court’s opinion that overruled his own preliminary injunction placed a year ago (subscription to Nature required):

Last week’s ruling decisively affirms the government’s legal ability to fund research on human embryonic stem cells. It is a significant blow to the plaintiffs in the case — James Sherley, a biological engineer at the Boston Biomedical Research Institute in Massachusetts, and Theresa Deisher, who runs AVM Biotechnology in Seattle, Washington. Both work with adult stem cells, which are isolated from tissues or organs rather than embryos.

The image to the right was created by my artist friend Karen Wehrstein to illustrate the utter futility of Bush’s original stem cell policy. Blastocysts, the material embryonic stem cell lines are made, are little balls of cells smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. They’re produced in IVF clinics, usually on behalf of paying customers hoping to have children. Thousands of blastocysts are disposed of every year, literally thrown in a medical incinerator and taken out with the trash. A few could be saved and diverted for research in the promising field of regenerative medicine. The potential benefits of that research are breathtaking. New eyes for the blind, new organs and tissue for the injured and diseased, new spinal cord links for millions of disabled people. Seems like a fairly easy call to me.

The NASA letter explained

There is a struggle afoot in NASA. More accurately, it’s a fight for taxpayer resources between several big players and a dozen or so smaller ones, with the future of US space exploration laying in the balance. This fight does not break down along the traditional left-right axis. Here there be an alternate political universe: A political world turned on its head. You may have to leave political preconceptions at the door. It’s a world gone mad!

The simplest way to understand it is a fight between Newspace and traditional aerospace. The crux of that change isn’t the use of private contractors — NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Gaver pointed out to me last year that NASA has always spent around 75% of every dollar in the private market — it’s the way contractors are paid. Newspace contractors would be paid a flat rate for things like rockets and services like capsule recovery. Traditional aerospace contractors developed many of our spacecraft and booster rockets under an older, cost-plus system. Garver explained to me that back in the day, building experimental spacecraft was too unsure, too unpredictable, for companies like Lockheed or Boeing to offer it at a flat price. The only way to entice them was to pay a fixed percentage, say 10%, over the total developmental cost. That system served its purpose, it was also hugely profitable, and that’s why some traditional aerospace corporations are working to hang on to it as long as they can.

That era is coming to an end. Because of the pioneering work done developing and testing all kinds of design ideas, concepts were worked out, standards created. Nowadays, a number of Newspace firms will be able to offer cargo and manned spaceflight services at a much lower cost than ever before. There’s big bucks involved, there’s not enough to go around to everyone. A bewildering and shifting set of corporate, institutional, and political players all competing for a hunk of space-buck pie has emerged which resembles no other political issue in play today.

There is a bipartisan faction that agrees with a democratic President who backed a program utilizing the best of what free enterprise has to offer. That usually conservative approach came under intense fire from fellow progressives, and some conservatives with NASA and traditional aerospace contractors in their district, but who otherwise voted to turn what they call socialized medicine, i.e., Medicare, into a commercialized insurance coupon program. A few of those conservatives are working their hind ends off to preserve what are arguably the worst pork projects under the guise of NASA while a number of progressives are pushing free market solutions to future spaceflights.

There also thousands of people employed by all sides in this cast of characters worried about their jobs. Darting back and forth between them all is a small army of lobbyists representing everyone and everything from Silicon Valley moguls deeply invested in economical rockets to organizations of starry-eyed dreamers, to traditional aerospace companies happy to maintain the lucrative cost-plus arrangement with NASA.

One of the players in that confusing battlemix is Alliant Techsystems, better known as ATK. It’s a defense-aerospace conglomerate that makes, among other things, solid rocket engines. ATK might stand to benefit if a certain controversial rocket project, affectionately referred to as the Senate Launch System, were to be done a certain way. One internal NASA report estimated at current funding the evolved SLS won’t be ready until 2032, and will cost close to half a billion dollars a year. Along the way some manufacturers would like to see some of that money crossing their earnings reports. Including solid rocket manufacturers making very expensive solid rocket engines. Those engines have advantages and disadvantages like any other piece of technology, and critics point our, rightly I believe, that solid rockets are not ideal for a bunch of technical reasons. Not to mention there are far cheaper rockets in final testing right now that could perform the same missions as the SLS, and one or two could be available in the next two or three, ready to put people and cargo into space and thousands of Americans back to work at great jobs with excellent benefits, if a modest slice of that NASA pie accelerating that final testing and shake out schedule were directed their way.

Into this political environment a letter has quietly appeared and circulated among the lawmakers involved making the case for solid rocket engines, and the note reportedly has some heft behind it, even though no one’s saying publicly who wrote it (I posted the full letter as provided by a credible source here. No one’s claiming it either. But the letter seems to align most closely with the faction of conservatives who have big defense outfits in their region. Beyond that, comparing the words and terminology, one possible author might be Sen. Orrin Hatch. Who happens to represent Utah, where ATK employs a ton of people.

That’s but one tiny thread in one story going on at NASA right now. And I apologize if the crash course version above is confusing to those new to the issue or overly simplistic for those heavily involved. But don’t worry! I’ll explain it as best I can in the near future. Shining some light of clarity on space exploration policy is one the things I plan to write about regularly here on the Zingularity.

Letter to NASA Circulating on Capitol Hill

Full text of the letter to NASA in support of solid rocket motors currently circulating on Capitol Hill. Some analysis and background here. — Steven “DS” Andrew

July 26, 2011
The Honorable Charles F. Bolden, Jr.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
300 E Street, S.W.
Washington, DC 20546

The Honorable Jacob J. Lew
Office of Management and Budget
Executive Office of the President
725 17th Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20503

Dear Administrator Bolden and Director Lew:

It is our understanding, based upon Administrator Bolden’s testimony before the House Science Committee, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”) has selected a design for the new heavy-lift Space Launch System (“SLS”) and the Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”) is currently reviewing these plans. The SLS design Administrator Bolden articulated during his testimony uses Shuttle and Ares derived components, including: the J-2X engine, Space Shuttle Main Engines and Solid Rocket Boosters. Therefore, it appears, this SLS design meets the requirements articulated in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (hereafter, “Authorization Act”) and the Department of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act of 2010, (hereafter, “Appropriations Act”). If so, we strongly, but respectfully, encourage NASA and OMB to publish its final design in an expeditious manner.

As you know, the final design of the SLS is long overdue. This is perplexing since the parameters for the final design are clearly articulated in the Authorization and Appropriations Acts. The Authorization Act clearly states the SLS “shall be designed from inception as a fully integrated vehicle capable of carrying a total payload of 130 tons or more…” The Appropriations Act reinforced this requirement by stating “the heavy lift launch vehicle system… shall have a lift capability not less than 130 tons.” Both statutory texts were carefully crafted and agreed upon after consultation with rocket propulsion experts who unanimously concluded these design specifications were required to ensure a meaningful spaceflight program. These same experts also determined these legal requirements could only be realistically met through the use of solid rocket motors.

It also has been brought to our attention some of our colleagues have written to Administrator Bolden requesting NASA conduct a competition for the booster portion of the SLS. Since, the legal requirements for the SLS can only be realistically met through the use of solid rocket motors, we welcome a competition once the initial SLS flight testing is completed. Based upon Administrator Bolden’s testimony, it appears this initial flight testing will not be complete until, at least, the end of this decade. We strongly believe conducting a competition earlier in the development of the SLS will only create further delays and cost overruns. As Administrator Bolden stated before the House Science Committee:

One of the things we share that we have recommended that I can share in the design… of the new SLS, in an effort to try to speed things along and utilize as much as we can of existing technology while preserving the space industrial base for some time is – is a desire to utilize existing solid rocket boosters.

Regardless, in the interim, we will insist the law is strictly adhered to and the development and flight testing of the SLS, with solid rocket boosters, is not to be delayed in anyway by a future booster competition.

In addition, we will vehemently oppose the use of any government funds for the development of a new liquid propulsion system designed to meet the booster requirements of the Authorization and Appropriations Act. As Administrator Bolden has repeatedly pointed out, in the near-term, obtaining sufficient funding for SLS and other vital NASA priorities could be extremely challenging. Therefore, during this period of financial austerity, it is irresponsible to spend funds on the development of a new system, such as an enhanced liquid engine, to accomplish what is already possible through existing technology, specifically solid rocket motors. As quoted earlier, Administrator Bolden said the use of solid rocket motors is important to “…speed things along and utilize as much as we can of existing technology….” Undoubtedly, this statement is in keeping with the Administrator’s commitment to control costs. Congress agreed. The Senate Report to the Authorization Act stated, “[t]he Committee anticipates that in order to meet the specified vehicle capabilities and requirements, the most cost-effective and “evolvable” design concept …. [includes] two solid rocket motors composed of at least four segments.” [Emphasis added.]

In conclusion, the SLS parameters to the Authorization and Appropriations Acts are clear. Based upon expert advice the only way to realistically meet these requirements is through the use of Space Shuttle and Ares derived components, including solid rocket motors. Therefore, it appears, NASA has met the obligations of the Authorization and Appropriations Acts. If so, we strongly, but respectfully, encourage NASA and OMB to publish its final design in an expeditious manner.

Dawn spacecraft begins science phase above Vesta


Vesta as seen by Dawn. Image courtesy NASA

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft begin the first of many dedicated science focused orbits over the main asteroid object 4 Vesta this week. The plucky little ion powered probe will study Vesta for the next couple of years before lighting up its revolutionary drive and breaking orbit for a rendezvous with the dwarf planet Ceres in 2015. The image of Vesta to the right was taken on 24 July 2011. Click to embiggen offsite.

Christopher Russell, the principal investigator of the mission, told me a few weeks ago, “”I and the Dawn team right now feel like Christopher Columbus and his crew must have felt after putting their faith in their three little ships and finally seeing the American shore ahead.” Russell, who invested 15 years of his own life into designing and managing the ambitious mission, added, “Like Columbus we have a very modest expedition conveyed by three little ion engines, but those little engines were quite sufficient for us to make the journey. The moment is profound and it is exciting to be finally at Vesta!”

Dawn will now begin sending detailed data to mission controllers and eager planetary astronomers using a suite of instruments on board. Via the Dawn NASA homepage:

In addition to the framing camera, Dawn’s instruments include the gamma ray and neutron detector and the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer. The gamma ray and neutron detector uses 21 sensors with a very wide field of view to measure the energy of subatomic particles emitted by the elements in the upper yard (meter) of the asteroid’s surface.


Ceres as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope

Vesta is super exciting for us space-science aficionados. It was immortalized in Isaac Asimov’s classic sci-fi short story Marooned OffVesta. Ceres even more so as it could be loaded to bear with ices, metals, and other substances useful to voracious, inefficient human metabolisms or our future machine surrogates. It’s a mystery, for starters the best images we have of Ceres look like the one to the left. Not a lot of detail. Dawn’s cameras will fix that just like they did for Vesta. Arghhh! The mission team has been working on Dawn for over a decade, so I suppose four years isn’t all that long. Between New Horizons at Pluto and Dawn at Ceres, 2015 is shaping up to be worth waiting for.

In the meantime, I found out one interesting fact about Ceres while researching the little world: its day is about eight to nine hours long and the surface gravity is less than three percent earth normal. That means we have a convenient, potentially resource laden world placed on the edge of the outer solar system where a space elevator might be practical using present day materials.


House keeping notes

FreeThoughtBlogs and the Zingularity survived our first day of life, barely. If not for some heads up action on the part of Ed Brayton and our tech folks who were elbow deep in the site’s guts from dawn to dusk, we might have been stillborn.

Besides, we all decided it was PZ Myers’ fault.

We writers and commenters (Thank you!) are still getting used to the site. I’ve been playing aorund with basic features like HTML tags and video embedding. Images and other items will be added to the Zingularity sidebars — it’s not going to stay bare! — and in the body of posts in the near future as workflows are developed for various kinks and quirks that inevitably pop up in ventures like this. Going forward, my understanding is there’s still some work ahead which may affect availability and possibly the layout of this site over the next few days.

Despite all that this page recorded around a thousand hits yesterday! I don’t know how so many quasi beta testers managed to get the page to load considering it was in and out all day. But that was encouraging and I’m grateful. Per usual, please excuse the sawdust and lack of parking.

A done debt deal

So I was over at a good buddy’s house yesterday, and he’s a fairly typical conservative, maybe a little moderate in some ways but traditional in others. Naturally, the debt deal came up:

In the end, it wasn’t even close. If you were watching on C-SPAN, you saw that barely a couple dozen Democrats voted for the “compromise” debt ceiling bill at first, but once passage became inevitable, the rest flooded in. That meant a final roll call of 269 in favor to 161 against. On the GOP side, it was 174 aye to 66 nay, with the “no” votes coming from the party’s dystopian teabagger wing, full of dead-enders ready to shoot hostages.

Looks to me like progressives aren’t happy, and that we didn’t get much. But my friend was livid. The top complaint seem to be it didn’t cut anything. We both agreed it was too complicated, and what little we could understand of how it worked was far below the $ 4 trillion or so that was reportedly under discussion between Obama and Boehner at one point.

There’s a lot of stuff progressives don’t have in common with the self described Teaparty wing of the Republican party. But one thing I can relate to: progressives sent a lot of politicians to DC in 2006 and 208, and we had in mind specific ideas would be written into law. For two years progressives had majority control of the Senate, the House, and the Oval Office, we could have and should have run the table. We sent those guys and gals to DC to enact an agenda baby!

But we didn’t get close to everything we wanted. In part because the GOP was able to use various mechanisms to stop bills from even getting the good old ‘up or down’ vote. But also some of those same people ostensibly on our side, the side we worked our ass off to hand a majority, to failed to take full advantage of that gift. Enough of them caved or were bought off by special interest on issues we care deeply about to stop things like universal healthcare or the end of  Bush tax cuts at specified income caps.

It was a crash course leading to a Ph. D. in cynicism.

The Teaparty has several dozen members in the party that controls the House. The fact that they got anything at all in this latest round of DC sausage making, especially considering  the power of influential institutional interests like Wall Street, is almost a miracle. And they better get used to this pattern of not getting everything they want. Because, as someone who played a small role in two wave elections, I predict the disappointment with the cowardice of those they worked to elected will get worse. Maybe a lot worse.

At least one cool thing happened in the final stages of this bitterly fought slugfest. As the vote on the debt deal proceeded, congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head a few months earlier in a parking lot in Tucson, made a surprise visit to the House of Representatives and cast her vote. It brought much needed perspective not to just political junkies, but to members of Congress from every branch and subset of US politics.

Success and sadness, ups and downs. Everyone can take a ride on the democracy roller-coaster. And sometimes it can make you sick. Welcome to the wonderful world of national politics my Teaparty friends.

Great new fossil, tired creationist arguments

A new feathered dino fossil has turned up, Xiaotingia zhengi, and it’s a beaut!

Xiaotingia was found by a collector in China’s Liaoning Province, a hotbed for feathered-dino fossils, and sold to the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature. Paleontologists led by Xing Xu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences analyzed the fossil’s skeletal measurements in detail and fed them into a computer database with measurements from 89 fossilized dinosaur and bird species, including Archaeopteryx.

It’s also divergant from modern birds, but shares enough characteristics with Archeoptryx that it pulled the latter a bit out of the line leading to extant aves. Which, predictably, has the creationist lobby all tingly:

One claims that a big hole has just been blown in an icon of evolution, but that the “tenured Darwin bores” are all flapping their hands and telling everyone to ignore the damage. Another claims that evolutionary biology was looking for a simple linear trajectory in avian evolution, and now it’s shown to be a complex mess, therefore…what? Because creationists have a misconception about what was expected, evolution is wrong?

This guy is from the Late Jurassic, about 155 million years ago according to the Satanic practice of radiographic dating. That puts it square in the midst of what I’d call the prehistoric world’s best equipped flying dino evolutionary laboratory.

We’ll probably never know the true breathtaking diversity of these creatures. Fossilization is a rare event for big massive dinos, rarer still for smallish fine-boned, delicate creatures like. But one thing we do know, the Late Jurassic had an arrangement of continents favoring the evolution of birds and their cousins.

I don’t want to post images yet, but if you clicked on that Jurassic link you saw a watery gap between proto Eurasia and North America. Back then there were no significant polar caps, that shallow sea was warm year round, and dotted with islands large and small. The closest analogue today might be something like the span between Southeast Asia and Australia. In the space of a few hundred miles there would be tiny, volcanic islands, sand bars, atolls, mini archipelogos, and sizable islands, all sandwiched between big continents overflowing with forests and mountains and plains. Throw feathered dinos and other flying vertbrates into that mix and they have all the fish, insects, clams and other yummy treats their little rapidly beating hearts could desire.

It’s an evolutionary petri dish writ large that persisted for millions of years. Long enough for critters to set up shop locally and specialize, long enough for others to develop vast migration patterns, and long enough for some to grow flightless and large, and for all we know maybe even back to small and flying again. One would expect to see great diversity in such an environment. Too bad creationists offer the same tired arguments again and again to dismiss all that wonder.

The government is not a business

BTW guys, I haven’t figured out yet how to approve comments and I don’t know if the comment registration system is up and running yet. We’e also had some intermittent outages.

Bear with us! Be patient! This is a good old fashioned capitalist site powered by US greenbacks and, like any business, we’re working hard to deliver nifty products and services to everyone. The ability for readers to commend or criticize posts is probably the single most important reader feature.  I’ll get it wired at some point, even took the next few days off just to make time to do that.

Which is a clumsy segue to a broader point: FreeThoughtBlogs is a business, the goal is to generate revenue, as much as possible in fact. The US government on the other hand is not a business. This is plainly evident by the kinds of projects the government takes on. Ever watch Deadliest Catch? We do not as a nation maintain a fleet of Coast Guard helicopters and ships in the Bering Sea because it’s a money making propisition. Quite the contrary, it’s incredibly expensive.

We do that because we have, collectively, decided that that capacity is in the public good. Having those aircraft and ships available makes crab fishing much safer, it lowers costs all around. As a spin off, it also provides jobs directly in the Coast Guard, and indirectly for vehicle production, support  services, and all the bars and stores and everything else that comes along for the ride. There’s a debate every election year about what government services are and are not in the public good. But most people agree that search and rescue is good and that such activities need not be profitable.

Imagine if those crab fishing boats were operated by the same rules some Congresspersons insist we subject the government to. The latest batch of greenhorn hires walk off the deck leaving pots unattended, they march into the wheelhouse with a list of demands. They tell Captain Sig he better reduce the size of his operation, note he’s not allowed to increase revenues, and request he dock not only their paychecks and give it to the ship’s investors, but every check every other boat provides all greenhorns. Any retirement of insurance benefits must be cut, but the captain has to keep charging the greenhorns full price for them Sig is also told all safety gear and inspections are to be curtailed immediately as these are job killing burdens. The ship’s line of credit with any banks must be capped arbitrarily. And, if the captain doesn’t go along, the greenhorns will begin cutting holes in the ship and setting it on fire.

That probably wouldn’t go over well with the rest of the crew of the Northwestern, and it sure as hell wouldn’t fly with other greenhorns on other boats.

If the government is to be run like a business, then the goal would not be to shrink it or limit revenue. Far form it. The goal would be to make the business as huge as possible.

Welcome skeptics one and all!

Friends, old and new, and  of course those affectionate  trolls who send me hate mail, welcome to Freethought Blogs! The brainchild of my two blogfathers, Ed Brayton and PZ Myers. You see, ‘lo these many cyber years ago — around 2003 on the civilian calender — Ed came into a chat room we both used to frequent and announced he was starting something called a blog. Shortly after that he told me about a science site he thought I’d like. It was called Pharyngula

I don’t know if Ed or PZ had any idea what their respective enterprises would grow into.  I remember PZ once wondering aloud if his ‘laveal’ site would ever grow into an adult. But grow they both did, like weeds on steroids. Their success somehow spilled over to me. Still not sure how that happened. But my buddy Brent Rasmussen indulged me on his old site Unscrwewing the Inscrutable. One thing led to another, and the next thing I know I was contributing to a powerhouse progressive site called Daily Kos. and helping a nascent organization that would soon be known as Netroots Nation.

So, a little bit about me, and where I’m coming from. Like every person on earth I was born an atheist. Unlike most of them I stayed that way. There was never a time when I thought the religious stories proffered by my peers were literally true. In fact, I was about 10 or 11 years-old when it really sunk in that a lot of people truly believed in an immortal super being that was somehow centralized in a humanoid shape, and yet also somehow invisibly distributed everywhere in tall of space and time.

The upshot of that arc is I never went through a period of bitterness. I never felt betrayed by pastors or friends or the Bible; I never bought into their various brands of mythology in the first place. And that’s a good place to be. Because, in my rapidly approaching olden and golden years , I’ve met many men and women whom I greatly respect, and who seem to find great comfort in those beliefs.

I’ll have more later. Lots more. But for now, please follow me at@ SAndrewDKos on Twiter, and I’ll follow you right back! Oh, and if some of you would care to test out our comment registration system, I’d love to know a little bit about you and what you’d like to see here on this corner of FreeThoughtBlogs.