NASA Is Ready For Trump's New Policy Team

In response to the president elect, NASA's leadership is developing strategies for continuing deep space exploration in the event of budget change or stagnation. 

A recent article by Stephen Clark for Spaceflight Now articulates NASA’s aims and plans in the wake of the recent American presidential election. The president-elect and his colleagues have said very little about what the upcoming administration’s treatment of NASA will be. From the scant details available, it seems that Donald Trump’s aim is to have NASA focus on human spaceflight and deep space exploration while cutting down on studies in climate science. 

Presently, NASA’s administrators are predicting to have either no change or a reduction in their budget and are seeking ways to work more with the private sector to fund its aims of sending humans into deep space. William H. Gerstenmaier, who has been working for NASA since 1977 and is presently associate administrator for its Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, described the administrations current financial outlook:

We kind of said, OK, historically, NASA’s budget has been about at the level it is right now. It’s not going to go up by a lot and it’s not going to go down by a lot. If we just have that much money, and leveraging off of the private sector, what can we do at a slow, measured pace? That’s what we’ve laid out that gets us (to Mars orbit) in 2033.

Gerstenmaier notes that NASA, consistent with Obama’s views toward space policy laid forth in 2010, is maintaining a long-term focus on exploring Mars. In the meantime, the organization aims to optimize collaboration with the private sector and hopes against major slashes in funding from the Trump administration.

A major focus for NASA looking into at least the next decade is sending astronauts into deep space. In addition, it seeks to develop a deep space lab around the moon and to visit an asteroid orbiting the moon. If, indeed, NASA’s budget goes unchanged, making progress will require strategizing with available financial resources by finding more cost-effective means of performing current practices. Much of its focus is on Orion, which is the only spacecraft that presently satisfies NASA’s robust requirements for carrying humans into deep space. Stephen Clark reports:

NASA officials have said realizing a $1.5 billion cost target for each mission — around $1 billion for SLS and $500 million for Orion — would allow the agency to have leftover money to develop habitats, powerful ion propulsion thrusters, and advanced closed-loop life support systems necessary to sustain human expeditions to Mars in the 2030s.

The election results do not necessitate a halt in space exploration but rather a financial reassessment by NASA.

A few companies are presently competing to work with NASA in coming years. The first is the incumbent, Lockheed Martin, whose present contract with NASA ends in the early 2020s. NASA can extend the contract, making them the only partner for the project; alternatively, it may invite competition from other organizations with the prize of an appealing contract to the negotiators of the most promising company. Working in Lockheed Martin’s favor is the fact that it already has tooling and procedures in place for working on Orion. However, it does not presently seem to be interested in working on alternative projects. Presently, NASA is not formally soliciting such proposals.

Aside from Lockheed Martin, the two chief contenders for collaborating with NASA are Boeing and SpaceX, both of whom are already working with NASA on designing spacecraft for low Earth travel. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, announced bold ambitions in September for colonizing Mars. However, Musk and NASA have been careful to avoid unhealthy competition between the two organizations, preferring instead to be open to collaborating toward achieving shared goals of visiting Mars.

Potential candidates for corporate collaborators aside, concerns regarding NASA’s current plans for deep space exploration remain. First is a seemingly overlooked logistical issue. As Gerstenmaier observes, it would be necessary first to develop spacecraft that carry much heavier loads than current models. An industrial colonization would require the transport of a lot of heavy infrastructure. Another potential concern is the ambitiousness of NASA’s present timetable. Clark describes the worries:

The inspector general’s report highlighted financial concerns with the Orion program, such as Lockheed Martin’s decision to dip into management reserves to cover some of the capsule’s development costs. The watchdog also expressed concern over NASA’s optimistic timeline to launch EM-2 in 2021, writing that the aggressive target date “increases the risk that Orion officials will defer certain tasks, which ultimately could delay the program’s schedule and increase costs.”

Over-eagerness on NASA’s part, the inspector general notes, may necessitate changes in an unmanageable itinerary that will ultimately cost more than more conservative planning. 

One thing remains clear: NASA will continue to explore space, regardless of the results of this election. What Donald Trump will do to the budget remains unclear, as he has been reticent about it and will be appointing a new administrator and policy team for NASA. However, the outlook is not dismal. Indeed, there are some republican politicians on NASA's side. For example, Richard Shelby, a senator in Alabama, is currently the chair of the senate’s subcommittee for writing NASA’s budget. Indeed, relative to many other issues, interest in space travel tends to have a lot of bipartisan support.

In the meantime, Neil deGrasse Tyson recently insinuated on Stephen Colbert’s show that sending Donald Trump himself into space may well shift his attitude toward investments in science, the climate, and other political interests. 

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Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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