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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for July, 2012

Those Who Never Got to Fly

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Sally Kristen Ride, one of the iconic First Others in space flight, recently died at the relatively young age of 61: she was the first American woman to participate in missions. Her obituary revealed that she was also the first lesbian to do so. Like other iconic First Others (Mae Jemison comes to mind), Sally Ride was way overqualified – multiple degrees, better than her male peers along several axes – and she also left the astronaut program way before she needed to (more about this anon). Even so, Ride remained within the orbit of space exploration activities, including founding NASA’s Exploration Office. She was also part of the board that investigated the crashes of Challenger and Columbia; Ride was the only public figure to side with the whistleblowing engineer of Morton-Thiokol when he warned about the problems that would eventually destroy Challenger.

When Sally Ride was chosen for her first mission – by an openly sexist commander who still had to admit she was by far the most qualified for the outlined duties – the press asked her questions like “Do you weep when something goes wrong on the job?” This was 1983, mind you, not the fifties. The reporters noted that she amazed her teachers and professors by pulling effortless straight As in science and – absolutely relevant to an astronaut’s abilities – she was an “indifferent housekeeper” whose husband tolerated it (she was married to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley at the time). Johny Carson joked that the shuttle launch got postponed until Ride could find a purse that matched her shoes.

Ride and Jemison had to function in this climate but at least they went to space, low-orbit though it had become by then. There were forerunners who never got to do so, even though they were also overqualified. I am referring, of course, to the Mercury 13.

This was the moniker of the early core of women astronauts who trained in parallel with the Mercury 7 and outperformed them – except, as is often the case, they did so in makeshift facilities without official support. Here’s the honor roll call of these pioneers whose wings were permanently clipped (the last names are before marriages changed them): Jane Briggs, Myrtle Cagle, Geraldyn Cobb, Janet Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Mary Wallace Funk, Sarah Gorelick, Jerrie Hamilton, Jean Hixson, Rhea Hurrie, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Stumbough, Bernice Trimble.

The Thirteen, never officially part of NASA (they were selected by William Lovelace, who designed the NASA astronaut tests, and the initiative was supported by private donations), had to have at least 1000 hours of flying experience. They underwent the same physical and psychological tests as the men and did as well or better at them: all passed phase I, several went on to phase II, and two completed the final phase III. This was not because any failed II or III, but because they didn’t have the resources to attempt them.

When the Thirteen gathered at Pensacola to show their abilities, the Navy instantly halted the demonstration, using the excuse that it was not an official NASA program. The women, some of whom had abandoned jobs and marriages for this, took their case to Congress. Several people – among them “hero” John Glenn – testified that women were not eligible to fly in space because 1) they didn’t have the exact advanced degrees specified by NASA (neither did Glenn, but he got in without a whisper) and the agency would not accept equivalents and 2) they were prohibited from flying military jets (yet women flew such jets from factories to airfields in WWII; when some of the Mercury 13 flew military jets to qualify, NASA simply ratcheted up that rule).

Space aficionados may recall that the Mercury program’s nickname was “man in a can” – the astronauts had so little control that engineers had to manufacture buttons and levers to give them the illusion of it. Nevertheless, NASA made military jet piloting experience a rule because such men, notorious cockerels, were considered to have The Right Stuff – and Congress used this crutch to summarily scuttle the Mercury 13 initiative, although there was brief consideration of adding women to space missions to “improve crew morale” (broadly interpreted).

It took twenty years for NASA to decide to accept women as astronauts. Just before it did so, hack-turned-fanboi-prophet Arthur C. Clarke sent a letter to Time crowing that he had “predicted” the “problem” brought up by astronaut Mike Collins, who opined that women could never be in the space program, because the bouncing of their breasts in zero G would distract the men. When taken to task, Clarke responded that 1) some of his best friends were women, 2) didn’t women want alpha-male astronauts to find them attractive?? and 3) libbers’ tone did nothing to help their cause. Sound familiar?

Women have become “common” in space flight – except that the total number of spacenauts who are women is still 11% of the total. Furthermore, given that the major part of today’s space effort is not going to Mars or even the Moon but scraping fungus off surfaces of the ISS or equivalent, being an astronaut now is closer to being a housecleaner than an hero. We haven’t come so far after all, and we’re not going much further.

I’m one of the few who believe that women’s rights and successful space exploration (as well as maintenance of our planet) are inextricably linked. As I wrote elsewhere:

“I personally believe that our societal problems will persist as long as women are not treated as fully human. Women are not better than men, nor are they different in any way that truly matters; they are as eager to soar, and as entitled. The various attempts to improve women’s status, ever subject to setbacks and backlashes, are our marks of successful struggle against reflexive institutionalized misogyny. If we cannot solve this thorny and persistent problem, we’ll still survive — we have thus far. However, I doubt that we’ll ever truly thrive, no matter what technological levels we achieve.”

This holds doubly for space exploration – for the goals we set for it, the methods we employ to achieve it and the way we act if/when we reach our destinations.

Addendum: I did not discuss Valentina Tereshkova, who was both the first woman cosmonaut and the first civilian to fly into space. because I wanted to keep the focus of this article on NASA.  Nevertheless, I should mention her as well as Sveltana Savitskaya, the first woman to do a space walk, whose first mission preceded that of Sally Ride.

Sources and further reading

Martha Ackmann, The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight

Julie Phillips, James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (one source of the Clarke “distracting breasts” incident and also excellent in its own right)

Site dedicated to the Mercury 13: http://www.mercury13.com/

2nd Image: some of the Mercury 13, gathered to watch the launch in which Eileen Collins was the first woman to pilot a space shuttle mission. Left to right: Gene Nora Stumbough, Mary Wallace Funk, Geraldyn Cobb, Jerri Hamilton, Sarah Gorelick, Myrtle Cagle, Bernice Trimble.

The Other Half of the Sky

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

I made three appearances in this year’s Readercon: I gave a talk about transhumanism, I was part of a panel that discussed time travel and — last but very decidedly not least — we officially unveiled the SF anthology I am editing. We now have a publisher, as enthusiastic about the project as we are: Candlemark and Gleam, headed by Kate Sullivan. Kay Holt of Crossed Genres, my co-editor in this venture, put together a neat flyer for which she did artwork that reminds me of black-figure Attic vases.

The anthology will bear the title The Other Half of the Sky. Here’s what I said in my outline:

“Women may hold up more than half the sky on earth, but it has been different in heaven: Science fiction still is very much a preserve of male protagonists, mostly performing by-the-numbers quests.

The Other Half of the Sky offers readers heroes who happen to be women, doing whatever they would do in universes where they’re fully human: Starship captains, planet rulers, explorers, scientists, artists, engineers, craftspeople, pirates, rogues…

As one of the women in Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” says: “We sing a lot. Adventure songs, work songs, mothering songs, mood songs, trouble songs, joke songs, love songs – everything.” Everything.

The panel flowed like a sea swell. Four of the authors invited to participate in the anthology (Sue Lange, Ken Liu, Vandana Singh and Joan Slonczewski) discussed it along with Kay and me. Alex Jablokov, another of the invited authors, was also there to lend moral support. We discussed why we embarked on the venture, why we think it covers less-trodden ground and how each author conceived their story within the framework I constructed.

Each participant brought up unique and interesting items pertinent to the larger concerns of the anthology. Among them: interactions with aliens that play out differently from the standard “colonize/annihilate” mode; the reciprocal influence of language and perceptions; the fact that you can have space opera with “regular” people as protagonists, rather than Chosen Ones; the complex requirements for space travel and their intersection with our needs on this planet.

The audience was eager to know when the anthology will appear (spring 2013, barring unexpected obstacles) and asked if we plan a series! So we seem to have struck a chord — maybe even a new melody on the old instrument. I want to thank everyone who helped create this intricate tapestry of a discussion.

Image: art for the anthology flyer for Readercon by Kay Holt.

“Arsenic” Life or: There Is TOO a Dragon in My Garage!

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

GFAJ-1 is an arsenate-resistant, phosphate-dependent organism — title of the paper by Erb et al, Science, July 2012

Everyone will recall the hype and theatrical gyrations which accompanied NASA’s announcement in December 2010 that scientists funded by NASA astrobiology grants had “discovered alien life” – later modified to “alternative terrestrial biochemistry” which somehow seemed tailor-made to prove the hypothesis of honorary co-author Paul Davies about life originating from a “shadow biosphere”.

As I discussed in The Agency that Cried “Awesome!, the major problem was not the claim per se but the manner in which it was presented by Science and NASA and the behavior of its originators. It was an astonishing case of serial failure at every single level of the process: the primary researcher, the senior supervisor, the reviewers, the journal, the agency. The putative and since disproved FTL neutrinos stand as an interesting contrast: in that case, the OPERA team announced it to the community as a puzzle, and asked everyone who was willing and able to pick their results apart and find whatever error might be lurking in their methods of observation or analysis.

Those of us who are familiar with bacteria and molecular/cellular biology techniques knew instantly upon reading the original “arsenic life” paper that it was so shoddy that it should never have been published, let alone in a top-ranking journal like Science: controls were lacking or sloppy, experiments crucial for buttressing the paper’s conclusions were missing, while other results contradicted the conclusions stated by the authors. It was plain that what the group had discovered and cultivated were extremophilic bacteria that were able to tolerate high arsenic concentrations but still needed phosphorus to grow and divide.

The paper’s authors declined to respond to any but “peer-reviewed” rebuttals. A first round of eight such rebuttals, covering the multiple deficiencies of the work, accompanied its appearance in the print version of Science (a very unusual step for a journal). Still not good enough for the original group: now only replication of the entire work would do. Of course, nobody wants to spend time and precious funds replicating what they consider worthless. Nevertheless, two groups finally got exasperated enough to do exactly that, except they also performed the crucial experiments missing in the original paper: for example, spectrometry to discover if arsenic is covalently bound to any of the bacterium’s biomolecules and rigorous quantification of the amount of phosphorus present in the feeding media. The salient results from both studies, briefly:

– The bacteria do not grow if phosphorus is rigorously excluded;
– There is no covalently bound arsenic in their DNA;
– There is a tiny amount of arsenic in their sugars, but this happens abiotically.

The totality of the results suggests that GFAJ-1 bacteria have found a way to sequester toxic arsenic (already indicated by their appearance) and to preferentially ingest and utilize the scant available phosphorus. I suspect that future work on them will show that they have specialized repair enzymes and ion pumps. This makes the strain as interesting as other exotic extremophiles – no less, but certainly no more.

What has been the response of the people directly involved? Here’s a sample:

Felisa Wolfe-Simon, first author of the “arsenic-life” paper: “There is nothing in the data of these new papers that contradicts our published data.”

Ronald Oremland, Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s supervisor for the GFAJ-1 work: “… at this point I would say it [the door of “arsenic based” life] is still just a tad ajar, with points worthy of further study before either slamming it shut or opening it further and allowing more knowledge to pass through.”

John Tainer, Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s current supervisor: “There are many reasons not to find things — I don’t find my keys some mornings. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

Michael New, astrobiologist, NASA headquarters: “Though these new papers challenge some of the conclusions of the original paper, neither paper invalidates the 2010 observations of a remarkable micro-organism.”

At least Science made a cautious stab at reality in its editorial, although it should have spared everyone — the original researchers included — by retracting the paper and marking it as retracted for future reference. The responses are so contrary to fact and correct scientific practice (though familiar to politician-watchers) that I am forced to conclude that perhaps the OPERA neutrino results were true after all, and I live in a universe in which it is possible to change the past via time travel.

Science is an asymptotic approach to truth; but to reach that truth, we must let go of hypotheses in which we may have become emotionally vested. That is probably the hardest internal obstacle to doing good science. The attachment to a hypothesis, coupled with the relentless pressure to be first, original, paradigm-shifting can lead to all kinds of dangerous practices – from cutting corners and omitting results that “don’t fit” to outright fraud. This is particularly dangerous when it happens to senior scientists with clout and reputations, who can flatten rivals and who often have direct access to pop media. The result is shoddy science and a disproportionate decrease of scientists’ credibility with the lay public.

The two latest papers have done far more than “challenge” the original findings. Sagan may have said that “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” but he also explained how persistent lack of evidence after attempts from all angles must eventually lead to the acceptance that there is no dragon in that garage, no unicorn in that secret glade, no extant alternative terrestrial biochemistry, only infinite variations at its various scales. It’s time to put “arsenic-based life” in the same attic box that holds ether, Aristotle’s homunculi, cold fusion, FTL neutrinos, tumors dissolved by prayer. The case is obviously still open for alternative biochemistry beyond our planet and for alternative early forms on earth that went extinct without leaving traces.

We scientists have a ton of real work to do without wasting our pitifully small and constantly dwindling resources and without muddying the waters with refuse. Being human, we cannot help but occasionally fall in love with our hypotheses. But we have to take that bitter reality medicine and keep on exploring; the universe doesn’t care what we like but still has wonders waiting to be discovered. I hope that Felisa Wolfe-Simon remains one of the astrogators, as long as she realizes that following a star is not the same as following a will-o’-the-wisp — and that knowingly and willfully following the latter endangers the starship and its crew.

Relevant links:

The Agency that Cried “Awesome!”

The earlier rebuttals in Science

The Erb et al paper (Julia Vorholt, senior author)

The Reaves et al paper (Rosemary Rosefield, senior author)

Images: 2nd, Denial by Bill Watterson; 3rd, The Fool (Rider-Waite tarot deck, by Pamela Cole Smith)