Tuesday, April 29, 2008

My First Hearing on the Hill

Last week, on Thursday, I attended my first hearing on Capital Hill. It was the House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology, Sub-committee on Space and Aeronautics Hearing on the International Space Station (ISS) Program. The hearing was at the Rayburn House Office Building, which is just to the side of the Capital.

The building is open to the public, so anyone is welcome to go in. I found the room that the hearing was in – thanks to the helpful guidance of some security guards at the entrance. The room is fairly big, and set up so with lots of chairs for the people who are watching the hearing. In the front of the spectator section is a table where the witnesses sit. The witnesses are the people who are speaking at the hearing. In the front of the room, facing the witnesses and the spectators is a raised dias where the congressmen sit.

First, I’ll give some general thoughts on what it was like to attend a hearing, and then I’ll go into the specifics for those who (like me) are interested in the progress being made on the ISS program.

One thing that surprised me was the relaxed atmosphere. The room, with its quotes and proverbs on the wall and dark wood paneling, gives a sense of seriousness, but the congressmen running the meeting seemed very easy-going.

Congressman Udall was chairing, and Congressman Hall was sitting to his left. Congressman Hall was pretty funny – he’s been in the subcommittee for many years, and made a few jokes about his age. He also happened to know the father of one of the witnesses, and said a few words about him.

There weren’t any female congress-people present on the subcommittee, but two women (out of six people) were witnesses. After working in DC for a bit, I tend to notice the gender balance, especially in positions of seniority, and in technology-related fields.

The last general comment I’d like to make was on how exciting the hearing was. I thought the panel might be a little boring – it’s two hours of people reporting on the status of a program to Congressman. But it really went by so quickly and was really interesting. When Congressman Hull announced we only had 10 minutes left, I couldn’t believe it – I would have guessed that the had only been going for about 45 minutes at that point, not an hour and 50 minutes.

Now to the specifics, the meeting was organized into two sections – first a panel of mostly non-government people speaking on how the ISS can benefit them and their companies/ industries. Then there was a panel of government representatives that talked about the ISS benefits to the government agency they were representing.

The first speaker was from USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), not an agency you usually think of as interested in the International Space Station. Actually, it turns out that USDA and NASA have a history of collaboration. NASA satellites are used for Earth observation and remote sensing that allows USDA to predict and monitor disease, drought, and other issues relevant to their agency. With the ISS, they are interested in doing basic research on biological and cellular research – looking at the early development of cells in micro-gravity. He suggested that as the ISS transforms to a National Laboratory, that a new organization be set up to organize the research agenda. He also suggested that Congress provide some funding to support research, due to the high costs of transportation and special materials needed to do research on the International Space Station.

The second speaker was from Arizona State University and was talking about the disease research that can be done on the ISS. Already they’ve done research using the shuttle (STS-115 and STS-116) on salmonella. Microgravity provides a unique ability to look at microbial issues and gene regulatory pathways. They recently found that bacteria is propogates more quickly and is more virulent when in micro-gravity. Better understanding these changes helps them to better understand what genes regulate diseases, and will lead to better cures and will advance global health.

The third speaker was from a commercial company called Spacehab, and was interested in doing research on viruses in micro-gravity. Their company is already getting some research flown, but as the ISS is the only platform for doing long-term micro-gravity research, that’s what they’re really interested in. They believe that micro-gravity can be used to develop vaccines much more quickly, and that these advanced vaccines have the potential to be worth millions – and also the potential to save millions of lives. Protein Crystal Growth is one of the methods they are interested in, which can be done in micro-gravity much more precisely than on Earth. He also suggested that Congress put more money into basic science research, including that which is high-risk, because this is the research that leads to innovation and is the research that commercial companies are not able to do.

An interesting question asked by one of the Congressman was dealing with the issue of health-related research. He pointed out that the health benefits that could be acquired by ISS research have been talked about for many years, but nothing has materialized. He asked why Congress should believe that this time we should really expect such impressive advances.

The witnesses replied that in the past, ISS was in a construction phase. In 2010, it will finally be complete, and truly ready to support a research agenda. They also argued that promising new developments are already occurring, such as the recent discovery, due to research done in space, on gene regulatory pathways.

The first speaker from the second panel was Dr. Gerstenmaier, who leads the NASA ISS Office. He talked about the benefit of the ISS to exploration research. It is important to realize that there really is no where else that we can do research on long-term space exposure for humans or for space systems. These are very important things to understand if we’re going to travel to the Moon and Mars.

The second speaker was from the GAO, Government Accountability Office, and she basically said that NASA ISS is going pretty well, and that it is important that the two contingency flights are funded and flown. These flights will bring important spare parts to the ISS, and will be the last before the shuttle is retired.

The final speaker was from the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, and spoke about the biomedical research that can be done on the International Space Station. Similar to the first speaker, it was clear that this research is important to future exploration missions.

I’m almost finished with a paper discussing the various benefits of the ISS that I am hoping to get published. I’ll definitely be posting about that when it becomes available.

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