Category Archives: Space Program

Drowning In Space: When Your Space Suit Is Your Enemy

Gemini 4 Spacewalk

Gemini 4 Spacewalk


You would think that the last thing that an astronaut would fear while performing a spacewalk would be drowning. How on earth does that happen? Oh, wait a minute, he wouldn’t be on Earth. I guess out there in the wild blue yonder all the rules change. Ask Luca Parmitano, an Italian astronaut who worked on board the International Space Station (ISS). It seems that over a liter of water accumulated inside his helmet obstructing his ears and his eyes and raising the possibility that he could drown in space.

He isn’t the only one to suffer spacesuit problems during spacewalks, Extravehicular Activities or EVAs in NASA-speak. Here is an interesting article from The New Scientist on five such situations.



Posted by on September 3, 2013 in Asphyxia, Medical Issues, Space Program


Surgery in Zero Gravity

How do you do surgery in zero gravity?

Very carefully. And it helps to have NASA’s latest toy.

You’ve probably seen videos of astronauts playing with water in space. No dripping or dropping here. Due to their inherent surface tension and the lack of gravity applying any external force, liquids tend to form into spheres and float around. Fun stuff.


But what about blood? Of gall bladder fluid? Or, yuck, pus from an infected wound? These are not materials you want floating around in your space capsule, or your face.

The Aqueous Immersion Surgical System (AISS) just might solve this problem. It is a saline-filled transparent box with airtight ports through which orthoscopic surgical tools can be passed.



Very clever and very cool.


Space Travel and Brain Injury

We’ve been to the moon, astronauts have spent months floating around the space station, and the dream of many is to eventually visit Mars. But, space isn’t all that friendly to humans.


The Original 7 Mercury Astronauts


Besides the obvious dangers associated with take off and re-entry, and living in an enclosed environment miles above the Earth where immediate rescue is problematic, there are several important medical issues related to prolonged microgravity exposure.


Apollo 11′s Buzz Aldrin on the Lunar Surface


For years we’ve known about the muscle wasting and bone mineral loss that follows the absence of weight bearing in microgravity. Now a new problem has been uncovered: Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension.

That’s a big word meaning an elevation of the pressure inside the skull. This seems to be due to cerebral edema, an excess accumulation of fluid within the brain that leads to brain swelling. And since the skull, unlike a balloon, is rigid and cannot expand with this increased pressure, the brain suffers.

In a NASA study of 27 astronauts who had spent an average of 108 days in space, MRI brain scans revealed that one third suffered some degree of swelling, typically involving the optic (vision) nerves. In some astronauts, there was also some flattening of the back of the eyeball, which affected focusing, and problems with the pituitary gland, the so-called master gland that regulates many of the body’s hormones.
This will require further study, but on its surface it appears to complicate long-term space travel. Mars just got a little further away.


1 Comment

Posted by on July 17, 2012 in Medical Issues, Space Program


Q and A: Could the Sensitivity of Modern DNA Testing Prove Confusing in a Contaminated Crime Scene?

Q: I attended your forensics panel at SINC OC and remember you saying that DNA can be extracted from a single cell found at the scene. Is that correct? I have a meticulous serial killer that I want to leave only DNA clues but (for me at least) that begs two questions: How far is the one-cell method of DNA ID developed now and wouldn’t the DNA results become muddied since many persons would have been in the same area? In other words, how would friends/family/acquaintances be ruled out or in as suspects when they most likely would have physical contact with the victim?

P.I. Barrington, Riverside, CA

A: The techniques that allow very small DNA samples to be useful are well-established and have been the last 15 years. They are the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and short tandem repeats (STR). Together they are referred to as PCR/STR. The PCR technique basically copies the existing DNA chains so that a single DNA chain–therefore a single cell–can be used to produce as much DNA as is needed. Since the copying is exact, all the DNA produced by this method is identical to the original DNA strand. This process is called amplification but it is basically a duplication of the existing strand. The short tandem repeat is simply a method of analyzing the DNA and producing a profile from multiple short segments of the target DNA.

What this all means is that a very small DNA sample, and theoretically only a single cell, can be used to generate a DNA fingerprint.


Your other questions bring up a very difficult problem that will be an increasing problem in the future. If the DNA techniques are so sensitive, what do we do about extraneous DNA found at the scene? Since people shed skin cells all the time, a busy public place could theoretically house the DNA from thousands of people. But as with the blues, context is everything.

If the crime scene DNA is found in a drop of blood or a smear of semen or a fingerprint, the DNA found in that sample would belong to the person that left the sample behind. Could it be contaminated by other DNA? Of course, but this contaminant would be in very small amounts. In addition, the extraneous DNA might belong to a family member or friend or someone who had a reason to be at the scene before or after the murder. That’s not always true in the case of the killer. Often he has no innocent reason for having deposited his bodily fluids or fingerprints at a murder scene.

So let’s look at a scenario such as this: the killer does his deed. He washes his hands in the sink. He uses a hand towel to dry his hands. The crime lab technicians evaluate the towel and find DNA present. The DNA proves to be from several people. The victim, the victim’s spouse, the victim’s children, and maybe the victims next-door neighbor who visits daily. But another DNA is found. One that cannot be matched to any known individual. Later a suspect is identified and indeed this DNA matches him.

What does this evidence tell investigators? It tells them what any evidence does. That the individual identified by the DNA had contact with that towel. That’s it. It doesn’t say anything else. This is true of all evidence. It merely serves as a link between a person and another person, place, or object. Your investigators must then uncover the circumstances under which this person’s DNA was left on that towel. If he can prove he had been there for dinner the night before and had indeed washed his hands then this evidence is of little value. But if he swears that he doesn’t know the victim and has never been in the victim’s home, that’s an entirely different story. Again, context is everything.



New Rapid DNA Technology

The recent killing of Osama bin Laden and the very rapid determination of his identity through DNA and other techniques has generated a great deal of discussion on just how fast DNA analyses can be done. The facts are that with good samples a DNA profile and its matching against a known profile can be done in a few hours, perhaps as little as two or three. But there’s new technology on the horizon that might reduce this time to less than an hour and, just as important, allow this testing to be done in the field by non-specially-trained individuals.

Network Biosystems (NetBio) is the creator of this portable instant DNA scanner that utilizes microfluidics, a rapidly expanding technology that makes use of very small volumes of liquids and microcapillary tubes. Since it is portable, rapid, and doesn’t require a scientifically-trained operator, it will no doubt prove to be a valuable forensic tool.

Lab on a Chip (LOCAD)

I first learned about this technology a couple years ago when I spent time with Dr. Lisa Monaco at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. She explained the microfluidic technology she employs in her Lab-on-a-chip (LOCAD) research and indeed one of her devices is currently roaming around Mars, seeking evidence of nitrogen, oxygen, water, and other chemicals, as well as the amino acids required for life.

Dr. Lisa Monaco

Whether on the surface of Mars or at a crime scene, this technology has a bright future and I suspect we will see an increasing number of uses for it.


The Andromeda Strain Lives

Remember the late Michael Crichton’s landmark science fiction novel and pretty cool movie The Andromeda Strain? The story revolved around an alien strain of biological material that hitchhiked its way to Earth on a retrieved military satellite. Pure science fiction. Great science fiction. Totally speculative.


But now it just might have happened. It seems that astrobiologist Dr. Richard B. Hoover from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center has uncovered an alien, space-traveling bacterium. This one grabbed a ride on a meteorite. Scanning electron microscopy has revealed the fossil of a large bacterium, similar to one found on Earth, hidden inside the chunk of space rock.

Is this evidence of life in space? Is it conceivable that some space traveling organism could fall to earth and wipe us all out? Who knows. Time will tell.

As it says on the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “DON’T PANIC.”


Dr. Hoover has invited 100 experts to review and analyze his work so hopefully we will know more about this creature, bacterium, apocalyptic organism, or what ever it is as further study is done.

But it should add speculative fuel to those of you who write in the sci-fi genre.



The past two days have been busy but the opening of the CSI: The Experience exhibit here in Huntsville at the US Space and Rocket Center was great. Did the ribbon cutting on Friday night and then gave a couple of public talks yesterday. So far it looks like the biggest exhibit they’ve ever had. The interest in forensic science continues. If you are in the area don’t miss it. It’s definitely worthwhile.

The exhibit is excellent. Very interactive. Friday afternoon a group of high school seniors from Bob Jones High School were the first to see the exhibit. They went through the various crime scenes very quickly and mostly came to the correct solutions.

Then I visited with Chris Johnson and Scott Saint with GTAC–the Geospatial Training and Application Center. They use Google Earth, Sketch Up, and a government only Virtual Alabama system (high resolution images of the state made by low flying aircraft–much clearer than Google Earth’s space based images) to create 3D crime scenes, neighborhoods, buildings, etc. It us used by law enforcement, fire and rescue organizations, disaster planners, and Homeland Security. Amazing work they are doing. I hope to have them as guest bloggers soon to discuss their fascinating program.

At the Friday night VIP reception I had a chance to chat with solar physicist Dr. David Hathaway who along with Paul Meyer developed the VISAR (Video Image Stabilization and Registration) system that is used to enhance images and videos. You know, read that licenses plate caught by a fuzzy ATM camera. Or clear up a tattoo on the arm of a convenience store robber. Great stuff. A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to visit with him about his work in solar imaging and his development of VISAR. Dr. Hathaway appears as Dr. Wendell Volek in a couple of scenes in my book STRESS FRACTURE.

This has been an exhausting but unbelievable weekend. Here are some pics from the Huntsville Times of my talks and book signings.


Posted by on January 30, 2011 in General Forensics, Space Program


Guest Blogger: Fun with Rocket Fuels

My guest today is B L Lindley Anderson, who works at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. She has worked with writers to help them understand the complex world of space travel, rockets, and all things “out there.” She is available to answer your questions on these topics through her E mail address below.

This article is her opinion and is in no way official NASA information or opinion.


Fun with Rocket Fuels

The launch of a space shuttle produces plenty of what we rocket scientists call smoke and fire.  As one of my former supervisors said, lay people are only interested in the front end of a launch vehicle or the rear end.  The front end has the crew and the rear end produces the fireworks.  So the middle section is generally ignored.  NASA personnel who train and interact with crew members are among the people more interested in the front end.  The engineers who design, build and analyze rocket engines are always much more interested in the smoke and fire.  We joke that the crew is “just payload”.

Less interesting to the casual observer are the attitude control engines.  These are the smaller engines that adjust the position of a space craft once it has reached orbit.  They produce much less smoke and fire, and in fact are mostly unseen by the public.  Those lucky enough to receive NASA TV do get to see the shuttle Orbital Maneuvering Engines (OMS) fire, because astronauts are geeky enough to turn the cameras on them when they have opportunity.  Yeah, we geeks on the ground get excited to see it also.

Solid rocket motors produce plenty of interesting by-products, but let’s leave that aside for the moment and focus on liquid engines.  (Solids are motors and liquids are engines, and one can tell a lay person or a new comer by the terminology used.)  The Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) use liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.  The propellants are cryogenic, that is, super cooled, and so can produce interesting effects, such as freezing lungs if breathed in.  But they are just oxygen and hydrogen and produce water when reacted.

The attitude control engines use less known propellants such as hydrazine with nitric acid, or aniline and hydrogen peroxide (significantly higher concentration than the 5% in your first aid supplies) or unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) with inhibited red fuming nitric acid, or UDMH with nitrogen tetroxide.  These are not only toxic but corrosive.  Nitrogen tetroxide can be colorless at certain temperatures and inhalation of it can produce extremely serious but delayed effects, for example.  Sniffers must be used by crews on the pad for detection of certain vapors that they should not be breathing.

A true life story about attitude control propellants and the bad things they can do is instructive.  In July 1975 an Apollo spacecraft docked with a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, the first such international docking in the history of the space program.  After separation a few days later, the Apollo craft was executing what should have been a routine re-entry.  A failure in switchology (timing and sequence of throwing particular switches) caused the automatic landing sequencing to not be armed while the reaction control system was active.  Because of this the parachute didn’t deploy automatically on time and had to be deployed manually.  The command module pilot threw the switches to release the apex cover over the Apollo craft and deploy the drogue chutes.  This deployment caused the command module to sway under the chutes and the reaction control system thrusters fired copiously to counteract the movement.  The crew became aware of the situation and fired the automatic system 30 seconds late.  In that 30 second time interval, the space craft became filled with a mixture of unignited monomethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide from the thrusters.  Before drogue deploy, the cabin relief valve opened automatically as customary.  Usually this would draw fresh air into the space craft, but this time it brought in the thruster propellants since the thrusters were located only about 0.6 meters from the relief valve.  By the time the spacecraft landed in the water, one astronaut had lost consciousness and the other two were near to that.  The commander managed to get an oxygen mask on the command module pilot, who came to consciousness shortly after.  The space craft, as usual for Apollo, landed upside down in the water and was righted by inflation of air bags on the top of the craft.  Once the Apollo righted, the vent valve for the cabin was opened and the fumes bled out.  The astronauts were hospitalized for two weeks for chemical-induced pneumonia and edema.  If all three crewmembers had lost consciousness and not been able to access oxygen masks, the outcome would have been tragic.

So these propellants are the sorts of causes that I have steered a couple of writers toward for some serious or fatal injuries.  And it doesn’t have to be a space related story or an injury or death on a launch pad, or in a space craft.  Accidents, unintentional or purposeful, could happen in transport, in processing or manufacturing.  Also some hypergols have uses other than rocket propellant.  A chemical plant accident was the method chosen by one author to make use of the nasty effects of nitrogen tetroxide.  So it doesn’t have to be rocket science to find a useful serious injury or death for your story.

B L Lindley Anderson


Posted by on January 23, 2011 in Guest Blogger, Space Program, Writing


Astronauts, Postmenopausal Women, and Brittle Bones

It’s well known that as we age our bones demineralize, or lose calcium, and become weaker and more prone to fractures. This seems to be particularly true in postmenopausal women where it has to do with the loss of hormonal support for bone matrix development and calcium deposition. This is often a difficult problem and treatment is also problematic. Most physicians recommend calcium, vitamin D, and exercise. Weight bearing exercise is important because it helps prevent mineral loss and keeps the bones strong. It’s similar to building muscles through weight lifting. You must stress the muscles in order for them to increase in size and strength. The same goes for bones.

Bone and mineral loss is also a major problem with astronauts who spend months in weightlessness. If there is no stress on the bones, they begin to lose calcium and become weaker. It has been estimated that an astronaut will lose the same amount of calcium and bone strength in one month than a postmenopausal woman would lose in one year.

How do you get around this? Weightlifting in space simply will not work because the weights are weightless. No resistance, no improvement in bone strength and mineralization. To get around this astronauts have used bungee cords and other elastic devices to add that resistance and keep their muscles and bones strong. The Russians at one time devised a suit with bungee cords built-in but it proved to be cumbersome to use in the confines of the International Space Station (ISS).

Leave it to those guys at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to come up with a clever solution. They have developed a sort of Spider Man suit made of a stretchy elastic material that forces exertion with the movement of arms and legs. This resistance helps keep the astronauts’ muscle and bone strength intact during those long months in space.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 11, 2010 in Medical Issues, Space Program


Microfluidics and Rapid DNA Analysis

A recent report from a research group in Birmingham, England and the Center for Applied NanoBioscience and Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine presented a new rapid method for DNA analysis. The researchers state that with a new DNA processing cartridge that they have developed, DNA results can be obtained in as little as four hours. This could be extremely useful to law enforcement though it does have a few drawbacks. After obtaining the analysis I would assume that it would then be uploaded into the CODIS system for comparison. The problem is that CODIS is not complete and is not used by all jurisdictions. That is changing, slowly, very slowly, but it is changing.

What intrigued me most about this new technique is that it used microfluidics as its basis. What the heck is that? It is essentially a method of analysis that uses very small amounts of fluid to perform various test in many disciplines, including chemistry, physics, engineering, and of course biotechnology. It is also used by NASA in many of its space probes.

While I was doing research for my book STRESS FRACTURE, I was lucky enough to get a private tour of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, my hometown. In all the years I lived there, besides going out and playing Little League baseball on the base or visiting the officers club with my father, I had never toured the facility. I knew what went on there and followed it very closely. I went to high school with the children of all the missile scientists. I remember well the ground shaking, much like the earthquakes here in California, every time von Braun tested another rocket booster.

Some of what I saw on the tour made its way into the book, particularly the work of Dr. David Hathaway and his VISAR system for video image enhancement. In fact he appears as a character in the book under another name. But one of the most fascinating individuals I met was Dr. Lisa Monaco. She works with microfluidics in a program called LOCAD or Lab-on-a-chip.

I remember her handing me a piece of translucent plastic about the size of a graham cracker. She said that there were 100,000 microfluidic channels in that chip, making it capable of doing 100,000 different experiments. The biochemistry is complex and much of what they use incorporates the blood proteins from horseshoe crabs, which are extremely primitive creatures and have a highly reactive immune system. This LOCAD device can seek out chemicals such as oxygen and water and amino acids, the things necessary for life as we know it.

These LOCAD chips are currently on the ISS (International Space Station) as well as the surface of Mars. And now they have entered the forensic lab.

1 Comment

Posted by on August 16, 2010 in DNA, High Tech Forensics, Space Program


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 400 other followers