Category Archives: Space Program

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.

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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.

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


How Long Could You Survive in Space?

A recent New Scientist article discussed this issue. It reminded me of a question I received from a writer and included in my book Forensic & Fiction: Clever, Intriguing, and Downright Odd Questions From Crime Writers. Here is the question:

Q:    What sort of damage does the human body suffer in the vacuum of space? How long can one survive and what will happen to the person who does survive? (My scenario involves an astronaut whose faceplate blows out, but not before he depressurizes his suit sufficiently to prevent immediate death — if that’s even a threat.)

A;    First of all the victim would not explode as in the movie 2010. But some really bad things do happen internally and they happen very quickly. Whether he depressurizes somewhat beforehand or not, his survival would likely be measured in seconds.

Space decompression is similar to that of a scuba diver that rises too rapidly after a prolonged exposure to the pressures of the deep. In this case he is going from excess pressure to normal pressure. In space the victim goes from normal pressure to zero pressure. Same thing physiologically.

Though studies on the effects of exposure to a vacuum have been done on chimpanzees, there are no real data on what happens to humans exposed to zero pressure except for a couple of incidents where an astronaut or a pilot was accidentally exposed. Of course, rapid decompression has caused deaths in both high-altitude flights and in June, 1971 when the Russian spacecraft Soyuz 11 suddenly lost pressure and killed the 3 cosmonauts on board, but survivors are few and far between.

On August 16, 1960, parachutist Joe Kittinger ascended to an altitude of 102,800 feet (19.5 miles) in an open gondola in order to set a world record for high-altitude parachute jumping. He lost pressurization in his right glove but proceeded with his ascent and jump. He experienced pain and loss of function in his hand at high altitude but all returned to normal once he descended via chute to lower altitudes.

In 1965 at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center near Houston, TX, a trainee suffered a sudden leak in his spacesuit while in a vacuum chamber. He lost consciousness in 14 seconds, but revived after a few seconds as the chamber was immediately re-pressurized. He suffered no ill effects—due to his very brief exposure—but stated that he could feel water boiling on his tongue. I should point out that in chemical and physical terms boiling simply means the changing of a liquid to a gas. This can be accomplished by adding heat or by lowering the ambient pressure. So in this case it wasn’t that his tongue became hot or anything like that but rather that the pressure was so low the water in his mouth changed to its gaseous phase.

A case of partial, prolonged exposure occurred during an EVA (space walk) in April 1991 on the US space shuttle mission STS-37. One astronaut suffered a 1/8 inch puncture in one glove between the thumb and forefinger. He was unaware of it until later when he noticed a painful red mark on his skin in the exposed area. It appeared that the area bled some but that his blood had clotted and sealed the injury.

So, what happens to a human exposed to zero pressure? Since there is no oxygen in such an environment, loss of consciousness occurs in a matter of seconds. Also, if the victim held his breath (don’t do this during scuba diving when coming up from depths either), the air in his lungs would rapidly expand and his lungs could be damaged, bleed, or rupture. Better to open his mouth and exhale the rapidly expanding gas from the lungs.

Water in his blood stream would immediately begin to “boil.” That is, it would turn to its gaseous state. This is similar to popping the top on a soft drink. With the release of the pressure the carbon dioxide dissolved in the drink immediately begins to turn to its gas form. Same thing happens in the blood at zero pressure. This causes pressure to build in the blood system and the heart stops. Bubbles may appear in the blood stream and these can cause damage to the body’s organs, particularly the brain. As a result, the brain and nerves cease to function. This increased pressure also causes the tissues of the body to swell but they will not explode.

Exposure to heat or cold or radiation might also occur but it will do little harm since the victim would already be dead.

But what if the exposure is brief and the person is rescued? Treatment would be to immediately return him to a pressurized environment and give him 100% oxygen. He may survive unharmed or may have brain and nerve damage which could be permanent.

For your scenario, the victim’s faceplate would rupture and he would begin to exhale air. He would lose consciousness in 10 to 20 seconds and would then die in short order. If he were quickly rescued, he would be returned to the spacecraft, which would be pressurized, and he would be given 100% oxygen via a face mask. He could survive intact or with brain damage. It’s your call. Either way works.



Got to Admire His Huevos

OK, this happened in my hometown. My only question is whether this young man is a future criminal or a mystery writer? Maybe both.

It seems that a middle schooler told police he had been kidnapped by a man in a “beat up red car” and that the man had threatened to kill him. The young man managed to escape with his band instrument but had to leave his backpack behind.

Police didn’t buy the story and soon the youngster came clean–he made up the entire story so he wouldn’t have to bring home the less than stellar school report card that was in his backpack. The boy is fine, though I’m sure in a bit of trouble on the home front, the police have a funny story to tell, and the backpack has yet to be found.

On a historical note: The aspiring criminal/mystery writer attended Ed White Middle School, a school named after the Apollo 1 astronaut who died in the tragic capsule fire on January 27, 1967 as it sat on Pad 34 at Cape Canaveral. Fellow astronauts who died with Ed White were Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Roger Chaffee. To honor these 3 men, the city of Huntsville named schools after them: the Roger B. Chaffee Elementary School, the Ed White Middle School, and the Virgil I. Grissom High School.

Apollo1 Crew

Times Article


On This Day in Criminal History: The Atlanta Olympic Bombing and the Birth of VISAR

I’m sure you all remember the bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, GA. What you might not know is that this event gave birth to the Video Image Stabilization and Registration (VISAR) system. This is the system law enforcement uses to clear up, stabilize, and enhance video images to help read licenses plates, ID convenience store robbers, and close in on abductors caught in security cameras.

As part of the investigation into the Olympic bombing, the Southest Bomb Task Force of the FBI approached Dr. David Hathaway and Paul Mayer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, my home town. I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Dr. Hathaway as part of my research for my upcoming medical thriller, Stress Fracture, due in April, 2010. He shared with me the VISAR process, how he developed it as part of this investigation, and how he has used it in other famous cases.

Dr. Hathaway, Marshall’s Solar Physics Group Director, had been using advanced video techniques as part of his solar research. The FBI brought him 13 seconds of very dark film, made at night by a news reporter with a handheld camera. It showed the silhouette a large backpack, sitting on the ground near a park bench. Hathaway and Meyer went to work and step by step, through trial and error, stabilized, sharpened, and brightened the image. Dr. Hathaway showed me the step by step process and the results were amazing. What had been mere shadows soon became a back pack, top flap open, explosive device inside, thick wires hanging over the lip. VISAR was born.

Subsequently, Dr. Hathaway became involved in several other famous cases: the Mike Bell murder, the Katie Poirer and the Carlie Brucia abductions, the Elizabeth Smart case, and the Columbia accident to name a few.

So much of our daily life is touched by NASA spin-offs, including this computer, the GPS in your car, and all those indispensable things your iPhone does.

NASA 1999 Article

Dr. Hathaway and Paul Meyer: Who’s Who at NASA


Soyuz 11: An Asphyxial Tragedy

Space exploration is risky. Very risky. We all remember the two shuttle disasters:  Challenger (STS-51) on January 28, 1986 and Columbia (STS-107) on February 1, 2003. For a boy who grew up in Huntsville Alabama with the space program in his backyard, these tragedies hit very close to home. Much of the shuttle was built at Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center near in my hometown. In fact, throughout my life I have followed the space program very closely.

I met Werner von Braun on many occasions, the first being when I was in the 5th grade. I remember the ground shaking his rocket testing caused, interrupting baseball games and other activities. I was at the launch of Apollo 11, July 16, 1969 at 9:32 AM. I remember it like yesterday. And then on December 9, 2006, Nan and I attended the nighttime launch of the Discovery (STS-116) spacecraft as guest of NASA. It was also a great experience and the launch was breathtaking. For me, besides the launch itself, the highlight of that visit back to Cape Canaveral was meeting Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon. He served as Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 14, and flew along with Commander Alan Shepard, one of the original 7 astronauts, and Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa. Mitchell and Shepherd stepped on the moon on February 5, 1971.


This Apollo 14 flight was the next in line after the near disaster of Apollo 13. That was an incredible adventure where James Lovell, John Swigert, and Fred Haise were nearly lost in space. I remember the city of Huntsville basically shutting down as every scientist in the area moved out to Marshall and worked around the clock, frantically attempting to jury-rig the space craft and bring the three astronauts safely home. Fortunately, they succeeded.

Apollo 13, the movie about this journey, followed the actual events almost to the letter. Many years ago I met Ron Howard at the then Maui Writers Conference. I thanked him for doing the story straight up and not turning it into some Hollywood bastardization of a truly heroic event. Interestingly, he said that the studios actually did try to change the story but that he and Tom Hanks stood firm and demanded that the script follow the reality. I thank Ron Howard for that to this day. If you’ve never seen this movie, you should.

But earlier in the space program there were also disasters for both us and the Russians. I vividly remember Apollo 1, where Virgil “Gus” Grissom, also one of the original 7 astronauts, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee perished in a capsule fire. This was severely damaging the space program and almost derailed JFK’s promise of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade. But during those times NASA was invincible and pressed on. Few people realize that the Apollo 1 disaster took place on January 27, 1967, a scant 2 1/2 years before Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. Heady times and great memories.


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Posted by on June 30, 2009 in Asphyxia, Space Program

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