SciTech Now: Episode 617



Coming up... the man who calculated the way to the moon and back.

People who know this mission best say, if he hadn't done that, we might have never made it.

The study of spider silk.

These organisms have been making silk for hundreds of millions of years.

And they're all using silk in a slightly different way.

A wristband that measures cells.

We just call it a 'wearable impedance cytometer,' but maybe we should come up with a more catchy name.

Printing homes for the homeless.

The only way to solve our challenges, in my opinion, is through innovation.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello. I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science and technology and innovation.

Let's get started.

We now take for granted that two spacecraft in orbit can dock and separate with ease.

But in the 1960s, as the first astronauts were preparing to land on the moon, no one knew how to do it.

John Houbolt, the NASA engineer who figured it out, is one of the least-known figures on the team.

Houbolt is a subject of the audio book 'The Man Who Knew the Way to the Moon,' and freelance journalist and author Todd Zwillich is here to tell us more about Houbolt and his discoveries.

So, this has been the season where we are thinking about the moon mission, the landing.

This guy doesn't come up in any of the big documentaries, but you're saying really, if it wasn't for him, we wouldn't have had some of these big, huge, fairy-tale moments.

Well, that's right.

I mean, John Houbolt is in the histories, but he tends to be a footnote if you read any of the great books that have come out around this anniversary or any of the old stories of -- I say old -- the books written about and there are thousands.

You'll see John Houbolt mentioned.

You'll see his picture at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, but it's a little, tiny picture up in the corner.

It's tucked away.

He's a footnote in a story where he deserves much, much greater recognition because his efforts, his ability to go outside of his circle, to break management, to go way over his head and tell NASA in the early '60s, a decade before we ever tried to go to the moon, that they were wrong and he was right -- the people who know this mission best say, if he hadn't done that, we might have never made it.

So what was the big idea that he was proposing that seemed completely antithetical to the way that NASA was progressing?

Well, the big idea was called 'lunar orbit rendezvous,' and it's the moon mission that we know today.

It's the command module orbiting the moon while a small lightweight lunar lander that's maneuverable goes down to land.

That seems logical because that's the way we did it, and it makes a lot of intuitive sense.

If you're taking an explorer ship across the ocean to explore the New World, you don't want to drive that ship up on the shore.

Park that ship offshore, take a rowboat in to do your exploring.

That's the way to -- This is the same concept, and in space, two things really matter -- weight and fuel.

Those are the big things that matter.

Houbolt comes along and says to NASA, 'We can manage the weight, we can manage the fuel and manage the technology if we use lunar orbit rendezvous.

Now, I tell you that's intuitive, that makes sense, and you say, 'Sure.'

Back then, here was the idea -- we're talking 1960, 18 months before John F. Kennedy ever challenged the nation to go to the moon.

NASA engineers are sitting in the back rooms debating, theorizing how might we go to the moon one day.

There was no national moon challenge.

There was no Apollo -- didn't exist.

The idea was very Jules Verne.

The idea was to launch a giant rocket, stage off pieces, and then take about a 100-foot rocket and back it down onto the moon.

[ Laughs ]

That was the idea.

You're laughing, right?

Just even now, how hard was that process when we've been watching, you know, SpaceX's rockets fall over and over and over again until we actually saw ones that were good?

Houbolt comes in sideways.

He says, 'Trying to launch a giant rocket, you can't build a rocket big enough, fast enough to do that.

You can't manage the weight.

You can't manage the fuel.

If you use this concept of lunar orbit rendezvous, you can park a lot of weight and a lot of mass in orbit.

Don't try to drive it down to the surface.

Why are you carrying all of this down here just to have to launch it all back up and take all that fuel?

Why don't you take a little tiny lander?

It's maneuverable.

You can land it down.

I can save you half the mass.

I can save you half the fuel.

You can build it in a much faster time.'

That was his concept.

You say obviously, I say obviously.

Back then, he was laughed out of the room and worse.

What was he like as a person?

He was stubborn.

His family described him as stubborn to me.

When I wrote this book, his wife described him as stubborn.

He was very self-assured.

He was very self-confident.

He did have friends in life.

So people liked him.

Now, at work, I think I uncovered plenty of evidence that he did have enemies.

There were people who just didn't like him.

When John Houbolt started a campaign, essentially, for lunar orbit rendezvous, these early discussions -- 1960, 1961 -- again before President Kennedy says, 'Let's go to the moon and come back by the end of the decade --' there are lots of committee meetings all over NASA, engineers getting together, spitballing ideas, making reports, having votes, you know, going through all these ideas.

Is he in these conversations?

He's getting into many of them.

He's trying to get in because he's an orbital expert.

He knows orbits, so he can get in the conversation.

He's making pitches for lunar orbit rendezvous.

He's talking to anyone who will listen.

He's printing out fliers and, in some cases, really handing them out like a hawker on 8th Avenue -- I'm not kidding -- you know, with all of his engineering, his trajectories, and his calculations.

Now, that's good.

That's how ideas marinate.

But you say Houbolt had to go outside of groupthink.

There was one episode in December of 1960.

There's a big committee meeting.

'How are we going to go to the moon one day?'

All the heavy hitters at NASA were there, the top administrators.

Wernher von Braun, the father of the American rocketry program, is there -- the father of the Saturn V -- engineers from all over NASA.

December of 1960 -- this is 18 months before Kennedy makes the challenge.

John Houbolt is in that meeting.

He gives a talk on orbits.

He then throws in a pitch for lunar orbit rendezvous.

Again -- 'I can save you half the weight.

I can save you half the mass.

Much more efficient.'

Well, another engineer, somebody who would become famous named Max Faget -- a brilliant engineer, designed the capsule, would go on to help design the space shuttle, a brilliant engineer at NASA Langley in Virginia -- is in this meeting.

Faget stands up and pounds the table and says, Don't listen to Houbolt.

His figures lie.'

He calls him a liar in front of everyone.

This was humiliating for John Houbolt, and this was just the start.

Now, what was going on between these two men that he would have such a reaction?

That's one of the mysteries, I think, of this whole story, is what was going on between John Houbolt and his colleagues that some of the reactions were visceral.

That one was the most humiliating, but he was routinely dismissed.

He was ignored.

He was sometimes politely shoved aside -- until things started to change with the national space program, and the engineering and the physics proved to people -- including Max Faget, by the way -- that John Houbolt might be stubborn and he might be annoying, but he's right.

So there we are.

Fast-forward to the landing on the moon, and he is at mission control, but in what capacity?


He's at mission control as a private citizen.

John Houbolt left NASA just months after his mode won out.

In the summer of 1962, NASA decides John Houbolt was right.

'Lunar orbit rendezvous is how we're going to go to the moon.'

By New Year's, he was gone.

He left NASA.

He needed more money because he had three daughters to raise and he was on a civil-service salary.

That part's true.

He was also disgusted about the way he was treated, so he took his family and he moved to a consulting firm in the private sector in Princeton, Virginia.

He had nothing more to do with Apollo after that.

This was a flash in his life, an intense campaign for LOR.

He leaves NASA, but at the end of the decade, he is invited back.

He's in mission control in Houston, as you mentioned, for the landing.

And he's sitting in the back row, in that you may have seen pictures of the glass-enclosed viewing gallery, yeah, behind mission control, and the landing happens.

The lunar module, which is integral to the lunar-orbit-rendezvous concept, maneuvers down.

Neil Armstrong doesn't like the landing site he sees when they're 500 feet up.

It's strewn with boulders.

If you've seen any of the great documentary, he takes the stick, and he flies downrange to find a safe spot.

If they had tried to back a giant rocket down to the moon --

Onto a boulder field.

Would've tipped over.

It would have been a disaster.

This enabled them to land properly.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon.

'The eagle has landed.'

The big exhale of humanity on Earth.

And everybody stands up to celebrate.

And in this moment, Wernher von Braun, who we mentioned -- the father of American rocketry, the former Nazi who was spirited away to the United States after World War II to build our rocket program -- stands up, and in front of all of the people celebrating in the room, he says, 'Where is John Houbolt?

Where is John Houbolt?'

And he turns around and finds Houbolt and gives him what John described as the okay sign with his thumb and forefinger, and he says, 'John, it worked beautifully.'

Now, it had worked beautifully of course, but to John Houbolt, this was -- and he described this to many people throughout his life, including historian Bill Causey.

He described this as the highlight of his life at NASA because of the way he was treated.

He felt that his contributions were never recognized.

He felt that he was mistreated at NASA.

He felt that history did not give him his due.

He was very bitter about it, I have to say.

But recognition from a famous, dashing, important celebrity star like Wernher von Braun -- and he was that -- that recognition in front of other people, in front of all the colleagues, meant the world to John Houbolt.

It really did.

And he got it on that day.

The book is called 'The Man Who Knew the Way to the Moon.'

Todd Zwillich, thanks so much.

Thanks for having me.

The average spider's web found clinging to your windowsill is an architectural masterpiece.

And it all begins with a single strand of silk.

One spider can use multiple types of silk for different reasons, and these silks are of particular interest to one curator of comparative biology at the American Museum of Natural History.

Our partner, 'Science Friday,' has the story.

When I started working on spiders, I had no idea how interesting they were.

I had no idea.

I mean, these organisms have been making silk for hundreds of millions of years, and they're all using silk in a slightly different way.

We're still finding new kinds of silk all the time.

So when you see an orb web, I guarantee you don't know the whole picture.

And it's only when you get up close that you realize how cool they are.

I'm Cheryl Hayashi.

I'm a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, and I study the evolution of spiders and spider silk.

In my research, I'm characterizing the diversity of spider silks, and I do this to understand how silk evolved, how it works, and what it means to spiders.

And that's what keeps me up at night, just these fundamental questions.

So, spiders are the only animals that really rely on silk throughout their entire life, sort of every part -- to eat, to reproduce, to wrap eggs, to transfer sperm.

They make their homes out of silk, but some species don't use silk as much as others.

I mean, they still will use silk almost every day of their life, but they may not rely on silk for foraging, while other spiders like orb-web-weaving spiders are absolutely tied to silk production, and they use those silks for all kind of purposes.

If you look inside the abdomen, it's packed with silk glands.

It's not as if there's like spools of thread.

It's actually liquid silk stored inside the silk glands.

So the liquid silk goes through the duct, it dehydrates, and the silk proteins start aggregating with each other.

So when you see a spider dropping down, you're actually watching in real time liquid silk being turned into a solid fiber.

It's an amazing transformation.

What just really captivated me about spiders was the diversity of silk that one individual spider can make.

Picture an orb web.

There will be an outer frame, and there will be radii from a center point that go out.

So that kind of silk is made from dragline silk, or we call it major ampullate silk.

That's a strong and fairly extensible silk.

Then there's the capture spiral.

That's a composite of two kinds of silk.

There's a filament dotted with glue on it.

But in making the orb web, a spider will have a silk called minor ampullate silk, or temporary silk.

Then she actually uses that temporary spiral as a guide as she lays down the real capture spiral, and while she's doing it, she consumes the temporary spiral.

When you think about why a spider might make so many different kinds of silk, it really comes down to function.

The frame and the radii need to be stiff to support the web.

But if a web was made entirely of strong and stiff fibers, it might be a lot easier for an insect to just bounce off of it.

So capture-spiral silk stretch along, absorbing the impact of that insect, and the little gluey, gluey droplets stick to the insect's body, and it holds the insect in place and gives the spider time to come down and actually catch their prey.

So whether we're talking about egg-case silk, dragline silk, capture-spiral silk, or prey-wrapping silk, they all have different functions, and they all have different material properties.

Spiders that make multiple kinds of silk, they actually have multiple types of silk glands.

And so when it's time to make a web, the spider is actually touching her leg to the correct spigot to pull out the correct silk in the correct place on the web at the correct time.

So, I want to find out exactly what genes are turned on in all those different silk glands within a spider.

So, for that, I need to have fresh silk glands, and so I have a lot of live spiders in the lab so I can collect their silk and collect their silk glands.

I have a variety of garden spiders.

I have golden orb weavers.

I also have black widows.

And I also have feather-legged spiders.

I collect silk from spiders in two different ways.

I take these little cards that I make out of poster board, and I collect fibers onto that card.

The other way I collect silk in the lab is I expose the spider to carbon-dioxide gas.

And that anesthetizes them for a few minutes, and I gently take them to the microscope stage so I can actually visualize which spigot a silk fiber is coming out of, so then I know exactly what silk I'm collecting.

And when I'm done, they live to silk another day.

After I've collected the silk, the way I test the fibers is I put it in what's called a tensile tester.

And the machine pulls up at a controlled rate, and as it pulls up, it's measuring the resistance of the fiber to being pulled.

And it's also measuring how far the fiber can stretch.

And, with that, you know, I can really compare a large number of different kinds of silks.

The silk-protein genes are activated in the silk glands.

Each gene, we're finding they might be dramatically different from each other.

That leads to dramatically different mechanical properties.

Silk in the capture spiral can extend over twice its original length.

There's not that many filaments that can do that.

Many dragline silks are tougher than Kevlar, which is just amazing thinking that, you know, within a spider just out in your yard.

And these super fibers are coming out of it.

And when you look at the whole diversity of spiders, there's just immense variations on this.

So the honest truth is it's almost like my research is becoming fractal.

What I thought was one silk turns out to be two silks.

What I thought was gonna be one silk gene turns out to be sometimes five silk genes.

In a sense, I have gotten trapped in a spider web and, you know, the silk envelops sort of all aspects of my research, but I'm not fully trapped, because I think the spider-silk system, it's a great model for seeing how you can integrate evolutionary biology, genetics, organismal biology, even -- let's say you're interested from the biotech aspect of it.

There's just huge potential there.

There are lots of research being done into how we can mass-produce silk either to make better clothing, maybe lighter airplane or car parts or implants that could be used in the human body.

And so spider silk, it's coming to your world.

♪♪ [ Keyboard clacking ] ♪♪

In New Jersey, scientists have developed a wristband that measures cells.

The gadget, not unlike the Fitbit, is worn on the wrist and can measure cellular properties to save a trip to the diagnostic lab.

Here's a look.

We just call it a wearable impedance cytometer but maybe we should come up with a more catchy name.

[ Chuckles ]

Electrical Engineering professor Mehdi Javanmard chuckles at the technical name, but the cytometer, a device that measures cell properties, might have some serious implications and applications, from routine screenings and blood drawing to emergency medicine.

So imagine somebody is in a car accident.

They get rushed to the emergency room and the medical professionals want to know if this person is undergoing internal bleeding or not.

They can do a quick pinprick from their finger, do a blood complete blood cell count with this type of device, and make a quick assessment there as to what the next step would be.

Javanmard says that process typically takes an hour or two for results.

In cases of chronic diseases -- a day or two.

Professor Javanmard says this cytometer has applications beyond medical.

Consider the environmental ones, as well.

You want to open up a door and you want to check the doorknob first to see how clean it is, whether there is E. coli bacteria or not.

You go to a restaurant, you want to eat a salad.

You want to know whether the lettuce has salmonella or E. coli on it.

You do a quick -- take a quick swab of your lettuce, you test it on your wristband and say, 'Yes, okay, this is safe to eat.'

Now Professor, you know that would be awful for hypochondriacs.

[ Chuckling ] Yes.

That's true.

Javanmard says for more than a decade, his lab has been working on building miniature devices to monitor what we have in our blood, saliva, and other bodily fluids.

He says this small device can do what big, bulky machines do.

A microfluidic channel inside of it -- Essentially, what that is is like a really small pipe that's thinner than the diameter of a human hair.

With the advent of Fitbits and smartwatches, he says the lab saw an opportunity to create this cytometer on a circuit board with batteries, Bluetooth, and other technology.

What it does is it takes these really small signals of these cells passing by one by one.

It processes that data, it converts it to digital data, and then it wirelessly transmits that to a smartphone.

And then the smartphone processes the data, and it essentially displays it for the user to know what their cell count is.

The professor says the university is working on a patent while feedback has been encouraging from biotech colleagues after a study about this device was published in the scientific journal 'Nature' about how this resembles popular smart devices but with huge applications for telemedicine.

So we are also trying to piggyback on that computing power to essentially -- essentially bypass the need for these large servers and computers.

The professor says the invention is quite a ways from being available on the market.

From now to then, it will need clinical trials, FDA approval, and development so it perhaps looks less 'space age.'

♪♪ [ Computer keys clacking ]

A tech startup in Austin, Texas, hopes to end homelessness with 3-D printing technology.

The company can build a home in about 27 hours and is teaming up with Community First! Village to print homes for the homeless.

Here's how.

Housing technology has not changed in 1,000 years.

The only way to solve our challenges, in my opinion, is through innovation, and 3-D printing is the only thing that I think wins on every metric that can really help us achieve affordability with the kind of speed that we need.

ICON is a pretty cool company.

We 3-D print houses.

So, we've got what we call the Vulcan 3-D printer and our Magma material delivery system.

We put a Vulcan 3-D printer on a slab, we hook it up to our Magma material delivery system, and then we can start printing.

The material we use is what we call base mix -- so this is your cement, your sand, your other aggregates -- and then we add in what we call 'pixie dust' kind of jokingly.

This is our special products that we add to make it printable.

'Cause concrete, normally it likes to flow very easily.

The way our foundation was built here, it's a very, very soupy material.

You cannot print with that.

If you tried to, you'd just have a puddle instead of a house.

The metal needs to be kind of thick enough, viscus enough to be able to support another layer.

A giant machine can build structures a lot faster than people.

That's important when you think about the housing shortage that we have in the United States.

The estimates for the number of homes that we need in the U.S., it's up approximately 7 million or so based on latest estimates that I've heard.

That's a ton of houses that need to be built very quickly.

Humans cannot build 7 million houses in a couple months, in a couple years.

We've got to radically think about how we're going to be building these houses quickly, and I think 3-D printing might be part of the solution.

Over the course of the many years that we've been working on this development, we have been presented with every conceivable creative, new home thing on the planet, and I've rejected all of them except for these guys.

The second 3-D home ever built in the world was built here at the Community First! Village, and they're currently building six additional homes right now.

Community First! Village is a 51-acre master planned community designed to lift the chronically homeless men and women off the streets of Austin, Texas, into a place that they can call home.

And I think this printing technology has the ability to -- in a very quick way -- get homes on the ground at a very affordable rate, and that's gonna be the game changer because we are in a dire need of affordable housing, and this is one of the ways that we can get that affordable housing on the ground.

Our wildest dreams is that this technology can solve Austin's homelessness crisis.

I can't wait for the day that we've checked that box as a city and said, 'Hey, what started here in Austin, Texas, in this radical innovation and the willingness of the city council and these heroes like Alan Graham at Community First! ended up not only solving our issues but now it's a gift to the world.'

And that wraps it up for this time.

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You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until then, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪