Be More Than You Can Be
by Noah Shachtman / 03/07
“The lab is climate-controlled to 104 degrees Fahrenheit and 66 percent humidity. Sitting inside the cramped room, even for a few minutes, is an unpleasantly moist experience. I’ve spent the last 40 minutes on a treadmill angled at a 9 percent grade. My face is chili-red, my shirt soaked with sweat. My breath is coming in short, unsatisfactory gasps. The sushi and sake I had last night are in full revolt. The tiny speakers on the shelf blasting “Living on a Prayer” are definitely not helping. Then Dennis Grahn, a lumpy Stanford University biologist and former minor-league hockey player, walks into the room. He nods in my direction and smiles at a technician. “Looks like he’s ready,” Grahn says.
Grahn takes my hand and slips it into a clear, coffeepot-looking contraption he calls the Glove. Inside is a hemisphere of metal, cool to the touch. He tightens a seal around my wrist; a vacuum begins pulling blood to the surface of my hand, and the cold metal chills my blood before it travels through my veins back to my core. After five minutes, I feel rejuvenated. Never mind the hangover. Never mind Bon Jovi. I keep going for another half hour.
The test isn’t about my endurance; it’s about the future of the American armed forces. Grahn and his colleagues developed the Glove for the military – specifically, for the Pentagon’s way-out science division, Darpa: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. For nearly 50 years, Darpa has engineered technological breakthroughs from the Internet to stealth jets. But in the early 1990s, as military strategists started worrying about how to defend against germ weapons, the agency began to get interested in biology. “The future was a scary place, the more we looked at it,” says Michael Goldblatt, former head of Darpa’s Defense Sciences Office. “We wanted to learn the capabilities of nature before others taught them to us.”
By 2001, military strategists had determined that the best way to deal with emerging transnational threats was with small groups of fast-moving soldiers, not hulking pieces of military hardware. But small groups rarely travel with medics – they have to be hardy enough to survive on their own. So what goes on in Grahn’s dank little lab at Stanford is part of a much larger push to radically improve the performance, mental capacity, and resilience of American troops – to let them run harder and longer, operate without sleep, overcome deadly injury, and tap the potential of their unconscious minds.
The Advanced Research Projects Agency was founded in 1958 (the D was added in 1972) as a place to noodle around on ideas too big, or too far out, for the Cold War military-industrial complex. The results can sometimes be spectacular failures (nuclear hand grenade, anyone?). But Darpa has also pushed the development of some things that have become part of the fabric of military and civilian life: wearable computers, long-range drone aircraft, night vision, even the M16 rifle and the computer mouse.
But the agency had mostly avoided the life sciences. Darpa’s directors in 1980s and 1990s weren’t interested – and were happy to avoid the tangled ethical issues that often go along with research on human beings. Then, in June 2001, Tony Tether, an electrical engineer and Darpa veteran, left his job at the Sequoia Group, a venture capital firm, and returned to head the agency. Under his guidance, Darpa’s embryonic biology efforts began to multiply and expand. Research on biodefense led to research on the immune system, which led to more general research on the human body. “There was a sense before that Darpa wouldn’t get into human R&D. That was somewhere Frank Fernandez didn’t want to go,” one former program manager says, referring to Darpa’s director from 1998 to 2001. But Tether “had a more open attitude. He was more permissive about dealing with humans.”
The agency had already enlisted an unusual team of bioscience experts. One program manager had been a chemist at the Naval Research Laboratory working on biomimetics; soon he was funding research on artificial limbs. Another early member of the team, Joe Bielitzki, studied the effects of space travel on animals while he was NASA’s chief veterinary officer. To head the push, Darpa had turned to Michael Goldblatt, VP of science and technology at McDonald’s. He’d helped develop a self-sterilizing package and pitched Darpa on the material’s potential as a bandage, figuring that what was good for a Big Mac might be good for bullet wounds. The agency offered him a job… which he turned down. But two years later Darpa supersized the offer – Goldblatt was hired to head the Defense Sciences Office, a division with a major focus on human enhancement.
Grahn and his research partner, biologist Craig Heller, started working on the Glove at Stanford in the late 1990s as part of their research on improving physical performance. Even they were astounded at how well it seemed to work. Vinh Cao, their squat, barrel-chested lab technician, used to do almost 100 pull-ups every time he worked out. Then one day he cooled himself off between sets with an early prototype. The next round of pull-ups – his 11th – was as strong as his first. Within six weeks, Cao was doing 180 pull-ups a session. Six weeks after that, he went from 180 to more than 600. Soon, Stanford’s football trainers asked to borrow a few Gloves to cool down players in the weight room and to fight muscle cramps. In 2001, Heller went to Darpa. The agency saw the potential of the Glove for training recruits; the Stanford researchers received their first funding in 2003 and got $3 million.
In trying to figure out why the Glove worked so well, its inventors ended up challenging conventional scientific wisdom on fatigue. Muscles don’t wear out because they use up stored sugars, the researchers said. Instead, muscles tire because they get too hot, and sweating is just a backup cooling system for the lattices of blood vessels in the hands and feet. The Glove, in other words, overclocks the heat exchange system. “It’s like giving a Honda the radiator of a Mack truck,” Heller says. After four months of using it himself, Heller did 1,000 push-ups on his 60th birthday in April 2003. Soon after, troops from Special Operations Command were trying out the Glove, too.
Darpa’s human-enhancement programs were looking promising. In February 2002, Darpa asked Congress for a new, $78 million-per-year push for research including “the development of biochemical materials for enhancement of performance.” That was on top of $90 million to explore how “biological systems … adapt to wide extremes.” The human being, a Darpa fact file proclaimed in April 2002, “is becoming the weakest link in Defense systems.” Strengthening that chain meant “sustaining and augmenting human performance,” as well as “enabling new human capabilities.” Darpa was going to figure out how to build a better soldier.
Mark Roth never expected his research to have military applications. He was a biochemist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, studying how chromosomes move during cell replication. Then, about a decade ago, his second daughter, Hannah Grace, died of heart failure at the age of 1. Her death sent him down a much stranger path. “I became interested in immortality,” he says.
Roth knew that some animals hibernate – slowing their metabolisms until environmental conditions improve. He also knew that some cells can enter a kind of dormancy and then spring back to life – essentially, they go into suspended animation. Roth wanted to better understand this “metabolic flexibility.” He started testing various chemicals that slowed metabolism, like heavy water and tetrodotoxin (puffer fish poison, used in Haiti to turn people into zombies). Nothing worked. But then Roth found a loophole in one of nature’s seemingly absolute rules: Animals need oxygen. But some creatures, like nematodes, fruit flies, and zebra fish, don’t die if oxygen levels drop. Instead the critters suspend. Their hearts stop beating for up to 24 hours. They don’t breathe. And they don’t die. Wounds stop bleeding; nearly any injury becomes survivable, and the brain shuts down without damage. “If you were shot, this is exactly what you would want,” Roth says.
It’s a timing issue: At oxygen concentrations below some critical level, animals kick off. But take the oxygen level even lower than that, fast, and they don’t. The problem was, Roth couldn’t figure out how to pull off his oxygen reduction trick in mammals, let alone humans. What would a battlefield medic do? Tie a plastic bag over a wounded soldier’s head? A television show gave Roth the clue he needed. In October 2002, he was watching a PBS show about caving in Mexico. The host had to don a breathing mask because the cavern’s air was full of hydrogen sulfide, which binds to mitochondria and impedes the body’s ability to use oxygen. “Oh my gosh,” Roth thought. “We can de-animate people.”
Three weeks later, Roth was at a meeting at the Breckenridge Ski Resort in Colorado, organized by DSO’s Bielitzki, the ex-NASA veterinarian. The agency was looking for ways to extend the “golden hour,” the period of time within which massive-trauma victims need to get medical care. Bielitzki thought Roth had the best shot, and was prepared to fund further research. But before the program could start, DSO’s performance-enhancement push ran into trouble in Washington. The President’s Council on Bioethics was publishing reports decrying body hacks. Some in Congress worried about being accused of funding a Frankenstein army.
In response to those critics, the agency already predisposed to clandestine research – decided to go underground. Program names were changed to dull their mad-scientist edge. Metabolic Dominance became Peak Soldier Performance. Augmented Cognition became Improving Warfighter Information Intake Under Stress. Researchers were told to keep their mouths shut; many current and former program managers still won’t talk on the record, requesting anonymity for this story. The Surviving Blood Loss program, meant to fund Roth’s work, was itself put into suspended animation. At Darpa headquarters – a blandly menacing office tower of brown stone and curved black glass in suburban Virginia – the pall of that near-death experience still hangs over the program. Or maybe it’s just the pictures of Dick Cheney that stare down from the walls of director Tony Tether’s fluorescent-lit office.
DSO isn’t trying to create posthuman troops, Tether says. “You know the old Army saying, ‘Be all that you can be’? Well, that’s really what we’re doing.” In training, soldiers “become extraordinary in strength and endurance. But it’s not any better than their body can be. And what we try to do is come up with techniques that allow them to maintain that level.” Tether is also careful not to take too much credit for Darpa’s forays into biology. “Darpa started these kinds of programs in the ’90s,” he says. “The fact that we had small units meant that the medical ability wasn’t going to be there. So we went in and started developing things that would allow soldiers to take care of themselves. As time went on we found more things we could do.” Most of Darpa’s performance-enhancement projects will take years, even decades, to show up on battlefields, Tether notes. Many are still in petri dishes or lab rats.
That pace is just fine with Tether. Darpa, he says, needs to be extra cautious. During the mid-20th century, the US government did some pretty ugly things to people in the name of science: exposing soldiers to A-bomb blasts, psychologically abusing Harvard students (including a young Ted “Unabomber” Kaczynski), letting hundreds of black men die of syphilis in Alabama.
Today, things are different. Organizations that conduct research on people use Institutional Review Boards to evaluate every proposal. Anyone who wants to study human beings with Darpa money has to further apply to a second, federal IRB. “When you’re dealing with things that eventually have to be tested on living things – animals and eventually humans – yeah, you’re much more cautious,” Tether says. “We spend a lot of money on creating IRBs.” Guys like Grahn and Heller hate the extra paperwork. “It’s an incredible pain in the ass,” Grahn moans. “It’s like, ‘Heart monitors may cause chafing. In such event, will discontinue use.'” Tether’s reply: “You can’t just take the gun out in the back and shoot it, you know? It does slow things up, but it’s a good check.”
Even as the research environment grew more restrictive, Mark Roth kept working. In his first tests, he lowered the oxygen content in his mouse enclosures to just 5 percent – and watched his lab mice drop dead in 15 minutes. He gave the second group a whiff of hydrogen sulfide first. They survived in the 5 percent oxygen environment for six hours – unconscious but alive. Roth was ecstatic. He even brought his kids to see the mice in stasis and took pictures of the rodents while they were out. “I’d never done that in 30 years of research,” he says. “But this is one of those once-in-a-lifetime chances to change the playing field.”
In March 2005, the money from Darpa finally came through. The agency was looking for techniques that would keep animals alive for three hours with 60 percent of their blood gone – a lethal wound. Roth tried his hydrogen sulfide approach: He knocked rats out with a blast of the gas and drained 60 percent of their blood. They lived for 10 hours or more. Now Roth is considering going to the IRBs for permission to suspend human beings.
Bioethical safeguards haven’t stopped dozens of other DSO-funded projects around the world: energy cocktails that shave seconds off the race times of world-class cyclists, magnetic waves beamed at people’s heads to detect alertness, EEGs to detect when satellite imagery analysts spot a target – even before the analysts realize it themselves, meaning they can work much faster.
In peacetime, this work might not have much urgency. But the US military is chest-deep in a pair of nasty counterinsurgencies. Fighting this kind of war requires huge numbers of troops, none more important than the so-called “strategic corporal” – the average infantryman on patrol. The Bush administration wants to increase the overall size of combat forces by 92,000 people over the next five years.
The problem is, the military is already struggling to meet current recruiting goals. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, Congress authorized a temporary, 30,000-troop increase in the Army; the service still has 7,000 slots left to fill. Up to 12 percent of the military’s recruits can now come from the lowest admissible pool of applicants, “Category IV.” (In the 1980s and 1990s, it was 2 percent.) The maximum age for new privates has been raised from 35 to 42. Last year, 8,000 recruits got waivers for past drug use and criminal histories. Drill sergeants have been told to back off the trainees – and even allow them to do push-ups on their knees.
Those same grunts will need to pull 24-hour patrols in Iraq’s Venutian heat. Intel officers must cope with a cascade of data from sensors, drones, and informants. Rangers go on weeklong chases in the bitterly cold Hindu Kush. Everyone, in other words, has to perform at their peak.
Which brings me back to Stanford. Heller and Grahn are developing a new version of the Glove: one that fits less like a coffeepot and more like, well, a glove. And it’ll have some added functionality. Those assemblies of radiator veins in our extremities don’t just release heat – they can collect it, too, and use it to warm the rest of the body. In a green and orange tent on a balcony outside their lab, I strip down to a bathing suit to test their theory.
Next to me is a gray tub filled with 150 gallons of water, into which Vinh Cao, the pull-up-happy lab technician, dumps 30 pounds of shaved ice. It’ll take just 10 minutes or so, he says, to get the water down to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. I wait, shivering slightly in the wind.
Then, eyelids squeezed tight, I step into the water. It stings, horribly. I yip in pain. My shoulder and neck muscles clench like fists and brace to fight the elements. I exhale once, twice. I lean on my forearms and lower myself in. Deep, low-toned breaths rush out from the deepest part of my lungs. Water splashes as my biceps and legs start to twitch. “Y’know, we can cut this short,” Grahn says. After seven minutes, my fingers have turned white, and the nails have settled into a dull purple. I touch my hands to my face. It’s like being caressed by a corpse. “You’ve shut off the blood flow to these vascular structures,” Grahn explains. “Standard suite of responses.”
That’s moderately comforting. So is the fact that I’m now totally numb. For the first time, I notice three little yellow duckies bobbing in my Arctic tub. Over the next 45 minutes, Grahn talks – about the scars on his nose and cheek that he got playing center in the old Western Hockey League, about his days driving Sno-Cats at Mount Hood Meadows Ski Resort in Oregon, about the Glove’s trials at the marines’ mountain warfare training center.
But his stories get harder and harder to follow. I’ve started shivering again – all across my legs and chest, muscles pulse to a manic rhythm. And then I start having tremors. My thighs jackknife to my chest, unbidden. I moan, and darkness closes in from the edges of my vision. Then, just like on the treadmill, Grahn takes my wrist. He slips each of my hands into a modified Glove prototype. This time, the metal hemispheres inside are hot to the touch – 113 degrees. After two minutes, I can think again. The tent comes back into focus. “You can stay this way indefinitely now. You’re at a thermal equilibrium; the heat going into these two hands is equivalent to what’s going out of the rest of you,” Grahn says. “Now you’re uncomfortable again – merely uncomfortable. That’s a huge difference when you’re talking about survival.” The water is still bitter, of course. But now I can take it.”