"In two weeks of spaceflight, we can induce changes in blood pressure regulation that might approximate 30 or 40 years of aging and then we can return back to a normal state. It's just a phenomenal research model," said Jim Pawelczyk, a Pennsylvania State University physiologist assigned to the flight.
Columbia's Neurolab mission promises to be the most in-depth study ever of the brain and nervous system in space. It's intended to shed light on aging and other health problems in orbit and on Earth, and perhaps make it easier for astronauts one day to camp on the moon or travel to Mars.
Besides seven humans, the shuttle will carry more than 2,000 animals, some of which will be dissected in orbit. The furry, scaly and crawly crowd includes pregnant mice, rats, snails, fish and crickets. They were loaded into Columbia on Wednesday.
Despite the focus on aging, the 76-year-old John Glenn was never considered for this mission, said Dr. Arnauld Nicogossian, NASA's top medical man. Glenn is scheduled to fly a nine-day shuttle mission this fall.
Columbia's crew has been training intensively for the past few years, and so there wasn't time to add Glenn to the mission, Nicogossian said. Besides, he said, it's important to know how and why younger bodies mimic aging in weightlessness before sending Glenn into space.
In weightlessness, bones and muscles shrivel, immunity decreases and sleep deteriorates. Those are the sort of things that happen to older people on Earth, thus the interest in the mission by the National Institute on Aging.
Pawelczyk and the crew's three other medical men will undergo all sorts of neurological tests during the 16- to 17-day flight.
They will have needles stuck in their legs and electrodes attached elsewhere. Their hands will be stuck in ice-cold mittens. They will be spun at 45 rpm. They will be wired for sleep.
And if they're lucky, they will repeat the whole thing in four months. NASA is considering reflying Neurolab aboard Columbia in August.
The start of construction on the international space station is probably going to be delayed this summer, so NASA is thinking of adding another shuttle flight to keep its organization sharp.
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