Pain, disorientation, nausea to make for an educational shuttle mission

January 22, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Washington Bureau of The Sun

For the six astronauts on the space shuttle Discovery, scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral today, space travel could be more than an electrifying adventure. It might be a real pain.

While in orbit, some may feel nauseous, vomit and see optical illusions -- the floor of the shuttle's cabin, for example, may seem to bounce up and down when the craft is orbiting smoothly. Some may have the eerie experience of forgetting where their feet or hands are in relation to their bodies.

Two out of three astronauts have backaches -- possibly because their spines extend by as much as 2 3/4 inches during spaceflight, NASA says. Some lose a small measure of mental sharpness the first day or so. All space travelers get stuffy sinuses.

"There's potentially a lot of discomfort in that particular job," said Dr. Peter C. Wing of University Hospital in Vancouver, British Columbia, an orthopedic surgeon who will study back pain among Discovery's crew.

Today's flight is the second shuttle mission in a row to carry an array of life science experiments focusing on the effects of space travel on humans and other organisms, with an eye toward preparing to send astronauts on interplanetary flights -- specifically, NASA's proposed manned mission to Mars.

Experiments tucked in a container in Discovery's cargo bay will measure the effects of zero gravity on the biological clock of slime mold, study fertilization of eggs from the African clawed frog and track cartilage formation by embryonic mouse bones.

The shuttle will also carry thousands of nematodes -- microscopic worms that live in the soil, to study the effect on living tissue of bombardment by high-energy cosmic rays.

"We can find out where a cosmic ray particle has gone into their bodies, and what it has struck," said Dr. Ronald J. White, chief scientist of the Life Sciences Division at NASA headquarters in Washington.

In a study of motion sickness in space, four astronauts will sit in a special computer-controlled chair and go through a series of pitch, yaw and roll maneuvers -- while a special helmet and infrared camera record their eye positions.

In Dr. Wing's experiment, each member of the shuttle crew will keep a daily diary of the location and intensity of back pain. Astronauts will take stereo photographs of each others' backs to record changes in shape.

Most aches, pains and disorientation in orbit, NASA's medical specialists say, are triggered by weightlessness or "microgravity" -- the same bizarre and wonderful condition that permits space travelers to spin and tumble around their craft like otters in the ocean.

Many of these symptoms, collectively known as Space Adaptation Syndrome, vanish after a few days.

But future interplanetary flights could last for years, and the medical perils of long-term flights could be life-threatening.

Bacteria may be more resistant to antibiotics in zero gravity, because organisms grow thicker cell walls, exposing astronauts to dangerous infections.

Damage to cells caused by radiation isn't repaired as quickly in space, and without heavy shielding, astronauts would be vulnerable to intense bursts of radiation from solar flares.

Astronauts in orbit use less energy than any couch potato, and their muscles grow slack without concentrated exercise. The body loses fluid and blood volume. Bones lose as much as 15 percent of their calcium after six to seven months in space -- and broken bones may not heal properly without gravity. Some drugs are less effective in space, though no one is sure why.

Astronauts, who work, train and to some extent compete for a shot at flying aboard a spacecraft, are not complainers. Samuel T. Durrance, an astrophysicist with Johns Hopkins University, is no exception.

"I had no discomfort, sickness, back pain or anything like that," he said, recalling his nine-days aboard the shuttle Columbia in December 1990.

But during Dr. Durrance's flight, his spine grew about 2 1/2 inches. His face puffed up the first day as fluid in his lower body drifted into his head, giving him a stuffed-up nose. He saw flashes of light with his eyes closed, due to the intense radiation. Two other crew members suffered motion sickness, he said, which went away when they took an anti-nausea drug.

But overall, Dr. Durrance dismissed concerns about space flight, saying it is "quite relaxing," and too fascinating to worry about growing a couple of inches or having clogged sinuses.

Other Supreme Court actions

CASE TO BE HEARD

Racketeering. The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to consider PTC a Justice Department plea to reinstate the convictions of eight Mafia figures for their roles in a massive racket in the New York City construction industry in the early 1980s. A federal appeals -- court nullified the conviction of Genoevese family boss Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno and seven others because the trial judge barred defense lawyers from using grand jury evidence that might have helped their defense. U.S. vs. Salerno (No. 91-872).

CASE REJECTED

Disabled children. The court, without comment, left intact a ruling that school officials may not use an education plan for a disabled child, who is protected by federal law, if the parents are so hostile to the plan that it has no chance of succeeding. That case involved a 15-year-old Chicago-area youth whose parents vetoed a plan to put him into a school for students with behavior problems. District 21 Board of Education vs. Illinois State Board (No. 91-849).

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