As orbiting oldster, Glenn could help science Maladies of age resemble problems seen in astronauts

January 17, 1998|By Douglas Birch and Susan Baer | Douglas Birch and Susan Baer,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It's possible that Sen. John Glenn's plan to go where no senior citizen has gone before will help yield a treatment for ailments of the elderly and give NASA insight into ways to keep astronauts alive on the long trip to Mars.

But the flight of Space Shuttle Discovery in October, when NASA's Mission Control bids "Godspeed" to Glenn for the first time in 36 years, will certainly serve as a nostalgia trip that could revive lagging interest in the shuttle program. At 77, the Ohio Democrat would be the oldest person ever in space.

Although some space enthusiasts had hoped that flights by Glenn and Idaho schoolteacher Barbara Morgan, both announced yesterday, would resurrect a program to give civilians rides on the shuttle, officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said no.

That earlier effort ended with the crash of the Challenger in 1986.

Medical researchers say no one can predict what, if any, useful data Glenn's comeback flight will produce. But they agree that there are strong parallels between the health problems faced by astronauts and the elderly.

Astronauts and the elderly both tend to have trouble with their balance, lose their appetites and find they can't sleep. They have occasional heart arrhythmias and lose bone and muscle mass. Their immune systems are suppressed, making them more vulnerable to infection.

"Weightlessness is one of the best models for studying prolonged bed rest on Earth," said Dr. Jay Robert Shapiro of the Johns Hopkins University, a specialist in bone loss in the elderly and a member of NASA's National Space Biomedical Research Institute. "There are real parallels."

Dr. Charles A. Czeisler, a Harvard researcher and another member of the Institute, plans to give some of the astronauts on Glenn's flight doses of the hormone melatonin, widely used on Earth as a substitute for prescription sleeping pills.

Researchers are working on drugs, devices and exercises to prevent or reverse space maladies, therapies that, if successful, might also work on seniors.

One concern is Glenn's health.

Dr. Michael E. DeBakey, the U.S. cardiac surgeon who advised on Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's heart bypass, has reviewed records of Glenn's recent NASA physicals and said he was "in excellent medical condition."

Still, there is some medical risk.

"We know that in a zero-gravity environment there are some effects on the cardiovascular system, and on the muscle system and the bone system in the body," DeBakey said. "We don't know if these effects are exacerbated in older individuals or not."

Glenn, other scientists said, could develop a chronic condition as a result of the flight -- normal zero-gravity bone loss, for example, might lead to osteoporosis.

If Glenn was worried, he didn't sound like it at a NASA news conference yesterday. He said he couldn't help having "a sense of deja vu," recalling how he was trotted in front of reporters nearly four decades ago as one of the nation's first astronauts.

"I'm excited to be back and I'm honored and I'm privileged," said Glenn, standing in front of a blown-up photograph of his younger, steely-eyed self in a Mercury spacesuit.

Glenn, who has been lobbying to return to space since summer 1996, said he's been hoping for a return trip since he orbited Earth three times in 1962.

"I always wanted to go back up again," he said. "Did I ever give up? No."

The septuagenarian, who exercises daily, said he went to Houston to take NASA's fitness test in the summers of 1996 and 1997 and passed both times. Physically, he said, "I'm ready to go, and will be even more fit at the time of the flight. Mentally, I'm ready now."

NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin said Glenn will spend 10 days as a payload specialist, ensuring that "one of the great heroes of the 20th century will be America's first hero of the 21st century."

Dr. Laurence Young, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of NASA's biomedical institute, said studies of Glenn and other astronauts are "particularly likely to pay off" in the study of the vestibular system, which generates our sense of balance.

XTC "Older people have a tendency to lose their balance, have difficulty walking and risk falling down," he said. "It's a temporary thing in space flight, but in aging it's not temporary at all. It's becoming the most common source of hospitalization for our older population."

By studying astronauts, Young said, scientists may develop simple exercises, or devices, that can aid the vestibular system.

Goldin said yesterday that the Civilians in Space program -- dismantled after the Challenger explosion -- would not be revived. He said Morgan would be trained as an astronaut.

Former astronaut Story Musgrave, now the oldest person to fly in space, applauded the decision to let Glenn fly again. But he was disappointed that Goldin did not revive Civilians in Space.

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