Glenn eagerly accepts role as shuttle's top guinea pig Mission: John Glenn returns to space this week at the age of 77. Scientists are hoping he will provide valuable data on weightlessness and aging.

October 25, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The last time John Glenn flew in space, he was 40 years old. His Mercury space capsule had 56 toggle switches, 143 cockpit displays and no on-board computers.

When the shuttle Discovery leaps off the launch pad this week, with a 77-year-old Glenn strapped in below decks, pilot Steven W. Lindsey will command five computers, and a dashboard crammed with 856 toggles and 2,312 displays.

This is not your grandfather's spaceship. And fortunately for all on board, the World War II fighter pilot -- born six years before Charles Lindbergh made the first solo flight across the Atlantic -- will not be flying it.

Nor will he deploy the Spartan solar observatory, test equipment to be used in the next servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, or help with observations of Jupiter by the International Extreme Ultraviolet Hitchhiker.

But NASA officials insist that the four-term Ohio senator and space hero is not just along for the ride, or even for the avalanche of nostalgic publicity his nine-day swan song will surely generate.

Glenn, they say, is riding the rocket to provide valuable new data on the troublesome biomedical effects of prolonged spaceflight. Astronauts lose muscle and bone mass in space. Their sleep is fractured, their hearts shrink, their immune systems weaken, and they wobble and faint when they try to stand up after landing.

0 It's called "space adaptation syndrome," and

it has been a focus of study for years. Countermeasures must be found before humans can fly safely to Mars, or live for months or years on space stations.

Always alert for terrestrial applications that might help justify their work, space scientists are also intrigued by parallel declines they see among the elderly.

"It's thought that by understanding what's going on in astronauts' bodies, and how it reverses itself [after landing], that this information can be applied back on Earth in understanding the changes in bodies as they age," said neuroscientist David Liskowsky, the Discovery mission's life sciences program scientist.

Orbiting septuagenarian

Enter John Glenn. Until he asked to fly, all NASA's test subjects have been astronauts ages 30 to 55. After three years of his nagging, the National Institute on Aging and other NASA consultants finally agreed that an orbiting septuagenarian could introduce new variables to help sort out the effects of weightlessness and aging.

"Doing research is like doing a jigsaw puzzle," Liskowsky said. "You need all the pieces to complete the puzzle. And this is one of the pieces, certainly."

Glenn is a sample of just one weightless senior citizen, with limited statistical value. But David Williams, director of space and life sciences at the Johnson Space Center, said his responses may provide new insights, new questions, and perhaps more geriatric astronauts.

He may be unique, said NASA spokeswoman Eileen Hawley, but Glenn had all the required training, and "is being treated the same as any other payload specialist."

After blastoff, set for 2 p.m. Thursday, Glenn will take his turns preparing meals and cleaning up the shuttle cabin. He'll shoot video of the Earth and on-board activities. And, he will help start, monitor and stop 15 of the mission's 83 experiments.

"We're using him as an extra pair of hands," said mission flight director Phil Engelauf.

But the senator will be the flight's top guinea pig. The mission's life-sciences Web page features his picture alongside those of the experimental toad fish and cucumbers flying with him.

Glenn doesn't mind. If it leads to better health care, he told a recent news conference, "I look at being a guinea pig as being a compliment."

He'll swallow a "body core" thermometer, and don a suit of sensors during four nights' sleep. They'll transmit 21 data streams, on brain wave activity, heart function, breathing, blood oxygen, muscle activity and more.

His sleep patterns will be studied closely and compared with those of younger astronauts and the earthbound elderly. In orbit, astronauts' internal "body clocks" are often scrambled by a new sunrise every 90 minutes. Similar sleep disturbances often come with aging, leading to waking often and early and leaving us less attentive and more nap-prone during the day.

Glenn was to have taken doses of the brain hormone melatonin, to see if it worked as a sleep aid for astronauts. But NASA dropped him from that study for undisclosed medical reasons.

John Glenn's veins will be tapped so often that he refers to Scott Parazynski, the physician/astronaut who'll wield the needle, as "Igor."

His blood and urine will be analyzed for stress-related hormonal changes and protein losses that may cause muscle breakdown. Mineral imbalances may signal bone loss triggered by weightlessness. Similar losses are seen among the sedentary elderly, or anyone immobilized by illness or injury.

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