'Next Flight, Please'
By Carla Garnett
On the Front Page...
Sen. John Glenn discusses his recent trip in space.
6 a.m. That's how early one of the first families reportedly lined up Jan. 8 in the Clinical Center in anticipation of an 11:15 a.m. visit to NIH by Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) and the rest of the crew of Space Shuttle Discovery Mission STS-95. Sen. John Glenn discusses his recent trip in space. By 10 o'clock, the still-growing line snaked from the Masur Auditorium entryway, past the main elevators and halfway down a connecting corridor. Hundreds of folks -- including about 70 Clinical Center patients, youngsters from the Children's Inn and their families -- filled Masur (and several overflow rooms) to capacity to hear firsthand tales from the astronauts' nearly 4 million-mile journey into space.
Accompanied by HHS Secretary Donna Shalala and NIH deputy director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, the 7-member team now widely referred to as the "Magnificent Seven" entered the auditorium to a thundering standing ovation and proceeded to guide the audience -- via a 20-minute film and slide show -- through the mission's 9 days in space. Their visit was arranged by the National Institute on Aging, which helped Glenn and NASA mission coordinators design many of the medical research projects conducted during the trip.
"It's an honor to welcome the 'magnificent seven' from the Space Shuttle Discovery's latest mission to NIH -- the world's preeminent center for science," said Shalala. "From the release of the Spartan spacecraft to the scores of biomedical experiments, the work of these astronauts will help us learn not only about our stars, but about ourselves. [Their work] will help us unlock the mysteries of the heavenly bodies and our human bodies, will help us chart new paths to a better understanding of the universe and -- I believe -- a better life here on Earth."
The mission represented a historic return to space for the 77-year-old Glenn, who 36 years ago on Feb. 20, 1962, piloted the Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft on the United States' first manned orbital mission. With his recent journey, Glenn became the oldest person ever to participate in space flight.
From its 2 p.m. liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Oct. 29, 1998, at speeds reaching approximately 18,000 miles per hour, through 134 orbits of Earth, to its 11:50 a.m. return landing on Nov. 7 into the "most crosswinds ever," the journey was the most research-intensive in the history of the space program, remarked Mission Commander Curt Brown. Discovery carried to orbit nearly 3 dozen life sciences, microgravity sciences and advanced technology experiments sponsored by NASA and the Japanese and European space agencies. In all, about 83 different science projects -- 29 in the SpaceHab laboratory module alone -- were conducted during the 9 days. In addition, more than 2,500 images were collected for future study, including geologically and geographically invaluable photos of damage caused by Hurricane Mitch.
Included among the crew with Glenn and Brown were three other U.S. space veterans, pilot Steve Lindsay and mission specialists Steve Robinson and Dr. Scott Parazynski, and Japanese cardiovascular surgeon and payload specialist Dr. Chiaki Mukai, who took her third space flight with STS-95. Mission Specialist Pedro Duque of Spain, his country's first astronaut, made his space debut with the flight. Commander Brown later joked that with the 20 personal computers on board, Duque was often able to email his wife.
By far, though, the most fascinating aspect of the voyage -- and the most interesting for NIH, NIA in particular -- was Glenn's return to space.
"Because of your collaboration with NASA," Shalala said, "all of you at NIH are very much partners in this historic mission and in all shuttle missions. By working with our colleagues at NASA on cutting-edge research, everyone at NIH is helping all of us live longer and better. Because of our longstanding partnership with NASA, we're learning that there are parallels between what happens to our bodies in space and what happens to our bodies as we age. That's why we sent Sen. Glenn into space. Thirty-six years ago he showed us the way to the heavens. Now he's helping to show us the way to age."
In an unguarded moment, Glenn clearly expressed how much he enjoys his role as galactic pathfinder. It came toward the end of the 2-hour visit, as the astronauts were winding up their slide presentation, during which each took an opportunity to explain his or her various activities on board the spacecraft. As they finished describing a slide, each would call "Next slide, please." Glenn was midway through his series of slides, intending to call for the following slide, when he inadvertently said, "Next flight, please." There was silence for a beat, as both the audience and Glenn realized what he'd said. Then the senator began to chuckle and the crowd joined in. "Good thing Annie isn't here," he said, wryly, referring to his wife, who has indicated publicly that she'd rather he kept his feet on the ground, or at least on Earth, from now on.
The senator found that much had changed about space travel in the decades since his last flight: In 1962, he remained seated and was only allowed to loosen his safety belt; this trip, he was able to float freely. "That added a whole new dimension to it for me personally," he enthused, smiling broadly.
"Back then, we just wanted to see if we could do this thing," he recalled. "Although we had a few science projects on board -- in one I remember in particular, I was to take a spectrometer reading of the sun -- they were nothing like they are today."
Back then, he said, scientists and doctors didn't know what to expect would happen to a body in space. Some had predicted that astronauts' eyeballs might change shape, and other fantastic phenomena.
Later in the program, Glenn described the importance of the NIH-NASA partnership and why he was determined that he and the Discovery crew pay a special visit to NIH. Glenn, NASA and other mission coordinators worked more than a year with NIA staff and director Dr. Richard Hodes to develop a workshop that addressed questions of scientific interest to both agencies. The workshop helped to define better what could be learned from someone Glenn's age traveling in space. Already it is known that older people and astronauts in space experience several common health problems including difficulties sleeping, reduced immune function and bone density loss. Twelve research projects on these disorders were conducted on board Discovery.
At one time, 21 electrodes were connected to Glenn's body just before bedtime, to measure his sleep responses. That couldn't have made for a very comfortable slumber, noted Commander Brown. But, he said, the senator endured every test with good humor.
Following the crew's presentations, they took questions from the audience. They described how several mundane aspects of life on Earth are handled in space. Shampooing one's hair, for instance, must be done very carefully since -- without gravity -- water for rinsing can be flung all over the cabin. As for napping, Glenn said, "Other than there being no 'down' for laying your head down, it's okay." The astronauts use Velcro to stick their pillows and other gear to walls or the ceiling so the objects won't float away. And, if the bathroom breaks, Brown said to much hooting and laughter from the audience, "then we have to come home immediately."
He also reported that, contrary to advice from even the most seasoned astronauts, most space travelers choose not to sleep while they are in orbit, mainly because they don't want to miss anything. "I guess [sleeping] just seems like poor time management to them," he quipped.
As time drew near for the crew to depart NIH, Glenn concluded with a message of gratitude.
"In 24 years in Congress," he said, "I don't think there was a single thing that came up about NIH that I didn't support -- and support enthusiastically. I didn't do that for political reasons, but because I truly believe in what you're doing here. [STS-95] was just a little 'toe-in-the-door' of this type of research. I'm hoping that it'll prove valuable, and that NASA will continue it. I hope that by comparing what happens to me at my age in space with what happens to younger astronauts and with older people right here on Earth, maybe we can not only increase the ability of younger people to go on longer space flights, but also perhaps we can help eradicate many of the frailties of aging -- things like balance and muscle system changes, osteoporosis and sleep disorders.
"That's why I was particularly glad to come out here today -- to say thank you to all of you folks here who, through Secretary Shalala, Dr. Varmus, Dr. Hodes and others, make NIH programs work," he said. "It means so much, and not just to us here. We have such an increasing life expectancy for our own people and for people around the world, and much of that credit goes to you right here at NIH. So thanks to all of you."
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