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NIH Record

Astronaut Baker's Talk Inspires NIH Audience

By Gregory Roa

NIH'ers were treated to a close encounter of the inspiring kind when NASA astronaut Dr. Ellen S. Baker spoke on Mar. 26 at a ceremony celebrating Women's History Month. Before a packed audience in Lister Hill Auditorium, she showed breathtaking slides and regaled listeners with her chronicles of orbiting the Earth on three Space Shuttle missions. With candor and humor, she shared one woman's experience of literally being on top of the world at the frontiers of scientific discovery.

Growing up in New York, Baker dreamed not of space flight but of "playing baseball for the Yankees." Instead, she earned a medical degree and went to work at NASA's flight medicine clinic. In 1985, she became an astronaut and joined the Space Shuttle crew. Testifying to NASA's commitment to integrate women into its headline-making missions, Baker said she "never felt any hindrance" to advancing within the program. Rigorous training and meticulous planning prepared her well for every assignment. Moreover, she received much encouragement from the women who went before her, including close friend Shannon Lucid, whom she described as being "completely at home" in space.

NASA Astronaut Dr. Ellen S. Baker showed breathtaking slides -- like this photo of the Florida peninsula spread out like a miniature clay model -- and regaled listeners with her chronicles of orbiting the Earth on three Space Shuttle missions.

Despite hours in flight simulators, stated Baker, nothing could have readied her for the awesome vistas encountered hundreds of miles above Earth. Her many slides evoked ooh's and ahh's from the NIH'ers as they viewed some familiar sites from a new perspective: Manhattan Island aglow by night, the Florida peninsula spread out like a miniature clay model, and Chesapeake Bay basking in sunlight. With a clinician's eye for observation and diagnosis, Baker brought home the impact of human activity upon the world's ecosystem with stunning photographs of the perpetual fires from slash-and-burn farming in the Amazon rainforests, and the oil-blackened deserts polluted during the Gulf War. "We take pictures of everything and take them back to the experts to analyze" on the ground, she said. The images from space eloquently conveyed our planet's fragile beauty.

Each shuttle crew tries to gather as much data as possible during the precious few days in space. NASA is studying such flight-related medical problems as bone loss and radiation exposure. The astronauts also face challenges to their sleep cycles, partly due to the constantly changing light they often see the sun rise or set every 45 minutes in orbit. This phenomenon, combined with the excited pace of mission activity plus the lack of anything resembling a real bed, can cause serious sleep deprivation and fatigue. Getting sleep was easy for Baker, however; her secret, she quipped, was something any mother could understand. "The distraction from sleep in space is nothing like the distraction of children" back home; she has two young daughters.

NIH deputy director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein (l) and NINR director Dr. Patricia Grady (r) welcome NASA astronaut Ellen Baker.

Baker carried out two special missions. On one flight, the shuttle linked up with the Russian space station Mir for a fascinating but linguistically challenging information exchange. On another voyage, the payload included a mini-biomedical research laboratory. Among other studies, scientists grew protein crystals in micro gravity, resulting in products with structural characteristics nearly impossible to duplicate on Earth. Baker also conducted cardiovascular exams, muscle tissue biopsies and a host of other clinical tests.

Describing some side effects of weightlessness, she pointed out that fluids tend to flow toward the head, meaning "your legs look skinny, which is good, but your face looks fatter, which isn't."

Returning to Earth presents other medical concerns. The astronauts' neurovestibular systems usually take 2-3 days acclimating to space travel, but in some cases readjusting to Earth's gravity can take weeks. Longer trips mean more serious disruptions to inner ear balance, a fact significant for space travelers making lengthy voyages on space stations or to distant sites like Mars.

Such projects loom large in both NASA's future and Baker's. She no longer flies missions but still works with the shuttle program and for the development of an international space station, a venture that could provide a stable platform for more experiments in the life sciences. Women such as Baker will continue to advance the space program, furthering our human endeavors and discoveries while exploring the heavens.

In gratitude for her uplifting lecture, NINR director Dr. Patricia Grady awarded Baker with a specially designed plaque that serves as a clock. Etched on its face is this year's celebration theme: "Women: Remembering the Past, Discovering the Future," a mission accomplished very successfully by Baker's high-flying lecture.

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