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Spacelab: success amid frustration.

As the first operational flight of the Spacelab research module, the 17th space shuttle mission was heavily laden with life forms (7 humans, 2 monkeys, 24 rats) and scientific experiments (15), as well as carrying two satellites to be launched in orbit. There were problems in each area during the voyage's seven days (one of the satellites never emerged from its Getaway Special canister), but by the time the shuttle-craft Challenger landed on the desert sands of California's Edwards Air Force Base, mission officials were enthusiastic about their week's results.

Only one of the 15 experiments never worked at all -- a stuck hatch cover blocked a French ultraviolet camera from conducting a sky survey of celestial objects. Two other experiments would have been largely or totally ruined by technical problems, but on-board repairs by the astronauts (following lengthy analyses by colleagues on the ground) saved them both.

Fluid physicist Taylor Wang, from Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., was in Challenger's crew as a "payload specilist." He was to conduct test of "containerless processing," in which sound waves would be used to suspend and manipulate fluid droplets that might otherwise be contaminated by contact with the walls of an enclosure. When Wang first activated his apparatus, however, it kept tripping its circuit breakers. Several hours of orbit-to-ground conversation and study indicated that the problem was a short-circuited power supply, and Wang (who is also the experiment's principal investigator) was advised to rewire the device to an alternate supply. It was a simple "flix"--though the consultations to be sure it would work and get all the necessary approvals consumed two more days--but it made the difference between success adn failure. As for the results, radioed Wang from space,. "It's amazing. It's totally different from what we thought." Another experiment, to study the ionization of solar and galactic cosmic ray nuclei, was similarly brought back from the brink.

Both the astronauts adn NASA officials said little about how the crew was faring in the weightless environment with the "space sickness" that has affected about half of U.S. astornauts so far. The squirrel monkeys, however, were sent along to aid studies of just that problem, with astronaut/physician William E. Thornton serving as their handler. One of the monkeys seemed to take readily to life in zero-g, but the other spent the first few days looking listless and moving around very little. Both seemed to acclimatize, however, and the day before teh mission ended, Thornton noted that "we'll be bringing two monkeys back to earth that are even friendlier that they were to begin with. Those primates are part of the crew right now." As for the rats, said Thornton, gesturing during a TV transmission at a rat cavorting in its cage, "They've loved every minute of this flight."

That is not to say that the presence of the rats and monkeys during the flight was an unmixed blessing, however. During the flight's first few days, large numbers of particles from the rats food trays escaped from their cages and floated around the cabin; specialists on the ground finally worked out a technique whereby the astronauts would store each old food tray in the plastic storage bag that had just been removed from its replacement. In addition, waste pellets from the rats and fecal matter from the monkeys would float across the Spacelab enclosure, and were even found in the shuttle cockpit, about 25 feet away through a tunnel with two elbow-bends in it.

"This is really discouraging," said astronaut Robert F. Overmyer, the mission's commander. "We told those guys all these years that the monkey cages wouldn't work." If he said more on the subject, it was cut off from the publicly audible communications circuits by mission control on the ground. Next year, however, NASA plans to fly another mission with twice as many monkeys and twice as many rats. The cages, said one NASA official after the five Spacelab mission specilists had had to put on surgical masks, smocks and gloves, "are likely to see some changes" before the next trip.

The mission ended not at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as had been originally planned, but in the Mojave Desert. The previous mission, using the shuttle-craft Discovery, had rolled to a stop from its landing on a hard runway with one tire blown and three others badly frayed, possibly due to crosswinds during the touchdown. Challenger's desert landing did not represent a permanent change, but provided a safer chance to evaluate the effects of cross-loads on the tires, which survived the touchdown with only normal wear.
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Author:Eberhart, Jonathan
Publication:Science News
Date:May 11, 1985
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