Monkeys and men

Spacelab 3 carried the Ames Research Center-developed Research Animal Holding Facility (RAHF). The stated purpose of this life sciences investigation was ''to perform engineering tests to ensure that the RAHF is a safe and adequate facility for housing and studying animals in the space environment; to observe the animals' reactions to the space environment and to evaluate the operations and procedures for in-flight animal care.''49 For the Spacelab 3 mission, two squirrel monkeys were held in identical cages in the Primate RAHF, while twenty-four rats were located in individual cages in the Rodent RAHF. According to the pre-flight literature, ''Food and water will be dispensed automatically on animal demand, and waste will be directed by air flow into absorbent trays beneath the cages. Periodically, crew members will replace the food in the dispensers and remove the easily accessible waste trays, replacing them with clean ones.'' There were no plans for direct crew handling of the animals, although both Thornton and Norman Thagard, who were already medically qualified, were given additional veterinary training to care for them in the event of illness or injury.

Neither Thornton, Thagard, nor commander Overmyer wanted to bring home sick, injured or deceased animals, so Thornton spent a considerable amount of time caring for them on the flight. As soon as he could, Thornton reported on the status of the animal "crew members'' after their launch into space: "The rodents are in good shape, and the monkeys appears to be in good shape. One of them even came and greeted me,'' he told Mission Control.

The Astronaut Office had expressed their concerns for years about flying a large animal payload in space, but to no real avail. The media soon picked up on the problems the astronauts were having with the RAHF leaking food stuffs and faeces, but many of these reports were initially overlooked or counteracted by officials on the ground. According to one report,50 "sources" at JSC revealed that it was obvious before launch that the cages would not be trouble-free, but it was "too late to do anything about it.'' Earlier tests showed that food bars would crumble and that the airflow system would carry odours, food and faeces out of the cages when serviced. These technical problems could be fixed, but the differences of opinion between managers and astronauts would have serious consequences for future flights of such facilities. Significant improvements needed to be made to ensure that the problems on Spacelab 3 could not reoccur.

Two astronauts had to don surgical gowns, masks and gloves to service the cages, while a third held a vacuum cleaner to catch free floating debris and a fourth, Thornton, recorded the process on film. The operation was supposed to take one astronaut's time, not four, and one of the payload specialists lost valuable time for his own experiments by having to assist in tending the RAHF.

Thornton had mentioned prior to the flight that the monkeys had a reputation for being disagreeable, having bitten a trainer's finger and scuffled with the astronaut on one occasion. Troubles with the feeding system occurred on FD 3 and one of the monkeys became so sick that Thornton had to resort to hand feeding it after a two-day fast. The monkey then promptly ate forty banana pellets in one go. Problems with servicing the cages began on FD 2 when a food bar broke up into numerous crumbs when taken out of its wrapper. As well as the food crumbs, the airflow also blew out faeces from the cages. At one point, commander Overmyer voiced his concerns, which were inadvertently picked up by the air-to-ground link: "Faeces in the cockpit is not much fun. How many years did we tell them these cages would not work?" Initial reaction suggested that the crew had incorrectly identified the debris and that it was food particles, not animal waste, in the cabin. But in 1988, Thornton clearly confirmed that this was not the case: "I can absolutely tell you that, as a boy that grew up on a farm with chickens, pigs and so forth, I knew at the age of three years old [the difference between] faeces and food pellets.''27

The problem, clearly evident to the crew, was in the design of the cages themselves. Gaps in their construction, combined with positive pressure, allowed faeces, hair, food and any other small material in the cage to build up. Then, as soon as the door was opened, the positive pressure blew the items out into the cabin. According to Thornton, "The first time I cracked the food tray an eighth of an inch, it was almost as if you had fired a gun with material that blew out.''48 The primate cage problem was solved by switching off the air flow and using a vacuum cleaner, but even this did not prevent problems with the rodent cage. A water leak in the cage also caused concerns.

An astronaut tradition - launch day breakfast with a cake decorated with the mission emblem. The crew is wearing the gold and silver shirts of the two shifts they would participate in during the mission.

The monkey's illness was not thought by Thornton to be totally due to SAS, but to a lack of interaction with humans, which it had been used to on the ground. His intervention by hand-feeding the monkey certainly helped it to recover.

As stated by the crew in their post-flight report, "A large volume could be written on the problems with this system,'' and serious reviews, in light of the experiences of Spacelab 3, would be required before such a device was flown again.51 Even when Thornton tried to explain what he had seen in space, officials tried to discourage this until "official reports and investigations'' had been conducted.

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