Everyone Is A Mission Specialist

In the earlier days of the space programme, pilot astronauts typically avoided medical matters as if they were a plague of locusts; all were keenly aware of the old adage that there were only two ways they could walk out of a doctor's office - fine or grounded! Searfoss, however, had no concerns about getting involved in Neurolab's medical investigations. ''This is research,'' he told an interviewer before Columbia lifted off. ''No-one's out there to ground you. No-one's out there to find something that's going to keep you on deck forever.''

Searfoss, a US Air Force Colonel who had also flown on the SLS-2 medical research mission five years before, lived by another saying. ''Test pilots comprise about a third of the astronaut corps,'' he said after the mission. ''I think that diversity in every respect, both technical background and nationality, is very healthy and great for the programme. There is a saying among astronauts that once you get into orbit, everyone is a Mission Specialist! Certainly, the test pilot skills are an absolute must for the launch and entry phases, but in orbit you're there to do a job.

''Our job on the Neurolab mission was to do as much out-of-this-world science as we could. As a test pilot, engineer and physics person, there is no way I could have brought all of that science home. There were four brilliant docs on board to make that happen. Quite frankly, I'm a little disgusted with some Commanders who have not stepped up to the plate in their leadership role to get as much science out of the mission as they should have. Certainly, it has been an evolution. Early in the Shuttle programme, we had to focus on maturing the programme.

''As that maturity has come, I believe the best Commanders have been the ones who realise we have an important role in making sure they exercise the proper kind of leadership in order to get the science done. We'll get better at this as we progress and now we've got the International Space Station operational, we should really do some good science up there.''

The science on Neurolab was among the most complex ever attempted, focusing on the least-understood part of the human body - the nervous system - and investigating the effects of microgravity on blood pressure, balance, movement and sleep-regulation. ''Everyone has the perception this is all Buck Rogers or Buzz Lightyear,'' Linnehan said before the flight, ''but on science missions, everyone is really a subject. I freely accept that and, maybe, in a perverse sense, enjoy it!''

Nor was the mission exclusively focused on its human subjects, for the crew would also transport over 2,000 animals into orbit and, controversially, euthanise and dissect some of them to perform complex surgical procedures. However, Linnehan insisted that all of Columbia's passengers were treated respectfully. ''I can guarantee the animals are well-fed, well-housed and well cared for,'' he said. ''It's my duty to check [them] every day to make sure everything looks good as far as their food, water and general health. I have absolute authority on-orbit, if I need to, to stop an experiment if an animal becomes sick.''

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