Pilots Avoid The Spacelab

The bulk of the Spacelab-1 experiments, however, were housed inside the bus-sized, cylindrical module and comprised 16 life sciences investigations and three dozen studies of the behaviour and processing of materials and fluids in the microgravity environment. The predominance of the latter clearly reflected the fact that this mission was the first time extensive materials research could be conducted, in-depth, on board a manned spacecraft. Although some experiments had been performed on Skylab, they were comparatively primitive and offered little more than a taster of what could be achieved in space.

It had long been anticipated that, in the absence of gravity and the complications caused by buoyancy and other factors, it should be possible to produce lighter and stronger building materials, more reliable and less costly electronic components, new alloys, plastics, ceramics, composites and glasses for industrial machinery and household products and, perhaps, 'grow' crystals of important proteins, analysis of which could lead to the development of new drugs to combat cancer and other diseases. The first efforts to set this 'microgravity revolution' in motion had already begun on STS-3 and STS-4, with the preliminary tests of advanced electrophoresis equipment.

Thirty of the materials sciences experiments were accommodated in ESA's floor-to-ceiling Materials Science Double Rack, a refrigerator-sized facility that was activated on 29 November, less than a day after Columbia reached orbit. It housed four furnaces and materials-processing chambers: a Fluid Physics Module to examine the behaviour of liquids in space; a Gradient Heating Furnace and Mirror Heating Facility, which conducted crystal growth experiments in support of pharmaceutical and industrial research; and an Isothermal Heating Facility for studies of the solidification and casting of new metals, alloys, ceramics, glasses and composites.

All four members of Spacelab-1's science crew had undergone extensive training with this rack, but in some cases they were little more than lab technicians. ''We put materials sealed in cartridges into furnaces, heated, melted, solidified the materials, pushed buttons and started computer programs,'' remembered Merbold. All of the experiments using the fluid physics and gradient heating units were successful, but the other two furnaces suffered partial power failures on 30 November and achieved limited results. The mirror furnace was, however, later restored through a maintenance procedure carried out by the crew.

Pilots: Avoid the Spacelab! 79

Pilots: Avoid the Spacelab! 79

The STS-9 crew inside Spacelab-1. Clockwise from top: Brewster Shaw, Byron Lichtenberg, Bob Parker, John Young, Ulf Merbold and Owen Garriott.

The life sciences experiments were conducted by the entire crew, including, much to Young's chagrin, the two pilots, who would be pounced-upon by the science team for blood draws whenever they dared enter the Spacelab module. Nine of the experiments were provided by ESA and seven by NASA and primarily focused on the effects of the microgravity environment and high-energy cosmic radiation on the human body. One particular experiment was remembered well by Shaw: ''Helen's balls! Helen [Ross, from the University of Stirling in Scotland] had a bunch of little yellow balls that were different mass [and] different weight. What you were supposed to do - since there's no weight, only mass in zero-g - we had to differentiate between the mass of these balls. You would take a ball in your hand and shake it and feel the mass of it by the inertia and the momentum of the ball as you would start and stop the motion. Then you'd take another one and try to differentiate between them, and eventually try to rank-order the balls. They were numbered as to which was the most massive to the least massive. We did that several times.''

A number of vestibular experiments, some provided by Canadian scientists, were also conducted to examine the behaviour of the vestibular system in the inner ear -which controls our balance and orientation - and identified a relationship between astronauts' sense of balance and eye movements. These experiments also provided invaluable new insights into the effect of head motions on the onset of space sickness. Other investigations studied the role of microgravity in the reduction in red blood cell mass and its effect on the astronauts' immune systems.

Overall, with a few minor problems, the mission proceeded smoothly; so smoothly, in fact, that on 3 December NASA and ESA agreed to extend the crew's time in orbit by 24 hours when it became clear that Columbia's cryogenic consumables could comfortably support 10 days aloft. Overall, Spacelab-1 power consumption rates averaged about 1.2 kilowatts less than had been conservatively predicted before launch. Even at the halfway mark, Mission Scientist Rick Chappell was describing the flight as ''a very successful merger of manned spaceflight and space science''.

The crew members, too, were performing well, although, at least in Shaw's eyes, it was clear who had been here before and who were novices. ''John and Owen were the experienced guys and they were mentors of the rest of us. It was fun to watch Owen back in the module, because you could tell right from the beginning he'd been in space before. He knew exactly how to handle himself, how to keep himself still, how to move without banging all around the place. The rest of us were bouncing off the walls until we learned how to operate. [For] Owen, it was just like he was here yesterday and it really had been years and years [since his 1973 Skylab mission. But] your body remembers that stuff. The human body is remarkable in its ability to remember adapting to a previous thing.''

Although the crew adapted well to microgravity, three of them suffered space sickness during the first two days of the mission; interestingly, data from one of the experiments revealed that they were most susceptible after several hours of sustained physical exertion. They likened their symptoms to prolonged motion sickness and fluids shifting in their bodies.

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