Space research brought alive

Astronauts touch down

(July 9, 1998, Gazette)

By Sharon Gray

Hot sunny weather and the first long weekend of summer didn't deter hundreds of children and adults from visiting the medical school June 20 to meet the crew of the space orbiter Columbia.

For Rhonda Bemister's Grade5 class at Bishop Abraham Elementary it was a particularly memorable occasion. Letters to Canadian astronaut Dr. Dave Williams earned the class a private 45-minute session with the six crew members from the Columbia who visited St. John's as part of the national post-flight tour. The excited youngsters peppered the astronauts with questions from "What did you do with your garbage?" to "Do you ever get scared?"

The astronauts spent 16 days in space this spring on the STS-90 Neurolab mission in which 26 complex experiments in the life sciences were conducted to study the effects of microgravity on the brain and the other parts of the central nervous system. Research was conducted on the astronauts and on the 2,000 rats, crickets and fish that accompanied them.

This scientific research is of particular interest to members of the Neuroscience Group in the Faculty of Medicine. Through the efforts of Dr. Richard Neuman, assistant dean for basic medical sciences, the visit was arranged.

Scientists had an hour-long session with the astronauts in which they questioned them about the experiments done during the mission, particularly the effects of space travel on sleep and dreaming.

"Everyone found the visit rewarding," said Dr. Neuman. "The preliminary findings of the Neurolab mission were interesting, but they will eventually be published. More important were the insights gained from the impressions and observations of the scientific crew - material which never shows up in scientific journals."

Health minister Joan Marie Aylward was one of the government officials who met with the astronauts.

"Research being performed in space by astronauts such as that which occurred on STS 90 Neurolab will help us in our understanding of Earth-bound ailments such as disorders of the regulations of blood pressure, balance and sleep disorders and motion sickness," she said.

As the representative of the Canadian Space Agency, Dr. Dave Williams led the discussion with Grade 5 class from Bishop Abraham. He comes from Saskatchewan, but has a connection with Newfoundland through his wife, Cathy Fraser, a pilot with Air Canada who is originally from St. John's.

Dr. Williams said the questions from the young students were thoughtful and showed insight into the type of research that was done on the mission. The students presented the astronaut with an autographed T-shirt from their school, and in return he and fellow crew members took the time to sign photographs.

At the public session, the six astronauts gave a more formal presentation of their trip, led by Commander Richard Searfoss. To a silent video showing mission highlights, each astronaut spoke about his or her own work aboard Columbia. In addition to Commander Searfoss and Dr. Williams, the crew members who visited St. John's included pilot Scott Altman, mission specialists Kay Hire and Richard Linnehan, and payload specialist James Paweklcyzk. Payload specialist Jay Buckey was unable to make the trip to St. John's for family reasons.

Dr. Neuman said that an important aspect of the astronauts' visit was the excitement it created.

"We need to encourage young people to be interested in science, and this is just the type of event that does that. Some of the students in the audience today may someday be part of a space mission."