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Discovery brimming with science projects

Glenn during training   

October 28, 1998
Web posted at: 5:00 PM EDT

In this story:

By CNN Interactive Writer John Christensen

(CNN) -- Eighty-three experiments are to be performed aboard the shuttle Discovery during its nine-day mission, and most of them have nothing to do with John Glenn.

They range from attempts to improve soybeans to tests of a refrigerator that might house future experiments to a project aimed at determining whether cockroaches can live and reproduce in space, and in what ways they might be changed when they return.

The astronauts are also to test some hardware for the Hubble Space Telescope that will be installed on the telescope during a future mission.

But Glenn's presence on the shuttle and his participation in aging-related experiments have received much of the attention, and for good reason.

The prospect of a 77-year-old man -- and an American hero, at that -- going into space has revived public interest in the space program like nothing in recent memory.

Glenn will not be idle

And while Glenn did not meet the criteria for one of the experiments he was to have participated in -- testing melatonin as an aid to sleep -- he will not be idle.

His responsibilities include:

  • Participating in a study of sleep disturbances, a common problem for astronauts. Glenn will wear electrodes while sleeping so that his brain waves can be monitored, swallow a tiny thermometer with a transmitter that will and send temperature readings every 15 seconds, and undergo tests for alertness.

  • Taking protein pills and injections with fellow astronaut Pedro Duque and then giving blood and urine samples in an experiment to determine why the body breaks down protein faster in space and in the elderly.

  • Wearing a heart monitor to check for fluctuations during various activities in microgravity.

  • Being tested before and after the mission for the effects of weightlessness on his equilibrium and on the amount of muscle he loses during the mission. His data will be compared to that of the others on Discovery.

A 'bioreactor' in microgravity

One of the experiments aboard Discovery that won't involve Glenn is a joint venture between NASA, the University of Alabama and two U.S. companies to create a "bioreactor" that would allow companies to develop products in microgravity.

Among the things to be tested in the bioreactor will be a process for growing a protein that researchers hope will prevent bodies from rejecting transplanted tissues.

Another aims at developing a microencapsulation technique that may lead to implants for diabetics, sparing them the necessity of daily insulin injections.

A third experiment involves an attempt to create synthetic bone for such purposes as dental implants and hip replacements, and the development of "heart patches" that would replace heart muscle and, ideally, reduce the need for heart transplants.

Still another experiment in the bioreactor aims at creating an anti-cancer drug from compounds taken from soybean cells.

Frozen smoke and artificial blood

Among the other experiments:

  • The production of a substance called Aerogel, a thin foam slightly heavier than air and so transparent it is nicknamed "frozen smoke." Aerogel has the insulation characteristics of 30 panes of regular glass, and has a number of promising commercial applications. Among them could be its use in computer processors to prevent signal cross-over -- a common problem in current chips.

    Spartan 201   

  • A set of experiments that include the development of artificial blood and a technology to deliver high doses of chemotherapy to tumors while reducing harmful side effects.

  • Launching the Spartan 201 satellite to continue studies of the sun's corona. This will be Spartan's fifth mission and, NASA hopes, more productive than its last. In November 1997, the craft tumbled out of control shortly after being released from the shuttle Columbia and had to be recaptured by spacewalking astronauts. Spartan is equipped with two telescopes to measure emissions from the sun's corona. Scientists hope to understand why the sun's rotation has slowed and how the Earth's energy field, its climate and its weather are affected by radiation and particles in the solar wind.

  • Spartan will also test a system that may allow those on the ground to download images from the satellite in real-time and make immediate corrections in the satellite's orientation. In addition, the satellite will be used to test a Video Guidance Sensor, a key component for an automated docking system that would eliminate the need for astronauts to dock spacecraft manually. The system has been tested on Earth and was accurate to within one-tenth of an inch.

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