THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME
SEPTEMBER 26, 1996
NASA astronaut Shannon Lucid returned to earth after a record breaking 188 days in space. She had been conducting scientific research aboard Russia's Mir Space Station. A backgrounder is followed by a discussion with experts on the effect of long space flights on the human body.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Back on Earth, Lucid is now a gold mine of information for scientists trying to understand the effects of weightlessness in space. To discuss that, we're joined by Dr. Victor Schneider, the NASA scientist overseeing research for the NASA "Mir" missions; astronaut Norm Thagard, Shannon Lucid's predecessor on "Mir" and the first American to fly on the Russian spacecraft; and Dr. Nick Kanas, professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco and assistant chief of psychiatry at the San Francisco Veterans Hospital. He's the principal investigator of a NASA-funded study of the psychological and social effects of long-term space flight. Thank you all for being with us. And beginning with you, Dr. Schneider, what is important about these long space flights? What are you learning from Shannon Lucid and from Norm Thagard before her?
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Shannon Lucid Biography
VICTOR SCHNEIDER, NASA: From both of these two astronauts, as well as our other five astronauts that will be aboard the "Mir" station, we're trying to find out what happens to their bodies and to protect other astronauts for the future when we either go into our international space station or, in fact, explore the universe.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you look at specifically on their bodies? What are you looking for, bone loss, for example?
MR. SCHNEIDER: Well, we like to look at the whole body, and so we look at those things that we know that will change, and so the specific areas are bone, and so there's bone loss, there's muscle loss because of lack of gravity for people to work against. There's also problems with the heart muscle, which is a muscle, the muscles along the blood vessels atrophy as well. There's a fluid shift. Fluids move basically from lower body up into the upper body.
Uh, this causes many problems for the individual. First of all, they--the body perceives this as having too much blood so that they stop making blood, the red blood cells. They also lose fluid from their blood vessels, and they lose almost a pint or more of blood, uh, so this becomes a problem when they return to Earth. They immediately have a problem with their vestibular apparatus, that is, their inner ears. The inner ear controls our balance and tells us where our body is in space.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Norm Thagard, how much bone did you lose, for example?
NORM THAGARD, Former Astronaut: (Tallahassee, Florida) Well, I won't give you a report of all the bones but the one I think that stood out in my mind the most was the femur, which is the bone in the upper part of the leg, and I lost about 11.7 percent of mineral from that bone.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How much have you gotten back? You've been back about a year, haven't you?
MR. THAGARD: I've been back I think now about 14 months. There was a repeat bone scan last month. No one would talk to me about the data, but they did send me the data, and if I interpret it correctly, I'm still down about 6 percent from that one bone.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But are you expected to get the rest back?
MR. THAGARD: Well, my expectation would be to get it back, but, of course, that is one of the things that we look at in this business of sending folks up to the "Mir" station and then later to the international space station.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How much of your blood did you lose? Excuse me for asking these personal questions, but I think it's quite interesting to people.
MR. THAGARD: And I don't mind sharing my own data. In terms of blood, I lost between 15 and 20 percent of red cell mass.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Have you gotten that back too?
MR. THAGARD: Yeah. Now that was one of the things that has a more--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Or most of it?
MR. THAGARD: That's one of the things that has a more rapid time course for recovery, and I think it probably took a little more than a month to get the blood back.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What other effects of weightlessness did you experience that you--that were really marked and noticeable?
MR. THAGARD: The things that Dr. Schneider mentioned, the vestibular effects. I could still tell five days later that I had been in space. I'm a jogger, and it was probably a good two months before the jogging seemed as normal as it had before flight. Of course, the bone loss, you don't really sense that, so that's just one of those findings that you know about but doesn't mean anything in terms of personal sensation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How much weight did you lose?
MR. THAGARD: I guess at the low point I was down about 17 ½ pounds, but I had had a tendency to lose weight on all of my flights, and that was somewhat complicated on "Mir" because we were expected to eat only bar-coded foods, and there was a limited variety of those foods on board, although there was a wide variety of good food on board the "Mir" station.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So, Dr. Schneider, you learned from Dr. Thagard's experience and Shannon Lucid has--she didn't lose as much weight for example, right?
MR. SCHNEIDER: Well, she did not appear to lose any weight as far as we know.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you tried to do things to help her avoid some of this, right? She exercised two hours a day, for example?
MR. SCHNEIDER: For trying to prevent muscle bone--muscle loss and bone loss she did do the Russian counter-measure program, which is to exercise up to two hours a day either using a bicycle for about one hour--that's a stationary bicycle--and running on a treadmill, in which there are elastic cords that actually hold you down to the treadmill, so that you can get enough forces generated as you run to protect your muscles and bones. In addition to the food, we learned a lot from Norm Thagard's flight, and we brought up additional food so that there was both U.S. type food and Russian type food that was enough for all the crew.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And the idea is that with each flight you'll learn more about how to prevent the most detrimental effects of weightlessness, is that right?
MR. SCHNEIDER: That's correct. In addition, what we're doing is we're trying to get a large enough group of people so that when we learn something about what's happening to the body that we know that it's real, that it's not individual variation for just one individual.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Kanas, explain some of the, the social and psychological effects of the long time in space and especially when you have people of different sex and different nationality as Shannon Lucid did.
NICK KANAS, Psychiatrist: (San Francisco) Well, I think in long duration missions there are effects that become apparent as the crews become more and more heterogenous in terms of different cultural backgrounds, different genders, and so on. And we look to simulations on Earth, Antarctic expeditions and submarines and soon to find that the more complex the crew make-up is the more likely tensions or lack of cohesion might develop in the space environment.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How have the astronauts dealt with that, for example, in Dr. Thagard's experience, it was not sexual difference but it was a national difference?
DR. KANAS: Well, I think the anecdotal reports from space comes mainly from the long duration Russian mission since they've been in space for long periods of time, and there seems to be a long middle period, sort of a monotonous period where some of the cosmonauts experience withdrawal from each other, tension, um, sort of hypo stimulation, under stimulation, and to counter this, the Russian cosmonaut support group on Earth increases the number of contacts they have with friends and family and guests on Earth in their video communications and also provides them with surprise presents on their re-supply ships to kind of boost their morale and give them more stimulation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And we, we heard about during the months that Shannon Lucid was there she was getting a lot of E-mail and that sort of thing. That was aimed at keeping her from feeling isolated, I suppose.
DR. KANAS: I imagine that would have been very helpful.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Thagard, which--which affected you the most, the physical difficulties or the psychological difficulty or challenge of being there?
MR. THAGARD: I had always felt before flight and nothing during the flight changed my mind that for missions out to about six months in duration the psychological problems don't loom very large and two, the Russians pay a lot of attention to the crew make-up, so they really determined before Gennady Velogin and I flew that we were going to get along well together and fortunately that did prove to be the case.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Schneider, the Russians--one Russian was out 437 days, right?
MR. SCHNEIDER: That's correct. It was actually a physician that spent that time on the "Mir" station.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And I know you can't reveal any information specifically about him, but how much bone loss might be lost in that period?
MR. SCHNEIDER: Well, in the average astronaut, they lose about 1 percent of certain bones per month, that's the lower spine and, uh, hip, and so that if one took just the average, we're talking about 14 percent loss.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, on Shannon Lucid's trip, what other experiments were they doing? What were they looking at, and trying to learn, besides the effects of weightlessness?
MR. SCHNEIDER: Well, in addition to trying to look at biomedical results on the astronauts, themselves, we were doing fundamental biology research. We would like to use micro gravity as a research tool since all of life has grown up with gravity here. We want to know if we can change things by having them in micro gravity and there were two experiments that were being done.
One was developmental biology in which avion eggs were sent up and we took samples of these avion eggs throughout the course of the development of the avion. We never allowed it to hatch because we wanted to bring back the tissues that are the most active and most developing so that scientists down here on Earth could examine them.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: By avion eggs, you mean different sorts of fowl?
MR. SCHNEIDER: It actually is a quail.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Uh-huh, it's a quail.
MR. SCHNEIDER: A quail egg. Oh, and so their eggs are about so big.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Uh-huh.
MR. SCHNEIDER: And on SDF-79 they actually brought this back down for scientists on Earth. Shannon and her crew actually started another experiment, and it was actually done on part of North Thagard's mission too, and that's growing dwarfed wheat. And the purpose of being able to do wheat for a particular thing is that if we ever do have long duration space travel, we would like to bring supplies with us to grow, and so this would help us learn more about that. In addition, it's the same fundamental biology that we're looking at how things develop in micro gravity.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Kanas, what about the psychological experiments on this? Were there some different ones from the, the Norm Thagard trip?
DR. KANAS: Well, we actually have a study that's funded by NASA in collaboration with some Russian colleagues headed by Dr. Solnitsky to look at crew tension, cohesion, and leadership roles over the next three and possibly five missions. In fact, today's a milestone because for the first time they are collecting data from American astronauts and cosmonauts in space, so we hope to track this from now on during the course of the next several missions.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Dr. Thagard, what is all this building for? When you were up there all those days, did you feel like you were building for the space station or for a trip to Mars, or what, or all of the above?
MR. THAGARD: All of the above. We really did want to get this data and do it incrementally, in other words bump up the duration of the missions cautiously each time, which is exactly what's happening, the idea being to prove that all of these physiological changes are neither dangerous in the short-term and that you do essentially recover from them over some time course after return.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Although if you go to Mars and it takes many months and then you're on Mars, which doesn't have the same gravity as, as Earth, there could be more bone loss, right?
MR. SCHNEIDER: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is that the problem?
MR. SCHNEIDER: That's the problem. That obviously is why we would like to find some sort of counter measures, something that would prevent the bone loss from occurring. But if we can't find the prevention for bone loss, we want to be able to make sure that people regain that bone when they come back to Earth.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Dr. Schneider and gentlemen, thank you very much for being with us.