Public Release: 

Returning Astronaut Expected To Weave And Wobble When She Hits The Ground

Penn State

Hershey, Pa. -- On Sept. 26, when astronaut Shannon Lucid returns from 188 days in space, she may wobble a bit when she takes her first steps at Kennedy Space Center. And, she may have difficulty standing up.

Orthostatic intolerance, or difficulty in standing, is a condition that afflicts at least 70 percent of returning astronauts. Their blood pressure systems are thrown off by the weightlessness of space travel. It takes time for the astronauts to readjust--especially following lengthy trips like Lucid's.

"Earthlings aren't exactly built for space travel," said Lawrence I. Sinoway, M.D., professor of medicine at Penn State's Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Sinoway is conducting NASA-funded research at Hershey in which he studies the way the human body fares under the stress of space travel.

In addition to orthostatic intolerance, most astronauts have puffy faces and thin legs because body fluids tend to relocate to the upper body during space flight.

Sinoway's medical studies will help NASA figure out how best to maintain astronauts' health during lengthy space flights, including a possible trip to Mars which would take two years round trip for a manned expedition. A visit to the red planet could come early in the 21st century according to NASA.

To simulate the effects of weightlessness on the body, Sinoway and his staff of cardiology researchers are conducting a series of experiments in which they confine healthy 20- to 40- year old men to bed for two weeks. The research is part of a three-year NASA study to examine sympathetic nerve activity during exercise--both before and after extended bed rest.

Sinoway tracks the movement of information from the nerves to the blood vessels with a special technique called microneurography, an innovative method that is used in only a handful of research centers. It involves the insertion of tiny needles into nerves to obtain an electronic recording of neural transmissions.

"We want to see if exercise turns on the nervous system more after bed rest," says Sinoway, explaining that this will suggest that space flight alters and exaggerates how the nervous system responds to stress function. "We are also interested in finding out whether these subjects fatigue more easily during exercise after bed rest. If this occurs, we will try to improve this situation, using exercise conditioning."

Sinoway was recently named program director of the General Clinical Research Center (GCRC) at Hershey. The GCRC was established by the National Institutes of Health to create and sustain specialized institutional resources in which clinical investigators can observe and study human physiology as well as study and treat disease with innovative approaches. A satellite study center of the GCRC has been established at the Noll Physiological Research Center, College of Health and Human Development, at the University Park campus.

Another Penn State researcher, James A. Pawelczyk, assistant professor of applied physiology at Noll Physiological Research Center, also studies the physiology of the body during space travel. He was chosen by NASA to train as one of four payload specialists for the Neurolab mission in 1998. Neurolab is a dedicated life sciences mission on neuroscience research, a contribution to the "Decade of the Brain," sponsored by NASA and the National Institutes of Health.


Gail Brown (o) (717) 531-8606 e-mail:
Deborah S. Saline (o) (717) 531-8606

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