Lab rats' in space

Atlantis and Mir did an intimately interlocked fandango for 5 days, and its crew of 6 Americans and 4 Russians sprinted through an impeccably and precisely scheduled series of 28 experiments, 15 of them aboard the Atlantis shuttle: the Atlantis' 60-feet-long bay carried a huge (by spartan extraterrestrial standards) laboratory called the Spacelab, chock-a-block with biomedical gear. Plus, a new Russian module, christened Spektr with typical Russian black humour, hung like a limpet on the Mir carrying 1,600 pounds of American biomedical research instruments.

America's current space agenda echoes the scientific flavour of the '90s: biomedical research till you bust. The least problematic of this research is the question of how to handle, perhaps repair, a human body that develops complications in, and due to, free-fall. In the absence of experience, no one knows whether surgery -- or even routine diagnosis -- can be performed in free-fall.

Norm Thagard, the American astronaut who spent 100 days in Mir and returned aboard the shuttle, felt like a pincushion: he had spent hours with sensors attached to his skin while an ECG machine, among other mechanical sentinels, monitored his palpitations.

Of especial piquancy were 2 experiments on Mir -- incubating and greenhousing: the chicken eggs hatched but the little fluffballs spun like dervishes; and the stems of seedlings did yearn towards light but their roots splayed out every which way. Farming for sustenance in space could be a problem, and without in-craft food-growing, the 3-year-long round trip to Mars might as well be grounded.