NASA Says Challenger in Great Shape, Tests Astronauts
EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AP) _ The shuttle Challenger returned to Earth with the least damage ever to its heat-resistant tiles and initial tests indicate its new landing mechanism worked well, officials said Thursday.
Only 18 exterior tiles were damaged on re-entry Wednesday, the lowest number ever, said National Aeronautics and Space Administration spokeswoman Leslie Neihouse.
While the orbiter was deemed in excellent shape in California, five of its eight crew members were in Florida, being spun, dropped, tilted, blindfolded and poked with needles, by flight surgeons trying to find out why nearly half of the 111 people who have made space shuttle flights have become ill.
Americans Bonnie Dunbar and Guion Bluford, West Germans Ernst Messerschmid and Reinhard Furrer and Dutchman Wubbo Ockels were at the Kennedy Space Center repeating medical tests they started before the flight and continued in space. The other three American crew members, commander Henry Hartsfield, Steven Nagel and James Buchli, are not taking part in the tests.
The participating astronauts, often blindfolded or with their heads in electronic boxes, are being spun on rotating chairs; made dizzy on a tilting table and in a tilting room; accelerated on an electric sled; restrained by straps in an exercise called ″hop and drop,″ and are having numerous blood samples drawn.
The doctors want to compare the astronauts’ responses to these tests in gravity with their responses to the same tests in weightless space.
The focus is on the body’s vestibular, or balance system. The center of that system is the vestibular organ, or inner ear. Researchers believe a conflict between perceptions of the eyes and the inner ear confuses the brain and causes some individuals to suffer from space sickness for a day or two before the brain adjusts to weightlessness.
NASA would like to pinpoint the cause and find a way to prevent it, either with drugs or by pre-adapting astronauts in a simulator before a flight.
The orbiter was being prepared for return to Florida at dawn Sunday after the seven-day, 45-minute mission that ended Wednesday after covering 3 million miles, Neihouse said.
She said preliminary investigation of its new landing mechanism called nose-wheel steering ″looked very good″ after the landing at the Mojave Desert 70 miles north of Los Angeles. Further review of the device was to be conducted at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The shuttle’s brakes were in excellent condition, she said.
The space agency has used the unlimited runway on the desert since a tire blew during a landing in Florida last April.
Jesse Moore, NASA’s chief of space shuttle operations, said the test of the nosewheel steering mechanism could eventually lead to resumed landings in Florida which would shorten the time needed for launch preparations.
Overall, astronauts, NASA and West German officials were happy with the results of the 22nd shuttle flight.
West Germany paid $64 million to NASA to haul the European-built Spacelab and a record crew of eight astronauts into orbit. Dr. Hermann Strub, a spokesman for West Germany’s federal Ministry for Research and said the mission could point the way for cooperation between the United States and Europe in development of a space station in the 1990s.
NASA Administrator James Beggs also said the mission helped enhance joint efforts in space.
The European astronauts worked with American payload specialists performing experiments in weightlessness, materials processing and crystal growth. During the 111 orbits, the scientists completed 75 of 76 experiments devised by West Germany and the European Space Agency.