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Flies Dropping Aboard Space Shuttle

January 25, 1992

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ Discovery’s astronauts endured some nauseating spins in a rotating chair Saturday, then took time out to lament the untimely deaths of hundreds of fruit flies used in a weightlessness experiment.

Scientists said more than half of the 480 flies aboard the space shuttle were killed by sterilizing chemicals accidentally left on the insect containers. A similar number of flies in a control group on Earth also died.

″It’s a disappointment for everybody. We would have preferred to have flying flies,″ said the European Space Agency’s Claude Brillouet, a project scientist.

Researchers had to order new fly containers about a month ago because of contamination; when the new boxes arrived, they were sterilized and apparently some of the solution was left on the containers.

″These little flies are very sensitive to this sort of thing,″ said NASA mission scientist Robert Snyder.

Snyder expected few, if any, of the flies to survive the seven-day mission, even though some of the trays might not have as much sterilizing solution on them as others. ″I don’t give them much of a chance,″ Snyder said.

Before they died, some of the flies laid eggs that will be studied after the laboratory research mission, he said.

Astronaut David Hilmers gently broke the bad news to fly researchers on the ground Saturday morning.

The flies constituted the only major casualties since Discovery blasted off Wednesday with 72 million roundworms, 3,942 stick insects, slime mold, fetal mouse bones, lentil roots, yeast, bacteria, oat and wheat seedlings, hamster kidney cells and human blood cells.

Researchers from the University of Madrid in Spain wanted to see how the flies develop in weightlessness.

Fly embryos flown on previous shuttle missions have developed genetic defects, evidently due to space radiation. Previous studies also have shown that female flies live longer in space than male flies.

It was a bad day for Hilmers. Not only did he find the dead flies, he was forced to take several spins in a rotating chair for a space motion sickness study.

″I’d feel better if they could turn off the rotator switch,″ Hilmers said at one point.

Moments later, he said, ″Well, it nailed me. We’re OK, though.″

Fellow astronaut Ulf Merbold, a German physicist, also took a spin.

NASA would not say whether they actually became ill during the experiment. Although the rotating chair is not intended to make astronauts nauseated, doctors acknowledge it could and probably would, especially early in flight.

Most astronauts become sick and light-headed upon reaching orbit and need several days to adjust to weightlessness.

NASA repeatedly has said the crew of six men and one woman is doing well despite repeated rides in the rotating chair and a sled that lurches back and forth on tracks.

The astronauts had trouble Saturday with one of 10 experiments being flown in yard-high canisters in the cargo bay. The lid of a canister containing an Australian telescope would not open. The ultraviolet telescope is supposed to observe and collect data on stars and galaxies during the flight.

The astronauts worked on an alloy-casting experiment involving the solidification of ammonium chloride and water, transparent materials that mimic super-alloys. Researchers are eager to improve casting of super-alloys that could enable engines to operate at higher temperatures.

Holograms are being taken of the solidified samples so researchers can analyze the process after the mission ends.

Discovery is scheduled to land at Edwards Air Force Base in California on Wednesday.

The astronauts enjoyed their last sunset from orbit Saturday afternoon; Discovery will fly in continuous sunlight for the rest of the trip. The time of year combined with Discovery’s unusually high 57-degree inclination, the angle of the ship’s orbit to the equator, will keep the shuttle in constant line of sight with the sun.

Shuttle commander Ronald Grabe occasionally will maneuver Discovery so its radiators face away from the sun and so the same side of the ship doesn’t become too hot.

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