The Rochester Review, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, USA
It's a bit like putting seven people in a Winnebago and driving around for two-and-a-half weeks without getting out," reports Jim Pawelczyk '82, recently returned from a stint on the Columbia space shuttle's 25th mission. "Plus, we had about 2,000 pets along for the ride."
Pawelczyk was one of the mission's two payload specialists, i.e., scientist-astronauts, who were charged with studying the behavior and development of those "pets" as they floated free from the confines of gravity.
His formal training as an astronaut began in 1996 when NASA plucked the Penn State professor from among the ranks of starry-eyed scientists hoping for a post on this year's April 17May 3 flight. But in fact, Pawelczyk says, he traces his path to the Johnson Space Center all the way back to the pool in the River Campus sports complex--where, of all places, he developed his appetite for research.
You see, midway through his junior year, Pawelczyk's swim coach, Bill Boomer, yanked him out of the pool.
"Jim was the only person in my 35-year coaching career that I asked to stop swimming so he could follow his inquisitive mind," recalls the now-retired Boomer. "While he was a really good athlete, his mind was a lot more valuable to the team."
What Boomer wanted the biology/psychology double-major to put his mind to was a problem in the mechanics of swimming having to do with the best way of getting a racing swimmer off to a speedy start.
For the next year and a half, until he graduated, Pawelczyk devoted his swim-practice time to the lab instead. Teaming up with Boomer and professor emeritus of pharmacology and physiology (and former champion swimmer) Al Craig, he embarked on a study that has revolutionized the way collegiate swimmers take their marks. The trio examined, in great detail, the stance one assumes on the starting block. Their most important finding: that the vertical component of the initial dive is key to a fast takeoff.
The unexpected discovery led to the development of a new one-foot-forward, one-foot-back stance that is now used by 50 to 60 percent of all competitive swimmers. And through Boomer's position as one of the world's leading consultants on swimming technique and theory, the results of Pawelczyk's earliest research continue to spread far and wide.
"My time at Rochester was a big 'age of enlightenment' for me," says Pawelczyk, who has now returned to his earthbound life as an assistant professor of physiology and kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University. "The diversity of skills I have been able to develop--what I call being a 'Renaissance scientist'--really goes back to my days at Rochester, and I think that's the sort of thing NASA looks for in a payload specialist."
The payload Pawelczyk specialized in during his 16-day flight was Spacelab, a reusable laboratory that nestles into Columbia's cargo bay. (Technically, for this particular flight--dedicated to neurological experiments in observance of George Bush's 1990 proclamation of this as the "Decade of the Brain"--Spacelab was temporarily rechristened Neurolab.) As one of two payload specialists on board, Pawelczyk was half of the team responsible for running 26 complicated extraterrestrial experiments focusing on the most complex and least understood part of the human body --the nervous system--which faces major challenges in space.
Not only were these experiments an order of magnitude more difficult than any that have been done in space before," Pawelczyk notes, "but some of them would even be hard to accomplish on Earth." That complexity left Pawelczyk and his astronaut-scientist partner, Jay Buckey, along with mission specialists Rick Linnehan and Dave Williams, putting in 14-hour days working aboard Neurolab. "This was definitely a marathon, not a sprint," he says.
The message to be gleaned from the career of Rochester's first scientist-astronaut--the one who for 21 years held the American record for time spent in space--might just be that while you can take the boy out of space, you can't take space out of the boy.
Ed Gibson '59 now runs his own Orlando-based space consulting firm and occasionally also acts as a consultant to larger aerospace companies such as Boeing. Space consultants are in demand these days, what with the birth of the massive International Space Station --the largest scientific collaboration the world has ever seen--just around the corner. (The 16-nation project's first elements are tentatively scheduled for launch in November.)
During those spare hours of the day when he's not consulting, Gibson writes fiction, and his third space-based novel may soon be making its way to a bookstore near you. Its working title: Lethal Astronauts.
With a true novelist's instinct for suspense, Gibson is keeping the book's plot close to the vest (or space suit, as it were). "It's about a vendetta between two people who've been at odds since childhood and who end up on a space station together," he divulges. He's currently shopping around for a publisher for the book, which takes place in 2001, and hopes to see it out in the next year or so.
Gibson is certainly qualified to write with authority on matters aeronautical: In 1974 he served as a crew member aboard Skylab 3, logging 34.5 million miles on 1,214 orbits of Earth over the course of 84 days. He held the record for Americans in space until 1995, when he was dethroned by astronaut Norman Thagard's 115 days on the Russian space station Mir.
"I'm not at all upset by that," says Gibson, who left NASA for the private sector in 1981 and whose only connection to the space agency now is an annual physical exam. "It was a record that stood far too long."
Like Jim Pawelczyk, who flew on what's likely to be Spacelab's swan song, Gibson flew on Skylab's last mission, and found himself inundated with experiments that scientists wanted to cram in. In fact, Gibson says that in many ways, space flights in 1998 aren't all that different from their predecessors of 24 years ago. One of the biggest changes, he says, is that astronauts are more diverse both in ethnicity and gender than they were in the '70s--a point he touched upon in an interview with Rochester Review in 1979, an era when the practice of drawing astronauts solely from the ranks of fighter pilots essentially precluded the involvement of women.
(Unfortunately, not all of Gibson's rosy predictions of two decades ago came to pass: At the time, he predicted that a fleet of five space shuttles would be making weekly flights by the mid-1980s. "People won't even hear about a launch," he said. "They will only hear about it if something goes wrong.")
Lamenting that today's NASA is perhaps a tad less nimble and adventurous than it used to be, Gibson betrays his disappointment at those unrealized dreams. "Most large organizations like NASA do tend to experience some hardening of the arteries over a period of years," he concedes.
But even if NASA's institutional arteriosclerosis may be slowing it down, there's no doubt that Ed Gibson's zeal for space still burns brightly.
Most of the 26 experiments crammed into the 16-day mission were aimed at determining how animals sensitive to the effects of gravity develop in its absence. For example, the Columbia scientists studied the formation, under zero G conditions, of the primitive gravity sensors found in crickets and water snails that are similar to structures in our own inner ears. Another experiment, which may shed light on memory loss in Alzheimer's patients, looked at how rat brains deal with conflicting input when they are sent scurrying around a confusing 3-D track in microgravity.
"I think someday we'll look back on these experiments as groundbreaking, although it may take a while for their total significance to become clear," Pawelczyk says. "I look at it philosophically, though: It took 12 years for penicillin to go from discovery to actual use at the bedside."
Pawelczyk and his six colleagues also occasionally found themselves serving as their own guinea pigs for about a dozen human-based Neurolab experiments, most of which sought solutions to woes common among space travelers. For example, many astronauts have trouble sleeping during shuttle missions, and, for a brief period after returning to Earth, some 60 percent can't remain standing for as long as 10 minutes at a time. In one of the tests, crew members inserted tiny tungsten needles into a nerve near the knee to measure nerve traffic to blood vessels in muscle. Not all the experiments were as taxing, however: To explore how the lack of gravity affects fine motor control, the astronauts had to essentially play catch in space.
The Winnebago ambiance in which all this took place wasn't all that inhospitable, Pawelczyk notes. For one thing, you have to keep in mind that a spacebound Winnebago offers the option of both floor and ceiling habitation. For example, when mealtime rolled around and the crew of seven congregated in a six-by-eight area to eat, "some of us got to be bats. While some people would be eating on the floor, other people sat on the ceiling, so it wasn't all that crowded."
Pawelczyk also played bat at bedtime, when he tethered his sleeping bag to the ceiling of the Spacelab module before calling it a night. "It made for a bit of weird mental wrestling every morning when I woke up," he says. "For those first few seconds, everything was upside down."
Even more than he missed gravity (when he had time, that is), Pawelczyk says he missed his wife and two children, ages 4 and 7, back home in State College, Pennsylvania, where they'd been since he started training in Houston two years before. While in flight, crew members kept in touch with their families via teleconferences every few days. "My four-year-old didn't understand why I couldn't come home at that point. All I could say was to go outside and look up in the sky to try and see Dad."
On a more mundane note, Pawelczyk missed another earthly nicety: showers. "I was surprised how well the no-rinse soap and shampoo we used on the flight worked, but it felt good to have a hot shower once I got back," he confesses.
Added to such minor inconveniences were a couple of potentially critical problems that befell the Neurolab crew. As was widely reported on Earth, many of their several thousand animal passengers (most of them snails, crickets, and fish) died unexpectedly. Some 60 percent of Neurolab's young rats perished, despite findings from earlier missions suggesting that such week-old rats can survive and thrive in space. "We're still unsure why that happened," Pawelczyk says. "I can only speculate that it might have been dehydration or a different type of cage design that contributed to their problems."
The shuttle mission ran into further difficulties when a regenerative carbon-dioxide removal system--basically a device for binding exhaled carbon dioxide to plastic beads--went on the fritz. Happily, a separate system kept the shuttle's air clean until the folks in Houston found a way to bypass the problem pump.
Despite those woes, Pawelczyk maintains a matter-of-fact attitude about the dangers of space flight. "Going up on the space shuttle is just a calculated risk; getting in your car in the morning to drive to work is also a calculated risk."
There's good reason for the blasé attitude: A big part of the two full years of training leading up to the flight were the dozens of rehearsals of just about every conceivable emergency that might befall the mission--everything from riding wire baskets 195 feet down to the ground in case of an emergency on the launch pad to learning how to perform CPR in zero gravity. (In the latter instance, says Pawelczyk, you strap yourself to the middeck lockers so you don't float around while you're doing the chest compressions.)
Pawelczyk's old chums from Rochester also offer some insights into just how he handled such a potentially dangerous mission with aplomb. "Jim was always on the edge, testing his limits," recalls swimming teammate Jim Eichelberger '83, '87M (MD), who at one time lived with him in an eighth-floor suite in Wilder Tower.
Eichelberger, now an assistant professor of medicine at the University's Medical Center, illustrates his point with an anecdote from one of the bike treks they used to take together. "Driving back," he recalls, "we came to the top of a big hill, and Jim suddenly yelled, 'Stop the car!' He got out, took his bike, and proceeded to ride down this hill at 55 miles an hour, with me driving along behind."
Eichelberger says Pawelczyk isn't just some Evel Knievel wannabe, though; he's also "a genuinely nice person." And he has another bike-trip story to prove his point: Shortly after Eichelberger was accepted into Rochester's medical school, he and Pawelczyk were taking another long ride. Halfway through, they stopped in a park--and Pawelczyk surprised his friend by breaking out a celebratory bottle of champagne that he'd been schlepping over the miles. "It was," Eichelberger says, recalling the incident many years later, "very memorable."
Eichelberger was on hand at Kennedy Space Center for the space shuttle's launch on April 17, as was Thomas LeBlanc, University vice provost and dean of the faculty of arts, sciences, and engineering, who watched the launch with his two young sons from a private viewing site four miles away. "Frankly, you wouldn't want to be much closer," LeBlanc notes.
It was spectacular to behold," he adds. "When it takes off, the ground shakes, and there's a bright light and a big cheer from the crowd, and then everyone just holds their breath and hopes the shuttle keeps on rising."
(While LeBlanc and thousands of others were observing the craft's exterior, the crew inside spent three hours on their backs strapped into chairs that Pawelczyk terms "not exactly your average living room recliner." And what lofty activity do astronauts engage in during their last few hours before leaving Earth? He reports that they while away the time "telling stupid jokes.")
Pawelczyk took a Rochester pennant with him into space, as well as a roster listing the names of participants in the University's McNair Scholarship Program, named after an African-American astronaut who perished in the 1986 Challenger explosion. He also brought banners from his other alma maters (Iroquois Central High School in Elma, New York; Penn State, where he received his master's; and the University of North Texas, where he earned his Ph.D.); a Polish flag to commemorate his heritage; mementos from the Boy Scouts and various church groups; a copy of a fundamental and, to Pawelczyk, personally inspirational paper by Al Craig on cardiovascular physiology; and a container of turf seed to be planted on the 24 Penn State campuses.
For some weeks after his return, Pawelczyk was kept busy as a human pincushion, as he puts it, in various debriefings with NASA as well as with the scientists back on Earth whose experiments he oversaw in space. His contract with NASA ended July 3, at which point he happily headed back to State College and his family, his research on blood pressure regulation, and his graduate and undergraduate teaching.
As a payload specialist, i.e., "non-career" astronaut, Pawelczyk--who has "dreamed of space travel since I was a lad"--doesn't expect to ride into space again. Still, he has no regrets.
"I wish I were a poet to describe the experience," he says. "Every time I had a chance to float on up to the flight deck and stare back at Earth, it made it all worthwhile. This has just been the dream of a lifetime for me."
Steve Bradt wrote about learning organic chemistry the (relatively) easy way in the last issue of Rochester Review.
Copyright 1998, University of Rochester