Project still set for space

February 21, 2003

Scientists whose work was due to be tested on the International Space Station say they are confident that their experiment will go ahead despite the loss of the space shuttle Columbia .

Marco Narici, head of a Manchester Metropolitan University team that had been involved in a previous Columbia mission, said his team had designed one of the first European life-science experiments to be selected for the Columbia 's flight to the space station in 2005.

Professor Narici said the loss of Columbia was a tragedy, but believed the space station programme was too important scientifically and commercially for Nasa to forgo.

He said: "We had just got confirmation of our place when the disaster happened. I believe that Nasa and the European Space Agency are committed to fly the experiment, but it is impossible to say how long the delay will be.

"I am optimistic because we were one of the first European life-science groups on the list, so we need to be ready and we will be."

The Alsager team's experiment, part of the department's five-star research programme, is the only life-science project with UK participation on the space station "waiting list".

It explores the effect of space flight on human muscle force and follows recent experiments on muscle waste in simulated "weightless" conditions organised by Esa in Toulouse.

In the study 20 volunteers underwent 90 days of strict bed rest while the effects on their bodies were observed. Some lost up to 30 per cent of their muscle mass.

At clinical level, a 40 per cent loss of muscle is considered life-threatening.

In the space study, the muscles of several astronauts will be monitored before, during and after the flight to find out why, when exposed to microgravity, the loss of muscle strength is about two or three times greater than the loss of muscle size.

The project involves MMU as well as two Italian and two US universities.

According to Professor Narici, the space element is vital. "Although the Toulouse work was exciting, we need to know the consequences of long periods of time in space on the human body."

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