Space Travel's 50th Brings Nastier Bugs
This week and next week mark a number of significant 50th
anniversaries. Actually, two of the anniversaries may be
considered significant only by baseball fans, notably those in
New York. It was on September 24, 1957 that the New York
Giants played their last game in the Polo Grounds before moving
to San Francisco. A few days later, on September 29, 1957, the
Brooklyn Dodgers played their last game in Ebbets Field before
moving to Los Angeles. I must admit that I would have totally
forgotten these two anniversaries were it not for a lengthy article
by Guy Sterling in the September 23 Star-Ledger. By chance,
both of these games were played against the Pittsburgh Pirates,
the team that I had watched on many occasions at Forbes Field
while at the University of Pittsburgh. While the Pirates
abandoned Forbes Field for other stadiums they at least stayed in
Pittsburgh, sticking with their loyal fans.
OK, you’re right, in the overall scheme of things, a couple of
baseball games are not of serious consequence. However, there
is a 50th anniversary coming up next week that has had a
profound impact on our lives. On October 4, 1957, a relatively
small, 184-pound aluminum sphere was shot into the sky and it
ended up orbiting the earth, sending back radio signals for all to
hear. This was, of course the old Soviet Union’s Sputnik, which
marked the beginning of the space age. There’s a good article by
Guy Gugliotta on the history and future of space travel in the
October National Geographic.
In 1961, the USSR put the first man in space. Yuri Gagarin, 27,
circled the earth in a small capsule that parachuted to a soft
landing in a field after a single earth orbit. In 1973, with my
wife and one son (the Editor of this Web site), we visited a
science center in Moscow and saw the capsule that carried
Gagarin on this milestone voyage. (In 1973, in the USSR, we
assumed that our hotel room was bugged. Naturally, I was
intrigued with a statement on last Sunday’s “60 Minutes” by
Gary Kasparov, Russian chess genius turned harsh critic of the
Putin regime, that he assumes his quarters are bugged today.)
In 1975, the Soviet probe Venera, which survived the blazing
temperatures and acidic atmosphere of Venus, was the first to
land on and transmit pictures of the surface of another planet.
The USSR also put up the first orbiting laboratories or space
stations, Salyut and Mir. Of course, the crown jewel of the
human space flight endeavor was the achievement of the U.S. in
landing man on the moon. However, since the last moon landing
in 1972, all the human space flights have been limited to low
earth orbit missions.
Satellite communications, satellite observations of weather
related and global positioning systems are a few of the obvious
benefits of the space age for you and me. Our solar system and
our universe have been revealed in all their glory, complexity
and chaos by our probes, rovers and orbiting telescopes, notably
the Hubble. As one who, as a child, listened to Buck Rogers on
the radio and dreamed of riding a rocket ship to the moon and
other planets, I never thought I would say this. I join with those
who are questioning the apparent readjustment of NASA’s
priorities to concentrate on a manned trip to Mars. Making Mars
the top priority seems a mistake if it takes away from planned
projects related to studies of our Earth, especially in view of
global warming. Media reports also indicate reduced or no
funding for some projects related to further robotic exploration of
places such as Europa or the search for earth-like planets outside
our solar system.
One reason I am concerned is the clear need for a vast amount of
scientific data on many of the problems that have to be addressed
for such a bold manned mission of more than a year’s duration.
One example we’ve discussed before is the exposure of the
astronauts to radiation, both in the spaceship and on the surface
of Mars. While it may not be related to radiation, an article in
yesterday’s Star-Ledger by Randolph Schmid seems to me to
raise a question of fundamental importance to prolonged space
The article deals with some passengers on board the Space
Shuttle Atlantis back in September of 2006. The passengers
were carefully packaged salmonella bacteria, the little guys that
have caused recalls of all kinds of food items such as the recently
recalled packaged salad greens. The idea behind sending germs
into space was to see how they fared in space – it turns out they
did quite well. As with the case of humans, mice can get quite ill
from ingesting salmonella. So, let’s feed mice salmonella that
have taken ride in space and feed other mice the same salmonella
that stayed home on Earth.
The results are scary. Of the mice given the salmonella that
stayed home, some 45 percent were still alive after 25 days.
However, only 10 percent of the mice fed the bacteria that had
flown in space were still alive after 25 days. The space travelers
killed 90 percent of the mice, the homebodies just a bit over half.
Not only that, it took only a third as many of the space travelers
to kill half the mice as it did for the stay-at-homes. The study
was published this week in the Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences.
Talk about evolution – the researchers, led by Cheryl Nickerson
of Arizona State University, found changes in 167 genes in the
salmonella that rode in space. Why? The researchers don’t
know but suspect something called fluid shear, which is related
to the force of liquid passing over the cells. This force is smaller
in the microgravity of space and it’s speculated that the bacteria
adjust their genes to help them survive in space. Do these
changes in the 167 genes account for the bacteria’s higher
toxicity? If so, one can’t help but wonder about possible changes
in the genes of astronauts and the bacteria or viruses that
accompany them on a trip to Mars?
In an interview on September 24 with Nell Greenfieldboyce on
National Public Radio (transcribed on NPR’s Web site),
Nickerson said the bacteria were recovered from the space
shuttle very quickly after landing and were infecting mice just a
couple of hours later so the microbes didn’t have time to readjust
back to conditions here on Earth. In the same interview, Millie
Hughes-Fulford at the VA Medical Center in San Francisco
noted that there is evidence that low gravity weakens astronauts’
immune systems and that this new study suggests they might
have to cope with stronger bacteria in a weakened condition.
Incidentally, astronaut Hughes-Fulford flew on a space shuttle a
decade ago and knows whereof she speaks.
I imagine that this finding of unsettling changes in bacteria in
space will, or certainly should, shake up the people at NASA
who are gung ho on the manned trip to Mars. Should it shake up
us Earthlings as well? In the days of moon landings, there were
at least initially very serious concerns about bringing back some
deadly bug form the moon and strict quarantines were enforced
on moon rocks and astronauts, at least for some hours or days.
Should we really have been more concerned about them bringing
back mutated microbes that were relatively harmless when the
astronauts carrying them were launched from Cape Canaveral?
We may never know.
Allen F. Bortrum