If all goes as planned, 77-year-old John Glenn, current U.S. senator who in 1962 became the first American to orbit the earth, will perform an experiment designed by Vierling to assess the ability of pathogens to incorporate foreign DNA into soybeans in microgravity. The experiment is a modification of a technique that is successfully used on earth.
"How many people can say an American hero and U.S. senator is acting as their technician in space?" says Vierling. "John Glenn performing my experiment came as a complete shock to me. If I had written a scenario myself, it would not have been this good."
Vierling, an adjunct associate professor of agronomy at Purdue University and director of the Indiana Crop Improvement Association's genetics program since 1992, says the experiment should take 22 hours to complete and is scheduled to begin Oct. 30.
Vierling approached NASA's Commercialization Center in Madison, Wis., in February 1997, with an eye on a shuttle flight sometime in 2000.
"It was just an idea. I didn't even have any preliminary data when I pitched it to the Commercialization Center," Vierling says.
In January, NASA told Vierling his experiment had been bumped up and was now listed on the manifest for STS-95, Glenn's historic return to space.
That gave Vierling less than six months to get his experiment approved and in a format that would allow the payload specialist (Glenn) adequate time for training.
"I had to do two years worth of research in six months to meet the earlier deadline," says Vierling, who was amazed to find his experiment was moved up in such a short period of time.
"I didn't know the federal government could move that fast," Vierling says. "It really
put me under the gun. I had planned on about 18 to 20 months to get the background
information so we could correctly design the experiment." Weightlessness poses unique
parameters and problems that had to be overcome. The final experimental design is
Contact: Tom Campbell