BOZEMAN, MONT.--If the space shuttle Columbia lifts off from Kennedy Space Center July 20, 1999, as planned, many Americans may recall the day 30 years ago that Apollo 11 astronauts first walked on the moon.
Others may note that Tuesday's mission is led by Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a U.S. space mission.
But a group of scientists and students from Bozeman, Mont., will be thinking about what's tucked into Columbia's mid-deck locker and whether it will tell them anything about why astronauts are more vulnerable to infections in space.
"It appears that the immune system is not very efficient when it's working in a microgravity environment," said Robert Bargatze of LigoCyte Pharmaceuticals in Bozeman.
A Russian cosmonaut, for example, developed a urinary tract infection while on Mir. None of the antibiotics aboard wiped out the infection, Bargatze said, and the cosmonaut had to return to earth. He was so weak that space officials worried about him surviving the stress of re-entry.
With missions planned to Mars and aboard the International Space Station, scientists need to know what effects long-term space flight might have on health, said Montana State University physicist and one-time astronaut Loren Acton.
That's why Bargatze plus a group of scientists and students at MSU designed an experiment that will test the role gravity plays in the complicated workings of infection-fighting white blood cells.
On earth, white blood cells stick like Velcro to the inside of blood vessels when it's time to fight invaders. Following some chemical cues, they squeeze through the vessel walls into infected tissue, where they do battle with bacteria, viruses and other enemies. Gravity appears to play a role because the sticking, called adhesion, occurs along the bottom of simulated blood vessels during experiments.