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Monday, April 20, 1998, 6 p.m. CDT
STS-90 Mission Control Center Status Report # 7

Columbia’s astronauts took virtual trips down a never-ending hallway, put rats through their paces on zero-gravity mazes and continued to record detailed information about their sleep patterns and breathing habits today as the Neurolab mission continued its studies of the human nervous system.

STS-90 Commander Rick Searfoss, Pilot Scott Altman, Mission Specialists Rick Linnehan, Kay Hire and Dave Williams and Payload Specialists Jay Buckey and Jim Pawelczyk continued their research unimpeded by any technical difficulties as the 16-day research mission hit its stride.

Each of the payload crew members -- Linnehan, Williams, Buckey and Pawelczyk – took turns working with the four male Fischer rats as part of the Escher Staircase Behavior Testing of Adult Rats experiment. The rats were placed in the General Purpose Work Station for the tests, which involved placing them on two different tracks. Each of the tracks – one named after the artist who painted similar three-dimensional staircases and the other called the "magic carpet" that looks like a cross that can be inverted – was used for several runs. The rats have "hyper drive" units placed on their heads, connected to the hippocampus area of their brains and monitoring equipment with electrodes made of microscopic wires. The hippocampus is the part of the brain used to develop spatial maps that help the rats navigate from one place to the other. Scientists are studying how the rats’ nervous systems "rewire" themselves to accommodate the disorienting effects of microgravity.

The four payload crew members also continued their work with the virtual reality headgear called the Virtual Environment Generator (VEG). The VEG evaluates visual and inner ear cues help the astronauts determine body orientation changes in the absence of gravity. Today’s virtual voyages included walks down a never-ending hallway, visits to a tumbling Spacelab-like room and encounters with upside-down astronauts in a tilted virtual Spacelab. The experiment, designed to help scientists understand how the human brain switches from inner ear cues to visual cues when in microgravity, could have important applications for people on Earth who suffer from balance and orientation difficulties.

Hire, Williams, Linnehan and Pawelczyk also took turns breathing into Pulmonary Function Test (PFT) equipment and wearing instrumented Respiratory Inductance Plethysmograph (RIP) suits so that data could be collected on their breathing patterns and blood concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Researchers are looking at whether altered breathing patterns in space affect astronaut sleep. The studies also may help scientists understand sleep disruption experienced by many people on Earth.

Reporter John Holliman and Jean-Michel Cousteau, the son of the late undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, spoke with Linnehan, a veterinarian and former Navy oceanographer, in an interview for the Cable News Network.

Columbia remains in a 154 x 137 n.m. elliptical orbit, circling the Earth once every 90 minutes.

The crew will go to sleep at 10:59 p.m. CDT this evening and receive a wake up call from Mission Control on Tuesday morning at 6:59 a.m.

The next STS-90 status report will be issued about 6 a.m. CDT Tuesday.


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