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Shuttle astronauts to perform surgery

Surgeons cut into anesthetized patients countless times a day, and most of them survive. Now surgery goes to new heights: space.

Astronauts have cut into animals before in space, but after the animals had died or as they were being killed. What makes today's operations on seven rats a first in space is that the rodents are supposed to live after the surgery.

The reason? NASA wants to know what to expect if astronauts go to Mars and they get sick or wounded and need surgery.

"I'm sure there's an astronaut that's going to cut his finger at some time. . . . Is there something different about (healing wounds in) microgravity?" asked chief experimenter Danny Riley, a professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Columbia scientist Jay Buckey will anesthetize the rats and inject half a drop of pink fluorescent chemical markers into the nerves underneath a leg muscle. This is crucial to Riley's study of how nerves develop in space.

Although today's surgery is being performed for research into the way rat nerve cells grow and communicate, it is the procedure that is breaking ground and raising questions.

Can anesthesia work when gravity doesn't help pump the blood stream? Can a patient recover in microgravity? Do wounds heal in space?

"We're about 90 percent certain that they will live," NASA chief veterinarian Joe Bielitzki said before the flight.

If all goes well, Buckey will inject the chemical marker into the animals and at least six of the seven will survive, Riley said. After Columbia lands, Riley will dissect the rats to see how the chemical marker moved through the rats' nervous and muscular systems.

NASA is having trouble keeping some rats alive.

So far, 50 of Columbia's 90 infant rats have died unexpectedly. There are barely enough rats for scheduled brain research, including today's surgeries.

Meanwhile, two shuttle crew members participated in the first of several experiments in which a hairlike electronic needle is inserted into their knees. Likened to acupuncture, the test measures blood pressure control and blood flow in weightlessness. It could help scientists learn more about a blood pressure disorder.

About a half-million Americans suffer from orthostatic intolerance, in which they faint or feel lightheaded after standing up. Many astronauts experience those problems when they first return from space.

Once the needle's in, scientists record the nerve signals traveling from the brain to the blood vessels during various activities.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.