When the U.S. space shuttle Columbia blasts off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., for the 15th time, scheduled for Oct. 14, a Latter-day Saint will be at the controls.
Richard A. Searfoss of the League City Ward, Friendswood Texas Stake, has been assigned as shuttle pilot during the 14-day mission. A lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force and a NASA astronaut at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, he told the Church News during a recent telephone interview that this mission is "scheduled to be the longest ever in the history of the shuttle program.""Obviously," he explained, "I'm very excited about the chance to pilot the shuttle. I'm a goal-oriented person, and this has been a goal since I was 7 years old. Actually, it was more a dream than a goal prior to being selected as an astronaut [in 1990]." (He qualified for assignment as a pilot in 1991. See Feb. 8, 1992, Church News for profile on the LDS astronaut.)
Lt. Col. Searfoss will be among a crew of seven for the mission, called "Spacelab Life Sciences II." The other members of the crew include the commander of the mission, three mission specialists, a payload commander and a payload specialist. Lt. Col. Searfoss explained that mission specialists are astronauts who have backgrounds in various disciplines, such as engineering or biochemistry. Payload specialists are not full-time NASA astronauts, but they have backgrounds in relation to shuttle missions.
In fact, he related, the payload specialist on this mission is a veterinarian, but he also has a background in clinical nutrition and has done research in human cancer growth.
"I find it immensely rewarding working with the people, with the crew and with the team assigned to prepare us," he added.
The LDS astronaut explained that the focus of the mission is life science research, a branch of science that deals with living organisms and life processes. "When you take the influence of gravity from anything the body does physiologically, you're able to understand better how the basic process works," he said in relation to planned experiments. "Then the applications can go toward treating clinical problems on the earth."
The experiments on Spacelab Life Sciences II will be conducted in the space lab of the shuttle. The space lab, Lt. Col. Searfoss explained, takes up about two-thirds of the "payload bay," the cylinder-shaped portion of the shuttle, which is also known as the "orbiter." The mission and payload specialists will do research during 16-hour work days. The shuttle pilot will help with those experiments, but his main responsibility will be the shuttle.
"I have been amazed," he said concerning his work as an astronaut. "We've got a vibrant, productive space program. Our mission will be the 58th shuttle mission."
The first shuttle mission, also on the Columbia, blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., April 12, 1981. Two more shuttles, the Challenger and the Discovery, were later added to the NASA program. On Jan. 28, 1986, the Challenger tore apart minutes after blast off, killing all seven crew members. NASA did not launch another shuttle for more than two years as major modifications were made to the Columbia and the Discovery to ensure the safety of astronauts.
"The space program is the result of thousands of dedicated people who are doing a great job," Lt. Col. Searfoss added. "When I go down to Cape Canaveral, I'm amazed at the motivation and the level of quality of the workers. Their motivation inspires confidence in me to climb in that vehicle and fly it.
"I'm glad to be a part of this team. Fifty years from now we'll look back and see good things and reap benefits."
These benefits, mainly health-related, may result from hundreds of experiments that will be conducted on this mission. The shuttle pilot said that these studies are broken down into 14 categories - cardiovascular (heart and blood vessels), cardiopulmonary (heart and lungs), metabolic and hormonal, kidney function, body fluid balance, hematological (blood production), muscular, skeletal and balance.
One study, for example, will be the study of osteoporosis, which is the decrease of bone strength during the aging process. Lt. Col. Searfoss said that osteoporosis occurs from a decrease of calcium in the bone. This process, he explained, is "vastly" sped up in space, giving researchers a "prime opportunity" of studying osteoporosis. Since the calcium leaves bones through the blood system, blood samples will be taken from the astronauts to measure this transfer process.
Concerning the clinical applications of this study, he explained, "If we understand calcium transfer in the human metabolism, we can come up with counter measures, such as dietary alterations."
Another study will include an echocardiogram, an ultrasound of the heart. These experiments will focus on how the heart functions without gravity. Lt. Col. Searfoss said these studies may provide "one more way of understanding" the human cardiovascular system. He explained these studies can benefit those suffering from heart problems, such as high blood pressure.
"Our children and our grandchildren will reap these benefits."