The Shuttle program rolls to a close – now what?: one scientist remembers his winding path and thinks about the future

Tenth in a series

by Michael Pecaut

For most people, there seems to be a period in life when they have to decide what they really want to do. Become a doctor or lawyer, poet or teacher, soldier or fireman. For me, there was never any doubt. I wanted to be an astronaut. Sure, I had other interests. Coming from Hawaii, I thought about becoming a marine biologist. After seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark, I wanted to be an archeologist. Who didn’t? But all of those ideas were secondary to exploring space. Setting foot on the Moon or Mars. Floating in microgravity. Those dreams were constant.

My first real interaction with anyone involved in the Space Shuttle program occurred at Wahiawa Elementary School. I don’t remember what grade, or which astronaut spoke, or even what he said. I’ve never been one to remember details like that. But one image from that meeting stuck with me. The astronaut held one of the tiles that line the bottom of the space shuttle in one hand and a blow torch in the other. Then he held the flame against the tile until it turned bright red while still holding the tile. To me, that was magic.

The next real memory I have is the same one everyone has: The Challenger Disaster. When Challenger exploded, I didn’t really believe it at first. I heard about it while in class in high school and thought it was some kind of bad joke. It was only after I got home and watched it on the news that I started to believe it was real. That probably explains why I don’t remember much else about the event. It didn’t fit into my view of reality. In my world, the Shuttle simply doesn’t blow up.

Several years later, when it came time for choosing a university, I only really had a couple of priorities, and both of them involved improving my chances at becoming an astronaut. 1) It had to be a top-notch aerospace engineering school. 2) There had to be a military component, either ROTC or an Academy, because about half of the astronauts at the time were in the military.

That pretty much narrowed it down to a handful of schools and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs was at the top of my list. I actually got pretty far in the selection process, despite moving from Kansas to Hawaii just before my senior year. I believe I was a fifth or sixth alternate. Meaning five or six people had to decide not to go and I’d be in. Apparently, no one decided not to go. I didn’t get a single ROTC scholarship either.

I’ve often wondered what I’d be like if I’d gone the military route. I’d certainly be different from who I am now. But despite my extreme disappointment, the gods seemed to know what they were doing because next on my list was the University of Colorado at Boulder. And that’s where I ended up going.

Within a few weeks of showing up I met Dr. Marvin Luttges. And suddenly, as the cliché goes, nothing was ever the same again.

Marv was absolutely nothing like any of the other professors in the department. First off, his background was psychology, not engineering. Second, he didn’t put up with any crap. Trying to BS him was just about impossible. Because, third, there wasn’t a topic under the sun, moon, or stars that he didn’t know something about. He studied dragonflies and neural networks and fluid mechanics. He studied closed ecological life support systems. He literally cured one of his horses of cancer by distilling alkaloids from periwinkles. And in his spare time, he liked to do cross-country horseback riding. He was simply bigger than life. John Wayne’s build and presence, Garrison Keillor’s voice, Hephaestus’s mind and soul.

Five minutes after walking into his office for the first time, I was hooked. He already had NASA funding and was already well on his way toward spaceflight related research. I wanted to work in this man’s lab. But there was a catch. He told me I needed to go out and take a few biology classes. His lab specialized in biological questions. Specifically, neurophysiology, osteopenia and biomechanics. So, even though I was going to be an engineer, I needed to know biology. It didn’t matter that none of the classes would count toward my degree. CU didn’t have a bioengineering department at the time. And if I wanted to be involved, that’s what it took. Period. Disheartened, I left. But I took the classes. The Shuttle was the prize and I didn’t have a choice.

I won’t lie. It wasn’t easy. Believe it or not, I’m a terrible student. Book-learnin’ doesn’t come easy for me. I have no memory. I think too much, often running off on tangent after tangent. Classrooms simply put me to sleep and it doesn’t really matter what or how exciting the topic is. I hated it. I even flunked out of school for a year. But I kept coming back.

Marv’s lab was BioServe Space Technologies, a small center within CU’s Aero department. They were one of 12 centers mandated by NASA to facilitate the commercialization of space. In other words, they were funded to help companies like Amgen, Chiron, Bristol-Meyers-Squibb and many others use the spaceflight environment to test and develop their products. For instance, Amgen has flown several payloads looking at pharmaceuticals to counter bone and muscle loss (including one on the Shuttle that just landed). Their first flight was in 1991 and they’ve been involved in over 30 space shuttle flights since, including missions to MIR, Soyuz, Progress and the International Space Station. And what’s even more amazing, they often had multiple payloads on Shuttle missions (to date, over 50 separate payloads).

Eventually, after what seemed like forever, I made it. Marv let me in. And once I got into a lab, things got…not easier, but more worthwhile. I mean, playing with real hardware and analyzing real data…that’s Nirvana for me.

In the beginning, I was still doing basic grunt work any other undergrad would do in any other lab: washing glassware, loading chemicals, and lubricating thousands of test tube stoppers. I’m pretty sure it’s part of the official hazing ritual required by law when a university becomes accredited. I didn’t care. I spent hours upon hours in the lab. I may have started late (I did and still do hate mornings) but I was there into the wee hours of the morning just about every day, including weekends.

Over the years, I’ve tested and loaded literally thousands of FPAs (Fluid Processing Apparatus). So many, we had to invent GAPs (Group Activation Packs) and eventually autoGAPs. All of which fit into CGBAs (Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus). Even the Russians got involved. (Note: If it doesn’t have an acronym, it ain’t real space science. NASA loves acronyms. Nested acronyms are even better)

At first, I was only trusted with ground control experiments. On the engineering side, I learned a little about AutoCAD. I learned how to anodize, analyze and digitize. But I was also beginning to learn that I wasn’t nearly as good at engineering as I was at biology. I mean, I thought like an engineer, but the questions I thought about tended to be related to biology. So, I learned how to grow plant and bacterial tissue cultures in FPAs. I learned the pros and cons of growing things in clinostats. I ran several tests looking at various soil types PGBA (Plant Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus).

Once I proved I wasn’t going to destroy things, Marv gave me the opportunity to help with actual shuttle missions. I wasn’t a PI yet, and at first it was really just more of the same; loading hundreds of FPAs. But I was handling stuff that was going into space! How freakin’ cool is that? Before long, I was too busy to keep it all sorted. It was a whirlwind of flights…STS-54, 57, 60, 62, 63, not necessarily in that order. This was a time when there were five, six or seven shuttle flights a year. And the paperwork…you wouldn’t believe how much paperwork is involved. I was exhausted. At times, I was stressed outta my mind. But I was loving it.

There were setbacks, of course. Sometimes reality smacks you upside the head for no apparent reason. For instance, during this period, my eyes had gotten progressively worse. Eventually, even though I was fit enough to be on CU’s track and cross-country teams (even competing in the 800m at the Big 8 Championships), I no longer met the physical requirements for becoming an astronaut. Not even a mission specialist. Lasik wasn’t really around yet and some procedures actually eliminated you from consideration where the space program was concerned. It hurt. Bad. But at least I was still involved. Part of me was still going to get up there even if I, the person, couldn’t.

Eventually, I started going to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for ground support. I got to work at Hangar L where most of the biological payloads were processed and prepped for flight. I got to load samples (and sometimes reload and reload again, depending on how many scrubs/delays there were) and activate the all important ground controls. For some missions, I actually manned a console that was hooked directly into the communication network between KSC, JSC (Johnson Spaceflight Center), and the Shuttle, trying to follow three or four conversations at once, both praying for and fearing an astronaut question directed toward one of our payloads.

Somewhere in the middle of it all, I moved away from pure support to actually designing experiments. My early focus was on plant growth for CELSS (Controlled Ecological Life Support System) applications and my first publication involved growing alfalfa seedlings. We looked to see if the lack of a gravity vector would change the parts that gave plants their structural integrity on earth (specifically, we looked at lignification). Bottom line: yes it does.

Based on this work we started making changes to the basic FPA design; making them longer, adding gas exchange capability, scrubbing ethylene. We added lighting by placing LEDs and other types of lighting into the GAPs or CGBA. Anything to keep the plants alive longer in little test tubes. Some of this crossed over to work involving bacteria and mammalian cell cultures.

And then, suddenly, Marv died.

I was absolutely devastated. I was just about finished with my BS and had not yet been admitted to grad school. I wasn’t sure what to do. I knew my grades wouldn’t get me in without a lot of help. So I ignored everything and just kept working, hoping things would work out. And if they didn’t, I wanted to live the dream as long as I could. STS-69 went by. STS-73 seemed to go on forever, tying the record for the most number of scrubs: Six. And by the time it was done, I was just praying the damned thing would get off the ground. I was tired, stressed, worried and uncertain.

Somehow, despite all this, I got into grad school. I am convinced that the only reason this happened was because Marv wanted it that way. He saw something in me. The dedication to the science, the willingness to do whatever it took to get an experiment to work, the drive to keep going despite the odds, the absolute fascination with spaceflight…whatever it was, he saw it and he did what he could while he was alive to make it happen. So, I got in.

Over the next few years, I started moving away from plant experiments toward mammalian systems. Over three separate immune related projects sponsored by Chiron (Immune-1, Immune-2, and Immune-3), spread out over three flights (STS-60, 63, and 77), I went from only being peripherally involved as part of ground support, to actually handling and analyzing tissues collected from rats that had been in orbit. I can’t really explain why, but I suspect it had something to do with Marv’s death and the need to do something new. Or, perhaps, the drive to learn more about his work.

Once I got into grad school, I had to find a new mentor. This was a struggle at first. What I wanted to do really didn’t match up well with anyone within the Aero department. After turning it over in my head for a while, I seemed to find inspiration in Marv’s early work. I say “seemed” because I didn’t realize it at the time. I was just following my questions until, ultimately, I began traveling down the same road Marv traveled, only I was doing it backwards.

After taking some of those biology classes Marv suggested (I believe this particular class had to do with neurophysiology), I met Dr. Monika Fleshner over in the psychology department. She was a newly promoted assistant professor specializing in immune-brain communication and was a rising star in the psychoneuroimmunology community (in fact, she is the current president of the PNIRS). Once again, the gods must have known what they were doing.

Why is this relevant? Well, it turns out astronauts on long-term exploratory voyages will be exposed to at least four potentially synergistic health risks: psychological and environmental stress inherent to long duration space missions, altered inertial forces (i.e. launch/landing loads, microgravity), exposure to potentially dangerous levels of microbial contamination, and long-term exposure to low-dose/low-dose-rate radiation.

Moni may not have had quite the same enthusiasm I had (and still do) for spaceflight, but she certainly understood how her work and the spaceflight environment were such a good fit. My second publication and PhD dissertation described our work together and involved changes in lymphocyte populations after flight as well as simulated launch and landing loads.

By the time I was done at BioServe, I had participated in eight shuttle missions, including two that involved placing payloads on MIR. I’d also been on the KC-135 “vomit comet” six times. But after more than a decade in Boulder, getting a BS, MS, and PhD all in the same place, it was time for me to move on. With a little luck and a lot of help from my dissertation committee (specifically, Paul Todd, now the Chief Scientist at TechSHOT). I ended up at Loma Linda University with Dr. Daila Gridley and Dr. Gregory Nelson, focusing on the proton radiation component of the spaceflight environment.

I thought this was the end of my Space Shuttle story.

Early on, I continued working with spaceflight related topics. I was able to participate in several studies characterizing the effects of high energy particles like iron, carbon, and silicon on the immune system and behavior up at the NSRL (NASA Space Radiation Laboratory <– nested acronym!) at Brookhaven National Laboratory. I also ran a few experiments involving hypergravity using the 24 ft. centrifuge up at NASA’s Ames Research Center. But while all of this was and is definitely cool, it wasn’t quite the same thing as actually being on the Shuttle. I missed it.

During this period, two things happened that changed the game irrevocably: The attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 and the Columbia (STS-107) accident in 2003. Funding for NASA was already taking major hits before these happened. But after those two events, the Shuttle program was pretty much done. Congress had different priorities and faith in NASA was hit hard. And even though the total budget for NASA is microscopic compared to the total Defense budget or Medicare or Social Security, it was an easy, visible target.

Funding for experiments involving spaceflight diminished significantly. Anything related to spaceflight biology dropped to almost nothing as NASA refocused what was left on finishing ISS and building a new launch vehicle. Then even funding for the new launch vehicle was cut. With the lack of funding came the exodus of expertise. Membership in spaceflight related research societies such as ASGSB (American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology) dwindled as investigators were forced to move on to other funding sources such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or National Science Foundation (NSF).

That’s not to say all science stopped. One of the areas NASA felt was still worth funding was radiobiology. This was considered a show-stopper for long term missions beyond the protective terrestrial environment of Earth. One hit from an unpredictable solar flare and astronauts could get a significant and potentially dangerous dose of radiation. And one of the two centers NASA highlighted for this area of research was Loma Linda University.

So when the Shuttle program finally started up again, our lab was in a perfect position to team up with BioServe in yet another shuttle experiment. By this time, BioServe had a new director, Dr. Louis Stodieck, one of Marv’s protégés and yet another member of my dissertation committee. And based on our previous work with STS-77, he thought we’d be a good candidate to help with the immune assessment.

This time, the experiment was sponsored by Amgen and was called CBTM (Commercial Biomedical Testing Module). Even more significantly, it was a payload on STS-108, the first flight after 9/11. Security was tight all over the base. M-60s behind sandbag barricades and security guards with M-16s at the gates, Blackhawk helicopters in the air. We even got stopped by Security while looking for seashells on the beach when we got too close to the Cape Canaveral boundary. But it was worth it. We were there. And I was in my element.

Although we were only a small part of the study, we got two publications out of that flight, highlighted in the Journal of Applied Physiology. A few years later, we were invited back for CBTM-2 on STS-118 and to date, we have five publications already out with at least two more on the way. And now, finally, we were back again for CBTM-3 on STS-135, the final Space Shuttle mission.

I spent the past several days sitting in Cape Canaveral, Florida, like I did many times before, waiting for the Shuttle to come back. Only this time it’s definitely the end. Given how intertwined the Shuttle program has been with my dreams and career, my feelings about this are decidedly mixed. I’m thrilled to be here, but saddened that it’s for the last time. I’ve seen what NASA and the Shuttle program can do, but I’ve also seen how it’s grown increasingly difficult to actually get anything done. I know it’s a time for change, but I’m not so sure what, exactly, that means.

I do have hope. Even though the Shuttle program is over, commercial companies are starting to move in and pick up the pieces. Companies like SpaceX are well on their way to developing a whole series of manned and unmanned launch vehicles. The International Space Station is moving toward being treated as a national laboratory on the model of the NIH. There’s also been an explosion in TV shows and cable channels and movies that seem to popularize science in general, with a heavy emphasis on the exploration in space. Even space tourism seems to be increasingly likely. I see all of these as good things that definitely would not have happened without the Shuttle program.

I feel honored that I’ve been able to play a small role in the life of the Space Shuttle Program. I’ll miss it when it’s gone. But I can’t wait to see what’s next.

A long-time friend of Scholars & Rogues, Dr. Michael Pecaut is an Associate Research Professor specializing in space-based immunology in the Department of Radiation Medicine at Loma Linda University. Over the past 15 years he has designed and assisted in the development and execution of experiments across 11 separate space shuttle missions. His work has included the characterization of plant, bacterial and rodent model systems across a wide variety of space-related environments including microgravity (Space Shuttle and MIR), hypergravity (Ames 24 ft diameter centrifuge), parabolic fight (KC-135), and radiation (LLU Proton Treatment Center & Brookhaven’s NASA Space Radiation Laboratory). He is currently at the Kennedy Space Center awaiting the return of CBTM-3, the final mouse experiment aboard the final Shuttle mission. You can learn more about the work of Dr. Pecaut and his team at the Pecaut Lab Web site. Also, readers are invited to check out the Mice in Space Facebook.

5 replies »

  1. Damn. A helluva story, Dr. Pecaut. As a fellow UCB alum, I’m glad I had to chance to read it.

  2. Thanks. And thank Sam and Brian. They’re the one’s that talked me into it. 🙂 We just completed our initial processing of tissue from CBTM-3 a couple of hours ago. Now, I need to go to sleep. Only got about 3 hours last night before we headed back into the lab to see the landing. I missed most of it because it was still dark. I just saw the tail once Atlantis landied. But I have to say the twin sonic booms scared the crap out of me. LIke a couple of shotgun blasts.

  3. Hi Michael,
    I enjoyed reading about your thoughts about your journey in the shuttle program. I was very interested in the influence my twin had in your decision to study biology. I am always surprised to read about his name coming up after so many years after his passing…it will be 20 years in ’14.
    It is funny that you are studying rats because I remembered that he did research with rats and snakes when he first began his studies. Matter of fact, the professor with whom Marv studied at U.of Oregon is or was still teaching at U of Calif. at Irvine as of a year ago. Dr. James Mcgaugh…he was the prof. who made a huge difference in Marv’s life.
    Anyway, thanks for mentioning Marv in your article. I know how much each of his students meant to him. I know that he demanded a lot from each; however, each of you have carried a bit of him forward through the work you have and still are doing. Keep up the interest in mankind. We need people who are concerned for the well being of the human and animal life on this planet!!! Sincerely, Marva