HERE'S HOPING the sunflower seeds return from outer space with reassurance that things are copacetic.
Eighty-five sunflower seeds took off aboard the Columbia with Lousma and Fullerton this week, joining the list of brave subjects to endure dizzying tests, all to help us get our bearings. In this case, scientists are curious whether it's gravity or some inborn know-how that makes the plants grow in a spiral umbrella-like pattern. The shuttle may tell. With luck, the seedlings will get oriented, spiral into space and live to be probed for stress.
It's all a matter of making do. In 1966, Gemini XII packed along frog eggs to see whether they would divide normally after being fertilized in zero-gravity. The result: they did fine. Killifish aboard Apollo-Soyuz swam in normal circles, unfazed by weightlessness. Nobody asked whether they were upset. They adapted.
On the other hand, Skylab's findings look bad for jet lag. Teams of pocket mice and fruit flies went along, subjected to the day-to- night rhythm changes which occur every 45 minutes in orbit, lacking a nightshade. The mice and flies died.
Likewise two spiders gave their lives that the space program might live. Dehydration was blamed as "the only visible evidence of cause of their demise." Not counting high anxiety.
Their names were Arabella and Anita. A high school student proposed their cobweb experiment to study effects of space on the central nervous system. NASA bought the idea and the common Cross spiders signed on Skylab's 1971 mission.
At home, they were accustomed to spinning a daily web during pre-dawn hours with orderly and symmetrical bridge, frame and radials. Their performance in flight was another story. Anita and Arabella had to be coaxed from their containers, holding out until the crew enticed them with filet mignon. Eventually they emerged, got to spinning and came up with cockeyed webs. Angles off, connections in the wrong places, chaos. Spaced out. Then they got rolling and fine-tuned their work.
In the end, the spiders died before re-entry, not a happy upshot except as science is concerned. The makeup of the webs proved an important point: they were of finer threads than those spun on earth in customary gravity. This legacy verified for NASA that spiders use a weight-sensing mechanism to size the thread. A gravity sensor is standard equipment in their nervous system.
Which tells us something about coping. NASA will take forever to jump to a conclusion, but the news from space seems hopeful. Up and down mean nothing when nature says so and yet, if the shock of weightlessness is comparable to daily trauma, we can roll with the punches. As long as we're not asked to break our circadian sleep-and-wake cycles, our ability to contend with change may be better than we think. Inflation, pollution, new brands of toothpaste -- even matters of gravity -- are nothing to which we can't adapt after a good night's sleep.