The crew that flew the space shuttle Challenger recently with two monkeys and two dozen white rats aboard yesterday left little doubt that flight surgeons must redesign the cages of the animals before they orbit with humans again.
"NASA has a problem that NASA has to solve if we're going to fly those cages again," Marine Col. Robert F. Overmyer, commander of the 17th shuttle flight, told reporters at Johnson Space Center in Houston. "I never dreamed that all that stuff would come out of those cages and escape into our atmosphere."
"All that stuff" was dried food particles mixed with dust and feces that came out of the glass cages any time a member of the seven-man crew tried to change food or waste trays on the cage floors.
The material fouled the air not only inside the 20-foot Spacelab in the cargo bay but also on the flight deck, where the astronauts slept and ate.
"Any time you get feces in the cabin, it's bad," Overmyer said. "We didn't have floods of it, like somebody threw a shovel of it at us, but we had clouds of dust mixed in with food and feces that was getting into our eyes, our noses, our mouths and our ears. Believe me, that's no fun if you happen to be eating at the same time."
Astronaut-physician William E. Thornton, designated animal handler aboard Challenger, said the $10 million facility put aboard Spacelab for the animals could not handle their waste.
"The pressure inside the cages and the airflow outside them allowed that stuff to get through cracks in the cages and go off in all directions. Obviously, it's something you don't want in the cabin, but we were unable to prevent it from getting into the cabin," he said.
The space agency plans a follow-up mission next year that would involve as many as four squirrel monkeys and four dozen rats to see how they bear the rigors of weightlessness.
Overmyer said the experience with the animals aboard Challenger "never took away the luster" of space flight, a sentiment echoed by pilot Frederick D. Gregory, an Air Force colonel and Washington native who became the first black astronaut to handle the shuttle's controls in flight.
"Nothing prepared me for the sensation of those main engines starting and those solids [rocket motors] lighting at liftoff," Gregory said. "That son of a gun really rattles when it takes off. It certainly doesn't take you very long to get anywhere when you're on top of those engines."