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When Spacelab roars aloft a few weeks from now, Professor Laurence R. Young's heart will be soaring, even while the veteran MIT space researcher-and rookie NASA payload specialist-remains earthbound.
In December of 1991 he was one of three selected by NASA to train as payload specialists for the Spacelab Life Sciences 2 flight. A payload specialist is the conduit between the researchers whose experiments make it on to Spacelab and the equipment that goes into space to gather data. One payload specialist would ultimately be selected to fly. The others would provide vital support for Spacelab's many experiments, but from the ground. Professor Young will be the chief ground communicator, in frequent voice contact with his colleague in space.
Among the experiments on the shuttle will be seven devoted to a space motion sickness, a field that Professor Young has been exploring for many years. He is excited at his new role in learning more about the tricks weightlessness plays on the body's balance-regulating vestibular system.
When NASA selected him, Professor Young took a leave from his MIT post (he is a faculty member in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and director of the Man-Vehicle Laboratory in the Center for Space Research) and threw himself into the rigorous training program in Houston. The others selected were Jay Buckey, a medical doctor and professor at the University of Texas' Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and Martin J. Fettman, a doctor of veterinary medicine and a professor at Colorado State University.
Professor Young, 56 when the training began, was 20 years older than Drs. Fettman and Buckey and the oldest person ever to begin training for space flight.
"To my relief," he informed MIT Tech Talk recently, "age has not been a detriment, and in may ways has given me a little perspective to deal with the emotional roller coaster of changes in assignments and threats of mission cancellation. The physical demands require fitness, but not super athletic ability, although the milieu in the astronaut corps is one of eternal youth and vigor, and the `right stuff' extends to all of us in some way or other.
"For a few of the tasks, like bailing out into Pensacola Bay for water survival training, riding the launch acceleration profile on the centrifuge, or rapelling down the side of the orbiter for emergency egress after landing, I felt like Indiana Jones on leave from MIT. Most of the time, fitness was more relevant to stamina and fatigue, as the sheer number of procedures to master filled each day and week."
Professor Young learned a number of new skills quite distant from his normal lab experience. Among these were dissection and catheter insertion echocardiography. "I was pleased that this old dog could learn new tricks," he said.
After a year of training, Professor Young's roommate, Dr. Fettman, was selected as the prime payload specialist, and the others continued training as backups.
"Of course, I was disappointed to be a backup, but the vet is the best of us at the difficult animal work, and good enough to handle the other experiments as well. I feel privileged to have been selected for the training, and pleased that I was able to carry my MIT skills to NASA and bring the operational reality of a real mission back to the lab and classroom.
"As for not flying, I feel a bit like a backup quarterback for a National Football League team, having worked hard to learn the plays and stay in shape, played in practice, and enjoyed the travel and the excitement of a momentous adventure. Like that backup, my part now will be to help assure success by using my experience and voice through a head set during the game."
Professor Young, an MIT alumnus, has been working in space research since 1958 when he joined the research staff working on inertial guidance systems at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, headed by space pioneer Charles Stark Draper. He also began exploring man-machine interaction at the Research Laboratory of Electronics.
In 1962 he joined the Aero/Astro faculty. He has been director of the Man-Vehicle Laboratory for more than 25 years. The lab does research on the vestibular, manual and visual systems and how those systems react in weightlessness.
A version of this article appeared in the October 6, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 9).