Studying these cells could lead to new treatments for diseases ranging from gastrointestinal disease to diabetes.
Professor Laurence Young, the Apollo Program Professor of Astronautics, described himself as "one of the first real space cadets" in his talk to a small group of students who gathered last week to mark "Yuri's Night," the 40th anniversary of the first human space flight by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
Professor Young remembers the exact day he got turned on by the idea of space travel. "It was October 1957, Eisenhower was president, I had just graduated from MIT and I was on an ocean liner heading to France on a Fulbright scholarship with the other scholarship winners," he said.
When the news of the Soviet Union's launch of an Earth satellite came through over the ship's teletype machines, he "couldn't wait to talk to people on the ship about it. And they all said, 'Oh. If you say so. Now let's have a drink.' And I couldn't figure out if I was crazy [for being so excited] or if they were crazy for not caring," he said. "Well, they were crazy.
"From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be in the space program," he said. So he changed his field of study in France from physics to mathematics and worked at Draper Laboratory after his return to the United States. He has since cofounded the MIT Man-Vehicle Laboratory and is director of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, whose mission is to develop countermeasures to biomedical problems of humans in space.
"I had the sense of being part of an enormous adventure. And going to Mars is the same now for you as going to the moon was before," he said.
Students in the MIT chapter of the Mars Society, which advocates the colonization of Mars, held a series of afternoon talks on April 12 in the Student Center as its contribution to the worldwide anniversary celebration of Gagarin's 1961 flight.
Among the other speakers were Matthew Spitkovsky, a researcher who worked on the communications aspect of the Apollo-Soyuz space program who is now a space specialist at the Museum of Science in Boston; and Jonathan McDowell, editor of the Internet newsletter "Jonathan's Space Report," columnist for Sky and Telescope magazine and astrophysicist with the Chandra X-ray Observatory at Harvard University.
In his talk, Professor Young described some of the physical problems humans face when traveling in space, and the problems scientists predicted in the mid-'50s, prior to Sputnik. Scientists thought astronauts would be unable to swallow in space and so would suffer from malnourishment, their heart rates would increase, they'd have respiratory problems and severe difficulty breathing. "Many of these did occur. Fortunately, most occurred to the ground crew," he said.
Professor Young trained from 1991-93 to be a payload specialist on the space shuttle Columbia, entering the astronaut training program at age 56 and learning how to tend to the biology experiments that would be on board the spacelab. He served as alternate payload specialist during the October 1993 mission.
"The physical demands for anybody who is in shape are not difficult," he said of the training. "The hardest part of it is just like the hardest part at MIT -- staying awake during dull lectures. And we have better teachers in Cambridge than we did in Houston."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 25, 2001.