WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Rick Vierling may have the oldest and most famous lab assistant in the world when the Space Shuttle Discovery blasts off from the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday (10/29).
If all goes as planned, 77-year-old John Glenn, current U.S. senator who in 1962 became the first American to orbit the earth, will perform an experiment designed by Vierling to assess the ability of pathogens to incorporate foreign DNA into soybeans in microgravity. The experiment is a modification of a technique that is successfully used on earth.
"How many people can say an American hero and U.S. senator is acting as their technician in space?" says Vierling. "John Glenn performing my experiment came as a complete shock to me. If I had written a scenario myself, it would not have been this good."
Vierling, an adjunct associate professor of agronomy at Purdue University and director of the Indiana Crop Improvement Association's genetics program since 1992, says the experiment should take 22 hours to complete and is scheduled to begin Oct. 30.
Vierling approached NASA's Commercialization Center in Madison, Wis., in February 1997, with an eye on a shuttle flight sometime in 2000.
"It was just an idea. I didn't even have any preliminary data when I pitched it to the Commercialization Center," Vierling says.
In January, NASA told Vierling his experiment had been bumped up and was now listed on the manifest for STS-95, Glenn's historic return to space.
That gave Vierling less than six months to get his experiment approved and in a format that would allow the payload specialist (Glenn) adequate time for training.
"I had to do two years worth of research in six months to meet the earlier deadline," says Vierling, who was amazed to find his experiment was moved up in such a short period of time.
"I didn't know the federal government could move that fast," Vierling says. "It really put me under the gun. I had planned on about 18 to 20 months to get the background information so we could correctly design the experiment." Weightlessness poses unique parameters and problems that had to be overcome. The final experimental design is vastly different from what he had originally envisioned.
The abbreviated preparation time has exacted a personal toll on Vierling, who got help from Steve Goldman, a professor of biology at the University of Toledo. Goldman is a key patent holder of related technology.
"I've had to spend more than a few nights and weekends to get this project ready to go," Vierling says. "Steve gave me a lot of help. I don't think I could have done all of the preliminary work in my lab alone."
Vierling says he hopes the experiment will lay the groundwork for additional experiments on future shuttle flights and perhaps even the space station: "If this shows some positive results, I would hope that I could have an experiment a year on board the shuttle."
Vierling says 1,000 soybean seeds, of a variety named after retired Purdue plant pathologist Kirk Athow, will occupy a mid-deck locker about the size of a large safe deposit box (18x12x7 inches).
Given the short amount of preparation and the lack of available background information, Vierling says he is cautiously optimistic about the success of the experiment.
"Something like this has never been performed in microgravity. There isn't a wealth of background information for us to go to and say this may happen, or this might not happen. Things may not go as we expect, so we can't get too excited yet," he says.
The seeds will be returned to Purdue and cultivated in greenhouses. The progeny of those seeds will be analyzed as part of Vierling's experiment next spring.
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