York neuroscience experiment due for shuttle launch

Above: (from left) Jim Zacher, project scientist from York’s Centre for Vision Research, helps astronaut Steve MacLean while Barry Fowler, professor in York’s Faculty of Health, explains his hand-eye coordination experiment set to fly into space aboard the space shuttle Discovery this Thursday.

Barry Fowler’s sleight-of-hand experiment is finally going into space – after an eight-year delay caused by competing scientific priorities and the loss of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003.

Fowler’s small but crucial experiment, called PMDIS (Perceptual Motor Deficits in Space), aims to solve hand-eye coordination problems experienced by astronauts in space. The project is part of Fowler’s research in the School of Kinesiology & Health Science in York’s Faculty of Health. It will take place during the flight of NASA’s space shuttle Discovery, set to launch Thursday evening.

Barry Fowler

Left: Fowler explains how his experiment will help astronauts understand working in space better

York and the Canadian Space Agency held a media briefing Thursday in Bethune College, Keele campus, to demonstrate the project. Canadian astronaut and York alumnus Steve MacLean (BSc ‘77, PhD ‘83) was on hand to demonstrate portions of the experiment, which works like a simple computer game and uses a joystick to manipulate targets. When performed aboard the shuttle, the tests will provide researchers with answers as to why deficits in hand-eye coordination occur and how they can remedy this problem.

Although the countdown for the latest shuttle mission with his test equipment on board is set to begin tonight, Fowler says he’s keeping his fingers crossed. He’s been here before, as far back as 1998 and the launch of Columbia for mission STS-90 carrying a previous experiment called VCF (Visuo-motor Co-ordination Facility), which was delayed for a day before liftoff. That results of that mission led to the PDMIS project which was slated to launch in May 2003, until Columbia was lost earlier that year and put the entire space shuttle program on hold for years.

“There have been a lot of people associated with this project. A lot of my graduate students [who worked on it] have gone on to PhDs and are actually teaching, so there’ve been two or three generations of people – I’m the only original one left, along with a fellow from NASA,” Fowler said.

Although he’s waited a long time for this to happen, Fowler’s hopes for the experiment will disappoint some. His work is basically designed to show that this issue is not really a problem after all. To illustrate the point, he described how Russian cosmonauts have been observed bracing themselves when performing tasks demanding hand-eye control. The solution he says, could be as simple as literally tying the astronaut to his work.

Harvey Skinner“There are a lot of scientists in Germany who have sort of put their faith in the theory that there is a problem and I’m kind of saying, there’s not. It’s a simple question of how you control what they do.” The other possibility, says Fowler, is what’s called the stress effect – “that you just can’t pay attention to what you’re doing properly. Hopefully”, he says, “this will settle the issue so we can get on with deciding how to control this so no one gets into danger.”

Harvey Skinner (left), dean of York’s Faculty of Health, cited Fowler’s research as an example of the Faculty’s ability to tap into a wide range of disciplines. “PMDIS is a leading example of the innovative, interdisciplinary research that is taking place in our new Faculty of Health. It brings together the best of the worlds of kinesiology, vision research and space science,” Skinner said. He also noted that Fowler’s research could be significant for earth-bound seniors too.

Part of the reason the experiment was delayed is the competition among many scientists for a share of astronauts’ valuable time in space. The loss of Columbia. and the delay that caused to construction of the International Space Station, has pushed back many plans for other experiments.

“The time is valuable and it is a small experiment but an interesting problem,” said MacLean. “The human body adapts to this problem. Pilots don’t have a problem landing the shuttle, they do it perfectly every single time, but they do it under stress. To understand the process that the body goes through to do that or to understand why it’s caused in the first place, these are interesting problems.”

Which is why, after surviving a rigorous peer review process – first from the Canadian Space Agency and then from NASA’s international peer review group – the project was originally selected for MacLean’s scheduled flight in May 1993. It was MacLean, Fowler said at the time, who convinced his NASA colleagues to take part in the experiment.

This time, Mission specialist Sunita Williams, 41, will take the tests during her first 96 hours in space, before joining the International Space Station’s Expedition 14 crew for a six-month assignment as flight engineer. “When Suni returns after six months, her balance and muscle tone will be degraded and I will have to wait a month or so before testing her again,” said Fowler.

Discovery is scheduled to launch at 9:35pm Thursday, barring any delays – and there have been many over the years. MacLean’s scheduled Aug. 29 liftoff aboard Atlantis finally took place Sept. 9.

Ottawa-area school named after MacLean

The day after the York event, MacLean was honoured in Gloucester, Ont., just outside his home town of Ottawa, when he took part in the official opening of Steven MacLean Public School. Before cutting the ribbon Friday, MacLean made a presentation about his space mission to the 333 students of the school and toured each classroom.