ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Going up into space can be a lot of fun. Just ask our science correspondent Robert Krulwich. Not that he's been there himself, but he knows a guy that has gone up along with some friends.
ROBERT KRULWICH reporting:
This is the story of a man, a rat and a mosquito who took a trip together.
(Soundbite of countdown)
KRULWICH: Two hundred forty-five miles up into space.
(Soundbite of space shuttle launch)
KRULWICH: The man, U.S. astronaut Dan Barry, made this trip three times. And the first time, on the space shuttle in 1996, as soon as he got into orbit, got weightless -
Mr. DAN BARRY (U.S. Astronaut): You unbuckle. And you go, woo-hoo, I'm here, and you push off a wall. And, of course, you go flying, you know, at a ridiculous speed across the space.
KRULWICH: And his wife, who was watching him on a monitor down on Earth, said he was so ready to be there.
Mrs. SUSAN BARRY (Dan Barry's Wife): I remember him going, I'm in space. We're in space. You know, there was no sense of nausea, no sense of disorientation. He was like a kid in a candy shop.
KRULWICH: But he did make some mistakes.
Mr. BARRY: Right. You start banging your head into stuff and that sort of thing. Everybody after the first day has all these nicks and cuts and bruises. But after the second day, you're good at it, and after about four days, you're great at it.
KRULWICH: Why do you use the word fly as opposed to coast or drift or -
Mr. BARRY: Because it feels like flying. It feels like Superman.
KRULWICH: And learning to fly, says Dan, was like learning how to ride a bike. You fuss and you fumble and then suddenly -
Mr. BARRY: Bing. The magic wand touches you and you can fly.
KRULWICH: And once he got the hang of it, whoa.
Mr. BARRY: I'm going to do three somersaults before I hit that wall. I'm going to land on my feet. I'm going to push off, do three more somersaults, land on my hands. I mean, you're like a gymnast after just a couple of days.
KRULWICH: But it wasn't just Dan doing flips. There were other critters onboard. For example, on his first trip, Dan noticed, a bunch of mosquitoes trying to cope with the weightlessness. They were beating their wings, but they were going around and around in circles. They weren't invited, but they were there.
Mr. BARRY: Yeah. We launch out of Florida. We bring mosquitoes on almost every flight.
KRULWICH: I didn't know that.
Mr. BARRY: Absolutely. They buzz around. It's actually really nice to see the mosquitoes having such a hard time. One of the joys of the initial part of space flight is taking out the mosquitoes who are clueless.
KRULWICH: Okay. But there was also a rat on the flight who was supposed to be there. This was a mother rat with a litter of babies in her nest. And when everybody began to float, the babies started to float, except they were floating right out of the nest. So the mother, she had to cope.
Mr. BARRY: The first day she was, you know, kind of flailing around and by day three, she looked pretty good. She had it all figured out and she would, you know, take them by the back of their neck and throw them back in their nest. And then she would sit in the exit to prevent them from getting into the rest of the cage.
So it looked like she was using the same strategies we would.
KRULWICH: Well, not like you really would cause you don't have children floating around in space.
Mr. BARRY: I disagree. Those situations are environmentally specific. If they had put me with my children in a cage like the rat, I think I would've behaved pretty similarly, which was - well I wouldn't have bit the back of their net to hold them down but.
KRULWICH: The point is with no preparation. Cause how could you prepare? There's always gravity on Earth and yet somehow, very different Earth creatures learned within days to thrive with no gravity.
Mrs. BARRY: Which is an extraordinary example of plasticity in the brain, changeability in the brain.
KRULWICH: Susan Barry is married to Dan. She is a neuroscientist and she says what her husband and the rat learned to do, is they learned to ignore messages coming into their brains.
Mrs. BARRY: And that's because when you're up in space, you have to start ignoring the information from your inner ear, from your vestibular system.
KRULWICH: That's the system that gives you a sense of balance, but it's a gravity-based system. It depends on gravity.
Mrs. BARRY: And up in space the information coming from the vestibular system is not accurate and your brain learns to ignore it and focus much more on visual information.
KRULWICH: So to succeed in space, you learn there are some Earth things you don't do anymore. There's some new space things that you can do and step-by-step you build a new repertoire. You build, in effect, your own space-adapted brain.
Mr. BARRY: You can feel your brain changing. You can feel the adaptation occurring.
KRULWICH: And Dan and the mother rat, they adapted. As, by the way, did a number of spiders who went up into space years earlier without Dan. They were web makers.
Mr. BARRY: You know, the spiders are really interesting, because at the beginning, the spider's web are just, you know, catawampus. It's terrible. It's an embarrassment to be a spider and make that web. But by day, I don't know, whatever, five, they were making beautiful webs. So how does a spider figure out how to make a web in space, you know, in just a few days. You know, obviously, that's a learning process for the spider. So I don't think we can even talking about it just being something for vertebrates.
KRULWICH: Okay. But we can talk about what happens when astronauts and spiders and rats return to Earth, cause here's the surprise.
Mr. BARRY: I, you know, I thought, you know, it's going to be hard to adapt to space and it's going to be easy to come back to Earth and it was the exact opposite.
KRULWICH: To begin, the very first time that Dan got back, when he just got off the shuttle, he was still in his spacesuit.
Mr. BARRY: I was talking to my friend and another guy, a technician, came up to hand me my package of clothes to change into - I was still in my suit. And I said, thank you very much and I turned back to talk to my friend and left the clothes to float in the air. And boom, you know, of course, they hit the ground. I was like, oh yeah, gravity's back. So you don't do that when you're paying attention. You do it when you're not paying attention.
KRULWICH: Is that a disappointing feeling, by the way?
Mr. BARRY: It is, it is. Gravity's a drag. There's no doubt about it.
KRULWICH: But you got to remember that it's still there.
Mr. BARRY: And that's why they say, the spouses, when they very first come home, don't hand them the baby.
KRULWICH: So for Dan and the other astronauts, it took a little time to adjust.
Mrs. BARRY: Because he was ignoring his vestibular system and that information he was, he had learned to ignore while up in space.
KRULWICH: He continued to ignore when he got back to Earth, which caused him problems, all kinds. Like the first night he got home, for example, the whole Barry family, happy and exhausted, fell into bed together. And Andy, the 8-year-old, snuggled in real close to his dad until the middle of the night when Barry and awoke and he's like, hmm, my son's kind of close.
Mr. BARRY: He was sort of on the middle of the bed and I wanted him on the side. I don't remember exactly why.
Mrs. BARRY: And so he just wanted to push him over a little bit.
KRULWICH: So Dan gently poked his son, just with a tip of his finger.
Mrs. BARRY: And he was at first, like, why doesn't he just float away?
KRULWICH: So he reached over and put his thumb and his index finger together and just tried to pick his son up.
Mr. BARRY: And I'm tugging on his pajamas and he's finally like, what are you doing, Dad? I'm like, I'm moving you over. Oh, okay, never mind, I'm back on Earth.
Mrs. BARRY: And, of course, within three days he was back to normal. And what I found even just as remarkable is after his third flight, he had none of these problems. He had learned. It was like his brain had two different ways of functioning. He could function in space, ignoring his vestibular system and turn on that way of functioning instantly. And when he came back, probably within minutes, he was back on Earth.
KRULWICH: And he could behave just like an ordinary earthling. And when you think that he was in space just three times for maybe 9-10 days on average with two-year pauses in between, still when he was up in space, boom, he could fly.
Mr. BARRY: Somehow your body figures it out and remembers it years later.
KRULWICH: And when he came back to Earth, instantly and without thinking about it, he could click into Earth mode.
Mr. BARRY: And then, you know, how you learn this process of coming back to Earth and quickly readapting, I think that's so interesting.
KRULWICH: It's kind of like Dan developed two brains - one that works fine on Earth and the other one that works fine in space.
Mrs. BARRY: Yeah, yeah. He's got two ways of being.
(Soundbite of space transmission)
KRULWICH: Which suggests that just maybe Dan and his fellow astronauts - that's who you're listening to - and the spiders and the rats and maybe even the mosquitoes, we may have an enormous flexibility, more than we ever knew.
(Soundbite of space transmission)
ASTRONAUT: Just kind of does a flip here in the air.
KRULWICH: To live off our planet.
(Soundbite of space transmission)
ASTRONAUT: One rotation.
KRULWICH: And while we're out there, even have a little fun.
(Soundbite of space transmission)
ASTRONAUT: Maybe a twirl just for style.
KRULWICH: Robert Krulwich, NPR News in New York.
SIEGEL: Astronauts aren't really floating in space or flying, they're falling. You can learn about the physics involved at our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Being in space is cool -- ask any astronaut -- but it takes time to adjust. Learning to fly is not easy. Astronauts bump and bang into everything. But by day four, the cuts have healed and they're doing somersaults.
Dan Barry, retired U.S. astronaut, tells the story of a trip he took into space with a rat.
She was a mother rat, part of a scientific experiment. She was placed in a cage with a litter of her babies and when the space shuttle went into orbit and everyone on board became weightless, Barry kept his eye on the rat, wondering how she would adjust.
Barry, who was on his first trip (he would make two more) says that it took the humans the better part of an Earth day to learn to "fly." He had to push himself off from surfaces. If he pushed too hard, he would crash into the opposite wall.
"You start banging your head into stuff," he remembers, "and everybody after the first day has all these nicks and cuts and bruises."
By day two, he was better. By day three, he was, as he puts it, "great at it." He developed routines. He would start with three somersaults, he says, and then "I'm going to land on my feet, I'm going to push off, do three more somersaults, land on my hands. I mean, you're like a gymnast after just a couple of days."
It's Hard to be a Mother in Space
The rat, meanwhile, spent her first day watching her babies float out of the nest and out of reach. She couldn't propel herself toward them, not on the first day when, as Dan puts it, "she kind of flailed around."
But on day two, she got better, and by day three, like Barry, she had adapted to her weightlessness.
"She had it all figured out," says Barry. When a baby would float free she could ricochet off a surface and "take them by the backs of their necks and throw them back into the nest."
The same ability to learn and adapt was observed among spiders, who, on an earlier mission, struggled on the first day with web-weaving, got better on day two and quite inventive as the days went by.
Ignoring Earth-Based Signals
Barry's wife, Susan, is a neuroscientist. She suggests that what may have happened in all these cases is that the creatures gradually learned to ignore signals coming into their brains from their earth-based balance system, called the vestibular system.
"Up in space," Susan Barry says, "the information coming from the vestibular system is not accurate and your brain learns to ignore it and focus much more on visual information."
Dr. Oliver Sacks, also a neurologist and author of the well-known book Awakenings, agrees with Barry's wife, and goes further.
Barry, he says, had to "renounce" his earthly way of doing things. Listen to Sacks' explanation.
The Space Athlete
What happens next, says Sacks, is the Earth creature now has the chance to create a new repertoire of moves, moves that fit a space environment.
And some Earth creatures are better at this than others. Listen as Sacks describes the creation of a "space athlete."
That, it appears, is what happened to astronaut Dan Barry. When he got a chance to talk to his Earth-bound family, all he could do, his daughter Jenny recalls, is tell them the new moves, turns and spins he had invented for himself.
But what is on display here -- in Dan Barry, the rat and other creatures -- is the extraordinary adaptability of Earth creatures in space, says Susan Barry.
Apparently, our brains and nervous systems are very, very adaptable. More than we knew.
There is, however, an interesting postscript. When Barry returned to Earth, he had trouble readapting. He tells wild tales about trying to move his clothes, even his son around and forgetting that he was back on Earth. (NASA tells astronaut spouses: When he or she gets back to Earth, don't hand them the baby. Not for the first few days.)
But after his second trip, he got better. After his third, he could become an "earthling" in no time at all. It's kind of like Barry developed two brains, says his wife.
"He's got two ways of being," she says. "One that works fine in space. One that works fine on Earth."