If we can put a man on the moon, why…

March 28, 2001

July 20, 1969. Sea of Tranquillity. The site of one of the biggest mistakes in the history of recorded sound. As Neil Armstrong hopped off the bottom rung of the lunar module ladder, he spoke the words heard by just about everybody who owned a television

July 20, 1969. Sea of Tranquillity. The site of one of the biggest mistakes in the history of recorded sound. As Neil Armstrong hopped off the bottom rung of the lunar module ladder, he spoke the words heard by just about everybody who owned a television set back then: “That’s one small step for man,” he said. “One giant leap for mankind.”

Lost in the quarter million miles between earth and the moon was the letter “a”. Armstrong insisted after returning that he had mouthed that letter. “That’s one small step for a man,” he said for the media time and again. “One giant leap for mankind.” But the moment had been lost.

Fast forward now to the 21st century, 200 miles above the earth. Last week, NASA delivered an ultrasound scanner to International Space Station. Finally, after 40 years of human space flight, equipment is circling the earth that might help explain why many astronauts can't keep their lunch down the first couple days in weightlessness; why, despite regular and rigorous exercise, most can't walk when they return to earth after a few months in space; why their cardiac ejection fractions weaken; how their vasculature changes; whether anomalies in their cardiovascular systems increase the risk of heart attack or stroke.

But these explanations have to wait a year, maybe longer. Cutbacks affecting the size of the crew have delayed the launch of ultrasound-trained personnel. And so this marvel of modern engineering, modified to withstand cosmic radiation and the thundering vibration of a space shuttle launch, reduced in size and weight to fit NASA requirements, will just hang there for months or years because nobody onboard knows how to make it work.

It is one of the great ironies that NASA has finally placed in the hands of its astronauts a tool that could explain the conditions that have plagued them since the dawn of space flight, a tool that might provide answers critical to conducting long-duration flights to Mars. But the agency failed to follow through and get the staff up there who know how to gather the data.

While getting an ultrasound scanner permanently onboard ISS is a technological milestone and recognition of the extraordinary flexibility of this modality, it is a hollow victory. Again NASA has lost the moment.

© 2001 Miller Freeman Inc.
3/28/01, Issue # 1506, page 8.