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My Son, the Astronaut, Part III:
David Wolf, Scientist and Inventor

Miryam Z. Wahrman, Ph.D.

Jewish astronaut David Wolf's medical background and interest in weightlessness has led to his involvement in cell growth experiments in space. "The whole purpose of the space program is to improve life on Earth, and that's what an orbiting international laboratory is designed for," explained Wolf, referring to the future applications of the International Space Station now being constructed. "My favorite [application] is tissue culture, where we're able to grow three dimensional tissues, because they're not restricted to a surface by gravity. It enables us to grow, for example, human cancers, in three dimensions, where they are genetically better able to represent cancer in the body. We've also grown nerve tissue and cartilage..."

An outgrowth of Wolf's experiments in space has been the development and patenting, together with his colleagues at NASA, of the "Rotating Bioreactor Cell Culture Apparatus". This innovative new technology simulates zero gravity on Earth, and allows scientists to grow cells and tissues in a "weightless" environment in Earthbound laboratories. The invention has been licensed to VivoRx, Inc., a Santa Monica, California based pharmaceutical firm. That company is now working on methodologies to grow pancreatic tissue for diabetics. According to Johnson Space Center reports, the company has "performed initial clinical trials in which human diabetes patients were treated with implants of encapsulated pancreatic cells..." These artificially constructed tissues produce insulin in a diabetic's body so effectively that they "reduce or eliminate the need to take successive dosages of insulin." The company also plans to grow other tissues for commercial and medical applications.

International Space Station

Wolf's current activities include helping Russian cosmonauts learn how to use American spacesuits. He recently returned to Svosdny Gorodok [Star City], Russia, the Russian equivalent of Johnson Space Center, where he had initially trained for over a year for the Mir mission. "A large part of an astronaut's job is development on the ground, between flights, and I've always liked the ground aspect of the job a lot also," he stated. "What we're doing here is a good example of that, diving underwater almost every day, working with the Russians ... I'm working with the Russians to help them develop their spacewalk."

"This is the first time we've conducted training in Russia, using the American spacesuits with Russian personnel maintaining the spacesuits, assembling them and testing them," continued Wolf. "It's been a large effort for us to install American life support systems for the spacesuits and train the Russians. It's a real example of a technology cooperation in the other direction." Wolf himself wore a Russian spacesuit on his spacewalk from Mir.

"It shows how far we've come...now we're going to join the two great superpowers and build one great spaceship, this International Space Station...and we're doing it with Russian partners," Wolf commented.

In fact, the international nature of the program affords opportunities for other countries, including Israel, to be involved.

"We have two Israelis training at Johnson Space Center for future shuttle flights." Wolf reported, referring to Colonel Ilan Ramon and Lieutenant Colonel Itzhak Mayo, of the Israel Air Force, now both designated NASA Payload Specialists. Ramon, 45, father of three, from Kfar Hittim in northern Israel, is training for a U.S. Space Shuttle mission. According to his NASA biography, the mission involves "a payload that includes a multispectral camera for recording desert aerosol." Mayo, 44, from Tel Aviv, will serve as Ramon's back-up.

"I find them a pleasure to be with..." commented Wolf, referring to the two Israeli astronauts in training. "They are very talented individuals."

NASA Astronaut David Wolf is remarkably accomplished - even his mother's proud description does not do him justice. He has used his engineering and medical expertise in unique ways to make significant contributions to space science, and to develop new technologies which will impact health on Earth. He works at the cutting edge of space science and exploration and will undoubtably play an important role in future manned missions.

"Every time I try to think about what I'd like to do next," Wolf concluded, "I realize I'm doing exactly what I want to be doing."

© 2000 Miryam Z. Wahrman

 

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