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Our World Transcript — April 9-10, 2005


This transcript is provided as a service; there may be some variation between it and the program as broadcast.

MUSIC: Our world theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... One step closer to resuming space shuttle flights ... older Americans worry about the cost of health care ... and research to help victims of spinal cord injuries ...

JOHNSON: "Twenty years ago, if I'd have heard what just said a few minutes ago about regeneration in the central nervous system, I'd have thought I was crazy, right? I've learned not to close my mind to these changes."

Those stories, plus developing a vaccine against avian flu. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

The U.S. space shuttle "Discovery" was rolled out to the launch pad this week ahead of its planned liftoff possibly as soon as late May. Moving the shuttle to launch pad 39-B at Cape Canaveral is considered a major milestone in the two-and-a-half year long effort to resume shuttle missions.

The program was put on hold after shuttle "Columbia" disintegrated while re-entering Earth's atmosphere in February 2003. It was the second catastrophic accident in the shuttle's history; "Challenger" exploded just after launch in 1986.

Since the "Columbia" accident, the remaining vehicles in the shuttle fleet have had extensive modifications to improve the program's safety. But space travel, it is often said, is an intrinsically risky business. And as VOA's David McAlary reports, the U.S. space agency NASA warns that no upgrade can guarantee against another disaster.

McALARY: When Discovery lifts off to rendezvous with the international space station, it will be with many thousands of enhancements to upgrade its hardware, improve NASA's ability to track and inspect it in flight, and attempt repairs in orbit if necessary.

HALE: "We have looked from end to end at the shuttle and tried to make improvements across the board so that it will be safer than it ever has been."

Deputy shuttle program manager Wayne Hale.

HALE: "We've had 20,000 people, very dedicated, working on the space shuttle to return it to safe flight, people who sacrificed their weekends, their evenings, their holidays to get us back to safe flight."

McALARY: NASA's focus has been on preventing pieces of hard insulation foam covering the shuttle's huge external fuel tank from shedding during liftoff and damaging the orbiter. A small piece cracked Columbia's wing, allowing superhot atmospheric gases to penetrate and doom the shuttle during the searing heat of re-entry. The foam prevents the frigid liquid hydrgoen and oxygen fuel from causing ice buildup on the tank. It has been removed from the location it broke off on Columbia's tank and replaced with heaters. Elsewhere, its application has been improved.

But Mr. Hale says despite the effort, NASA cannot entirely eliminate the chance a foam pellet would cause havoc.

HALE: "There is still going to be the possibility that a golden bee-bee could get us. We have done a huge amount fo work to reduce the debris environment, but, it's my understanding that we're still going to fly with some risk."

McALARY: As a result, NASA had increased the number of cameras that observe shuttles at every stage of ascent. Now, 103 cameras will document debris shedding from around the launch site, on a ship at sea, on observation aircraft, and on the shuttle and the fuel tank itself. Radar will be used for night launches. In addition, a new camera at the end of a mechanical arm can inspect the surface in orbit.

The shuttle's wings also have new sensors to measure debris impacts and any increase of heat.

If damage does occur, Discovery astronauts would take a spacewalk to repair the shuttle's surface with caulking or plugs. They will practice such techniques on their next mission. If the damage is too extensive to fix in orbit, space station program manager Bill Gerstenmeier says the astronauts could move into the space station for up to 45 days while ground technicians prepare a second shuttle to rescue them, although space would be tight and life support equipment worked hard.

GERSTENMEIER "It's something that you don't want to go do, but in a survival sense, it's executable. It's a reasonable plan that's available if it's absolutely needed. Again, I think the conditions won't be good on the station, but it's better than the alternatives and overall I think we're prepared to go execute if we need to execute."

McALARY: As NASA prepares to resume shuttle flights, it is also beginnning to formulate plans to retire the fleet. Agency officials say they will begin within a year to focus on issues such as cancelling contracts from shuttle suppliers, shutting certain work sites, and redirecting or eliminating some of the work force.

Shuttles have been the main logistical support for the space station, but President Bush has ordered NASA to decomission them by 2010 after station construction is finished and focus on developing new spacecraft and technologies to send humans back to the moon and beyond.

The U.S. astronaut currently aboard the station, Leroy Chiao, says the loss of the shuttles should not affect supply of the outpost because Russian spacecraft can fill the void, as they have during the shuttle standdown.

CHIAO: "We're going to miss the shuttle's capability to bring up a lot of equipment and supplies. However, at that point, we've got several different options to resupply the staiton, and I'm confident we'll have that capability."

McALARY: In addition, a new European resupply craft will be available next year. I'm David McAlary on VOA's Our World.

CHIMES: NASA is expecting an enormous surge in traffic on its website when shuttle flights resume. So this week the space agency announced it would welcome proposals from sponsors -- corporations, most likely -- who could provide extra bandwidth. NASA says it will display the sponsor's logo on its website, or it would be open to other "suitable innovative concepts" to publicize the sponsorship.

Three weeks ago on Our World we reported on new rules from Washington governing mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants. Many environmentalists were unhappy with the Bush administration's market-style approach, and now some state governments have filed a lawsuit challenging the new rules.

The states say rules issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, do not adequately protect children and pregnant mothers from mercury contamination. Our report is by Lester Graham of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.

GRAHAM: Nine states joined in the suit, claiming the EPA's new cap-and-trade program would lead to mercury hotspots. Instead of making all coal-burning plants reduce mercury emissions, the plan will allow some plants to continue to pollute by buying credits from plants that reduce emissions below the EPA's targets.

Peter Harvey is the Attorney General for New Jersey. He's the lead plaintiff in the suit.

HARVEY: "There are going to be areas of the country that have a lot more air pollution, which means those residents are at a greater danger of ingesting mercury, either through the air or through seafood products."

GRAHAM: Harvey says [ news release ] the Bush Administration's plan does not meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act. The U.S. EPA has defended the plan in the past, saying lowers overall mercury emissions by half within 15 years without forcing companies to add expensive pollution prevention equipment at every plant.

For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.

CHIMES: That report was prepared by the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, at GLRC is a production of Michigan Radio, with support from the DTE Energy Foundation, and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation.

One of the challenges for the science journalist is conveying complex, sophisticated information in a way that non-scientists can understand, but which keeps the essence of the story and doesn't dumb it down. That's hard enough when your audience is adults, but imaging the challenges of doing science news for kids. Well, we've found one resource where they manage to do it quite well, thank you, and it's our Website of the Week at

PETERSON: "And it's designed to present what's happening in science now to kids who are probably studying science in the classroom, and this is to give them a sense that science is developing, it has lots of new and exciting things happening, and there are always things to wonder about and to learn about.

Ivars Peterson is the online editor of ScienceNewsForKids. As a science journalist, he says there are some tricks to explaining science to their target audience -- children ages about 9 to 15.

PETERSON: "You can avoid using a lot of longer words and translate things into simple terms. You can use shorter sentences. You can use more pictures. All of these things help. And in fact we've noticed that we do get a little bit of an adult audience who do prefer our version of articles because it's quicker and easier to understand what they're talking about to start with."

The ScienceNewsForKids website is meant to supplement what youngsters are learning in school with the latest scientific research.

PETERSON: "Each week, at least two of the three articles we put up is directly related to something that has just been reported in the scientific literature, so kids are actually learning what scientists are reporting as it's happening -- same as the adults would be doing but perhaps in a different form and format."

Some of the most recent articles on Science News for have focused on the environmental threat facing wetlands, the surprisingly complex honeybee brain, and newly-discovered details on a cluster of stars in our own Milky Way galaxy. There are interactive features, such as games and puzzles and experiments that you can do at home -- with adult supervision, of course. And the website is authoritative -- it's produced by the same organization that has published the respected magazine "Science News" since 1922.

All this and more online at, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC — "Prevezániko" (Balkanswingband Sultan)

It's VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Since late 2003, avian influenza has infected 79 people in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, who contracted the disease from infected poultry flocks. [ WHO fact sheet ] Forty-nine people have died. The outbreak has required the destruction of millions of potentially infected chickens.

Public health officials say there is a risk of a worldwide pandemic if the virus mutates and is more easily passed from person to person. Conventional strains of influenza kill between a quarter-million and a half million people each year. Avian flu could be much worse.

VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports on efforts to develop an avian flu vaccine.

SKIRBLE: Robin Perry is on the front line in the fight against avian influenza. When the 33-year- old research associate rolled up her sleeve for a dose of the experimental H5N1 vaccine at the University of Maryland Medical Center this week, she was reminded of another public health threat.

PERRY: I thought about the SARS outbreak, and I thought that we were lucky that we didn't have anything over here in the United States, but that is not to say that the avian flu can't come over here. And I want to be protected and I want what I do to help others be protected.

SKIRBLE: Ms. Perry is among 450 volunteers at three U-S test sites. James Campbell is principal investigator for the vaccine trials at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He says the goal is twofold:

CAMPBELL: Is the vaccine safe? And do volunteers mount an immune response that might protect them against avian influenza?

SKIRBLE: How will you know that the vaccine is safe and that there is an appropriate immune response?

CAMPBELL: [We know that it is safe by] clinically following the volunteers. So after we vaccinate, we watch them in the clinic for a short period of time to make sure that they don't have any immediate reactions. Then they are sent home with a one-week diary in which they record any symptoms they may have in the week following vaccination. And we also draw their blood before and after vaccination to make sure the vaccine doesn't affect things like their liver, their kidneys, their bone marrow, those sorts of things. And in terms of immune response, blood is drawn before vaccination and multiple times after vaccination and assayed in the laboratory to see whether or not they have mounted an immune response.

SKIRBLE: Since the vaccine is made with an inactivated or killed avian influenza virus, volunteers are not at risk of contracting the disease.

The United States has already stockpiled two million doses of H5N1. James Campbell says while it is hard to predict when or how the virus mutates or as scientists like to say drifts, information from trials helps to answer a basic question:

CAMPBELL: And that is, can we make an avian influenza vaccine by this method and get good immune responses and have safety in healthy adults? Even if there were drift and we needed to use a different seed virus, the same vaccine could be made by using a different virus, just like we do each year with routine influenza. It is the same process. We would expect the same safety and the same immune response.

SKIRBLE: Anthony Fauci heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Speaking at a recent meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, he expressed confidence that research now underway in the United States will help prevent a worldwide pandemic.

FAUCI: If you start seeing pockets of cases, it is to the benefit of the United States citizens to cut it off in Vietnam or in Thailand or wherever, as opposed to saying, No, hands off. We will wait until it comes here. This is no policy because the policy hasn't been made. But we are certainly open -- as [are] other developed nations -- to the consideration of sharing this with developing nations that don't have those facilities.

SKIRBLE: The current trials test the vaccine on healthy adults. Before the end of 2005, the vaccine will also be tested on children and the elderly. In addition to those underway at the University of Maryland, trials will be conducted at the University of California, Los Angles and the University of Rochester in New York. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

The American Public Health Association, which represents some 50,000 specialists in the field, tells us that this is National Public Health Week.

The group commissioned a study of Americans over age 55, who said that the cost of health care is their biggest single worry. Kate Stewart was one of the researchers.

STEWART: "Twenty-eight percent rank health care as their top concern for the country -- ahead of the war in Iraq, the economy, terrorism, and even slightly ahead of their concerns about Social Security. And when we look at, specifically, what Americans over the age of 55 are concerned about when it comes to their health care, cost tops the list."

Some experts see a looming crisis in the government-run Medicare health insurance program for older Americans.

The executive director of the American Public Health Association, Dr. Georges Benjamin, told reporters that today's middle age people, born during the post-World War II baby boom, need to develop healthier lifestyles to help them stay healthier as they age. But he faulted the U.S. health care system for focusing on treatment, rather than prevention.

BENJAMIN: "Unfortunately our current health care system, as well as the public's attention often fails to focus enough on the prevention of illness. This poll reinforces the fact that most individuals know that they should be more proactive in protecting their health but unfortunately they often face barriers that prevent them from taking necessary steps."

To overcome those barriers, Dr. Benjamin suggested people should strive for 30 minutes of physical activity a day. It doesn't have to involve a trip to the gym -- it could include gardening, walking, housekeeping, and other routine activities.

BENJAMIN: "The second thing of course is designing livible communities so older Americans can be more physically active. We continue to design our communities so older Americans can be more physically active. We continue to design our communities in such a way that we don't have sidewalks. And it's difficult for people for people to get out an walk. And so these are some of the things that we need to do as we begin developing liveable communities in the future."

Dr. Benjamin also stressed the imporance of medical screening to identify diseases early, so they can be more easily treated. In a statement, the Public Health Association official said that "older Americans often endure chronic physical and mental illnesses that could be avoided or diminished if they were more proactively addressed."

The U.S. Institute of Medicine -- part of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences -- this week released a report assessing the current state of research on spinal cord injuries.

I spoke with Dr. Richard Johnson, a neurologist at Johns Hopkins University, and chairman of the panel that prepared the report. We began by considering how far the treatment of spinal cord injury has advanced from the time, before the 1940s, when a spinal cord injury was in most cases a death sentence.

JOHNSON: "If you dove into a shallow pool and broke your neck and injured your [spinal] cord, you would die. And that was just assumed and taken for granted. So very little effort was even made in these patients. World War II changed everything. World War II was the first large group of survivors of spinal cord injury, and many of them in [the] military. And two things happened to produce that. One was the development of antibiotics. So the death from pneumonia, kidney disease, broken-down skin could be prevented. The second one was the real development of rehabilitation medicine. And it was the combination of those two things that gave patients with spinal cord with spinal cord injuries virtually normal life expectancies. And that's where we've been fixed sort-of ever since.

"We're talking now of a whole new horizon, and that is to not just make people comfortable, but to help them to be pain-free, to walk, to do things they couldn't do before. And that really is where we get into this whole idea of regeneration. And it sounds to many like pie-in-the-sky --"

CHIMES: "It sounds like science fiction."

JOHNSON: "I mean, [at one time it was a given that] you can't regrow the spinal cord. No, you can't regrow the whole spinal cord. But you know, if you can make sprouting [of new nerve fibers] occur and stop the scarring. And if maybe it only went a few millimeters, that might be the difference in somebody with a C-7 lesion of whether or not they could use their hands or not use their hands. That's a huge difference in life so that even smalladvances can have enormous impact in this area."

CHIMES: "When lay people talk about a cure, I think they envisage somebody getting up out of their wheelchair and walking around, a cure being a restoration to the life that was before the injury."

JOHNSON: "That's the obvious goal. You have to realize that the obvious thing to use is the fact that they're in a wheelchair, and you think of ambulation as the cure. These are people who do not have normal sexual function, who do not have normal use of bowel and bladder. They often have loss of sensation. They're often in pain. One of the members of this committee is a tetraplegic, and he's written a very nice piece in [the report] about the fact that much of his motor strength has come back. With braces he can stand up. But he doesn't have position sense, so he can't walk, and he can't be independent. So it's not just sort-of getting the motor neurons back, it's all of these other problems of sensation and autonomic function and so forth.

Treatment of spinal cord injuries has improved dramatically in recent years. Today, better care at the scene of the accident and quicker transport to specialized hospital units can help, but results are inconclusive in studies of several surgical and pharmaceutical treatments. In recent years there's been a surge in basic research to help scientists understand the spinal cord, which Dr. Johnson says has given rise to possibilities that were unimaginable only a few years ago.

JOHNSON: "Twenty years ago, if I'd have heard what just said a few minutes ago about regeneration in the central nervous system, I'd have thought I was crazy, right? I've learned not to close my mind to these changes."

CHIMES: "For a lot of people, both in the United States and around the world, Christopher Reeve was the face of spinal cord injury. How much of a difference did he make in a variety of ways, and did he just happen to come along at the right time?"

JOHNSON: "I think he made a tremendous difference, and one of the things that he brought up, and one of the things he felt very strongly about was that, it should not just be machines that make you more agile or more comfortable. [He thought] we ought to really look at the biology of regeneration. And he spearheaded that idea."

Dr. Richard Johnson. Incidentally, funding for study that he headed came from New York state. New York is one of 14 states with to levy charges on traffic law violators and direct the money to spinal cord research programs. Supporters say the programs make sense, since motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries in the United States. Combined, the programs raise about $27 million a year for spinal cord injury research.

MUSIC: Our world theme

That's our show for this week. We're always happy to hear from you. Email us at Ourworld is all one word. Or write us at -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Our World is edited by Rob Sivak. Our technical director is Gary Spizler. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and Our World.