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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI associate pharmacy dean does work that could help crews stay healthy on Mars mission

Media Contact: Dave Lavallee, 401-874-5862

NASA faculty fellow researches effect of certain plants on air quality

KINGSTON, R.I. -- October 18, 2004 -- When earthlings make their first attempt to land on Mars, E. Paul Larrat will be justified in thinking he played a small role in the 35-million-mile voyage.

Larrat, associate dean of the University of Rhode Island’s College of Pharmacy, spent much of the summer as a National Aeronautics and Space Administration Faculty Fellow at the Advanced Life Support Center at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Larrat, an East Greenwich resident, was one of 100 fellows chosen from a field of 700 nominees to work at various NASA research centers across the country.

His work focused on 20 plant species that NASA believes could be grown during a flight to Mars and after landing on the fourth planet from the Sun.

“We looked at all the candidate crops and we tagged a few for potential problems based on the byproducts they gave off,” Larrat said.

Larrat, who oversees the research and graduate programs of URI’s College of Pharmacy, was assigned to a center that examines issues and problems associated with supporting crews on long-duration flights. “On a three-year trip to Mars, crews are going to have to recycle water, and grow some of their own food. Much of the center’s work focuses on making sure the crews don’t die because they lack water, air, or food. But it is also concerned with life support processes that could threaten life.

“I worked on the air supply and making sure that it does not become contaminated by the growing of certain plants,” Larrat said. “This really fit in well with my public health-epidemiology research work.”

He used a gas chromatograph to test what was emitted by small samples of the potential food sources.

“We worked four days a week at the center, and on Wednesday, we had a chance to tour various sites at the Kennedy Space Center,” Larrat said. “We had a chance to see workers putting tiles on the shuttle, Endeavor, and the recovery boats that pick up the solid rocket boosters after liftoff.

“To stand under the shuttle and touch it and be a part of the space program was a dream come true, because I have had a lifelong interest in space.”

He was fortunate to be at Kennedy for the 35th anniversary celebrations of the Apollo missions. Jim Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13, which had to abort its mission to the moon, spoke while Larrat was at the Kennedy Space Center. “When the astronauts come in, it’s like they are rock stars. Many come on their own private jets and then people swarm around them for autographs.”

He keeps in contact with his research colleagues, and they are planning to publish their findings and to present them at the International Space Conference next year. They compiled a report of 200 pages.

He said his fellowship also helps pharmacy students see that their options for careers are many. “I know that anyone from our program would be able to succeed in this environment,” he said.

“There is already work going on to produce medicines in space, and then to commercialize those products,” Larrat said.

“Fifteen years from now when we are heading to Mars, I can say I was a small part of this. And I’d like to think the crew will be healthier because of the work we have done.”