When the space shuttle Discovery lifts off on its final flight, its six astronauts will be joined by 16 rodent passengers on a historic mission of their own. Riding in special self-contained modules that automatically supply them with food and water, the mice will be part of a long-term NASA effort aimed at understanding why spaceflight makes humans more vulnerable to infection by viruses and bacteria. The mouse experiment — a collaboration between teams at UTMB Health and NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. — will be the final immunology investigation planned for the shuttle program. “Since the Apollo missions, we have had evidence that astronauts have increased susceptibility to infections during flight and immediately post-flight — they seem more vulnerable to cold and flu viruses, urinary tract infections and viruses like Epstein-Barr, which infect most people and then remain dormant, can reactivate under the stress of spaceflight,” said Dr. Roberto Garofalo, a professor at UTMB Health and principal investigator for the project. “We want to discover what triggers this increased susceptibility to infection, with the goal both of protecting the astronauts themselves and people with more vulnerable immune systems here on Earth, such as the elderly and young children.” The news is getting worldwide coverage and appears in The Hindu and UPI.com.