Spaceflight is known to diminish bone mass and reduce immune function, suggesting that repair of connective tissue might be impaired in a microgravity environment. Fisher 344 rats were used to test wound healing responses in the orbiting Space Shuttle Endeavour by preflight implantation of polyvinyl acetal sponge disks in which pellets were placed to release either platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF-BB), basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF), or placebo. Control groups on the ground included a matched environment group in similar housing modules and temperature control groups in cages at 22 degreesC and 28 degreesC. After 12 days of implantation and 10 days in orbit, the removed sponges were analyzed for histological and biochemical responses. Growth factor responses were histologically evident after release of PDGF-BB and bFGF in ground controls, whereas only immediate-release bFGF and delayed-release PDGF-BB showed significant responses in microgravity. Biochemical data confirmed that cellularity was increased by both factors in ground sponges; however, this response was significantly blunted in flight sponges (P<0.005, ANOVA), irrespective timing of factor release. Collagen content was 62% lower in sponges from animals with 10 days of microgravity exposure (P<0.01, ANOVA) and further reduced by bFGF. These data suggest that orbital exposure retards the capacity of wounds to heal and respond to exogenous stimuli.