During long-term spaceflight, astronauts lose bone, in part due to a reduction in bone formation. It is not clear, however, whether the force imparted by gravity has direct effects on bone cells. To examine the response of bone forming cells to weightlessness, human fetal osteoblastic (hFOB) cells were cultured during the 17 day STS-80 space shuttle mission. Fractions of conditioned media were collected during flight and shortly after landing for analyses of glucose utilization and accumulation of type I collagen and prostaglandin E2 (PGE2). Total cellular RNA was isolated from flight and ground control cultures after landing. Measurement of glucose levels in conditioned media indicated that glucose utilization occurred at a similar rate in flight and ground control cultures. Furthermore, the levels of type I collagen and PGE2 accumulation in the flight and control conditioned media were indistinguishable. The steady-state levels of osteonectin, alkaline phosphatase, and osteocalcin messenger RNA (mRNA) were not significantly changed following spaceflight. Gene-specific reductions in mRNA levels for cytokines and skeletal growth factors were detected in the flight cultures using RNase protection assays. Steady-state mRNA levels for interleukin (IL)-1α and IL-6 were decreased 8 h following the flight and returned to control levels at 24 h postflight. Also, transforming growth factor (TGF)-β2 and TGF-β1 message levels were modestly reduced at 8 h and 24 h postflight, although the change was not statistically significant at 8 h. These data suggest that spaceflight did not significantly affect hFOB cell proliferation, expression of type I collagen, or PGE2 production, further suggesting that the removal of osteoblastic cells from the context of the bone tissue results in a reduced ability to respond to weightlessness. However, spaceflight followed by return to earth significantly impacted the expression of cytokines and skeletal growth factors, which have been implicated as mediators of the bone remodeling cycle. It is not yet clear whether these latter changes were due to weightlessness or to the transient increase in loading resulting from reentry. Copyright (C) 2000 Elsevier Science Inc.