The influence of 12.5 days of spaceflight and a 55 h stressful recovery period (at 1 g) on fibroblastlike osteoblast precursor cells was assessed in the periodontal ligament (PDL) of rats that were 91 days old at launch. Nuclear morphometry was used as a marker for precursor cell differentiation in 3 microns sections cut in the midsagittal plane from the maxillary first molar. According to nuclear volume, cells were classified as preosteoblasts (C + D cells, greater than or equal to 120 microns 3) and less differentiated progenitor cells (A + A' cells, 40-79 microns 3). Compared with synchronous controls (simulated flight conditions), the 55 h postflight recovery period at 1 g resulted in a 40% decrease in the A + A' cell population, a 42% increase in the C + D cells, and a 39% increase in the number of PDL fibroblastlike cells near the bone surface. These results are consistent with a postflight osteogenic response in PDL. This recovery response occurred despite physiological stress in the flight animals that resulted in a highly significant (P less than or equal to 0.001) increase in adrenal weight. The data suggest that after spaceflight there is a strong and rapid recovery mechanism for osteoblast differentiation that is not suppressed by physiological stress.