Thursday, June 27, 2013

NASA Bedrest Double Duty


After Monday's update on the European Space Agency flight simulations, I'm happy to say I'm seeing new(er) press about the NASA sims too! The beds in the NASA ward are full again! Yes, the never-ending line of people who actually get paid by the space agency to lie around in bed.

Justin Ciaciura of Conroe, Texas completed a 105-day study. 70 of those days were spent on bedrest, so he beat my "bed time" by a whopping 15 days. I have so much admiration for this dedicated man, who epitomizes the doctors' assurances about the program quality: "We do our best to identify people who are motivated to participate in the study. People don't do this for the money; they have a higher commitment." 

NASA Bed Rest Study

 The... money... is... pretty freaking awesome, however. About $5,000 per month, which is great if you've just graduated, can't find a job, are between jobs, or just plain love space exploration and want to add to the databanks of scientific and medical knowledge!

So says Justin, "The novelty of lying down wears off pretty quick. But knowing you're actually making a contribution to NASA’s space program is very rewarding." 

Why lying down? Well, certain things that happen to the body in the micro-gravity of space also happen identically when one lies down for extended periods. Bones can lose mineral density and mass, plasma volume can decrease, hearts can change, and your sense of balance and depth perception can go... what's the technical term? Totally wonky.

These studies seek to find countermeasures to keep astronauts more healthy, with a mind to reaching Mars someday. That will take nearly 2 years in space, and we have yet to work our astronauts up to 1 year! That's because adapting to the weightless environment is no easy task. Later re-adapting to Earth gravity can be equally physically demanding. So, while grounded from manned flight, these studies are very important to many space agencies.

NASA Research Studies

Incredibly, while googling around for the specs on the newest studies, I found yet another subject in the press, compliments of podcasters Mike Danforth and Ian Chillag. Their Tumblr archive of "How To Do Everything" contains a fantastic recording of "70 Days in Bed with Howard". 

Howard also survived the 105-day program at NASA which required 70 days of spaceflight simulation! During his time "play astronaut", Mike & Ian featured him in their podcasts three times: day 21 of bedrest, then day 32, and finally day 90, once he "returned to Earth" and was rehabilitating his leg muscles.

Some of the questions were predictable: "So, are you starting to go crazy?!" -- and I loved Howard's answers. Like him, I'm a very active person, so it's difficult to be restricted to bed sometimes, but many of us are willing to do it for the sake of future space exploration. Howard described his typical days, all the little things one must cope with in studies, both good and bad.

Further along in the podcast, NASA principal investigator Dr. Ronita Cromwell weighs in with scientific descriptions of things the studies explore about bone, muscle and bodily fluids-- also humorously mentioning the "better than jury duty" paychecks!

NASA Vertical Treadmill
Howard and Dr. Cromwell describe behavioral tests, medical tests, and exercise tests -- many of which are analogs of everything done to or on astronauts before, during, and after spaceflight. I found the third segment the most interesting, where Howard described how to came back to normal gravity, listing all the things the body must "re-learn" in order to walk straight, drive a car, do normal daily tasks, etc. Adaptation in both directions can be eye-opening!

Contrary to some web forum myths about these studies, neither of the men were half-dead, depressed, crippled or compromised for life. I did three of these programs, and am robustly healthy. Pregnant women go on bedrest, sometimes for months, and do not suffer for life. So, don't believe all the myths out there on the internet; if you are interested in learning about or screening for these amazing programs, see stories like these about people who have actually completed them.

Only active, healthy people with strong bones and good blood pressure are selected in the first place, and we are HIGHLY motivated to get back into shape again afterwards. Apply to NASA if that describes you, too.

Like Howard, it might be your chance to grow a full beard, hehe! Or like me, catch up on those 30 books you've been meaning to read for the last decade. Every participant gets us one step closer to Mars!