Friday, September 26, 2008

Featured on NASA Web

While in the Spaceflight Simulation Study, Devin and I were both interviewed by a NASA Education Writer of the Marshall Space Flight Center, Heather R. Smith.

From the main page, click the top left link For Educators. Under Educator Features and Articles, click View Archive and scroll down to the 09.23 feature entitled Lying Around.

I missed it's appearance on the "front page" but now it's part of the archives! The direct link is:

This was so well-written, and unlike some other "in the news" experiences, no one attempted to sensationalize or trivialize. Our quotes were woven into the prose precisely as given, so I truly enjoyed this one. The author concentrated on the mechanics of the study, added the element of how we felt during certain phases, and further included "study value" comments by scientists Joe Neigut and Ronita Cromwell -- among the last people to leave Galveston on evacuation day after ensuring we would be cared for.

Never in a million years did I dream I would share a square-foot of print with Peggy Whitson! Now why couldn't THAT have happened before my 20-year high school reunion?? ;)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Mile Mark

After an exhausting week, I'm pleased to say I walked a mile for the first time today! I've been building up to it, trying to move a further each day around my neighborhood. I exercise first thing when I get up, so there's no avoiding it (otherwise, I think I'd just give in to the fatigue and sleep all day!) I've also revved up into a run a few times, but stop almost immediately due to nausea.

Those first steps out of bed are still the toughest. Everything I loosen and stretch the day before just stiffens up again, and I get shooting pains through my heels and calves. I take a few moments to straighten my spine, and stomp around until it's gone, but it's frustrating how long it's hanging on. Sounds screwy, but picking up the feet and setting them down very hard actually helps. Our physical therapist actually had us jumping off steps directly onto our heels -- I guess it helps convince the body that we are using our legs again, and strengthens the bones.

Makes sense, right? But why does the body need re-convincing every day?! That pretty much sums up my first week at home: two steps forward, one step back. I'm also having depth perception problems. I keep swiping walls and door knobs in my house, because my eyes misinterpret how close I am to solid objects.

While Googling articles on gravitational effects, I found something which explains a lot about why I feel so disoriented:

ZeroG Makes Astronauts Dangerous Drivers

Some interesting excerpts:
"low gravity adversely affects ability to judge size and distance... suggesting that astronauts' perception problems are a physiological issue, not a result of adaptation to enclosed environments."

"Study of the impact of microgravity on spatial awareness and movement is going to become more important as we try to land on Mars or on the Moon after very prolonged space flights."

"NASA has long suspected something goes wrong with visual perception in space. Apollo astronauts reported difficulties judging distance while on the moon, for example: far-off rocks and features seemed closer than they really were."

I heard from Devin, and he made it to Georgia to pick up his motor home, and is now headed for Iowa to see his family! He also mentioned in the middle of the afternoons he "keeps falling asleep." LOL... glad to know I am not the only one!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Road Trip! (Houston)

Heather Direct Sunlight!

So there we were, loose in Texas, free to roam... or rather, forced to roam. When we were preparing to leave UTMB, the Wyle folks arranged flights for each of us to get back home. Since we were transported to Austin via ambulance, I was close enough to have my family fetch me, but Devin had a few wrinkles. He lived in Iowa, but had driven to the study and left his truck with relatives outside Houston. We didn't figure we'd have much trouble, since we weren't trying to enter the city itself, but we underestimated how much the damage had affected all of southern Texas.

We set out from Georgetown, but were advised not to take the main highway toward Houston, which is US Route 290. So we headed north toward Hearne, and planned to go down through College Station... mostly to avoid any road closures. We played tourist briefly at the Bush Presidential Museum & Library, to exercise our legs and see a space display with a model of Shuttle Atlantis.


Space Exhibit, Bush Museum

It was smooth sailing into Navasota, but on Highway 6 we saw signs flashing "Do Not Attempt To Reach Houston" and "All Brazos County Shelters Full." Any time we pulled off at a stop or a junction to change roads, we ran into traffic caused by dead stoplights.

We increasingly spied debris, work crews, and empty gasoline stations that had been closed due to power loss (some had gas but no way to work the pumps). Even a good 100 miles north of Houston, lights were out, water was off and the one fuel attendant we spoke to said he expected a supply truck that day, but there was no telling when they would show. There were over 100 cars lined up, just waiting for a CHANCE that gasoline might arrive. And we were nowhere near where the greatest force of the storm had struck! Inside the mini-marts, shelves were picked clean and the coolers had defrosted, giving off a watery, metal odor -- but the worst was the "sour milk" stench from all the melted ice cream.

Buzzy swamp bugs and mosquitoes were everywhere, and we had to keep shooing them out of the car each time we stopped to stretch or walk around to keep our bodies from becoming stiff and sore. We finally made it to Devin's family ranch in Magnolia, passing numerous crews clearing trees from power lines; water pools still blanketed much of the ground... yet more breeding grounds for bugs! We truly could not believe the devastation, and it made me shudder to think of what the coast must look like, because I had the sinking feeling I was seeing the absolute least of what Hurricane Ike had wrought.

We drove alonside a train at one point, with Devin filming and waving, then laughed when the engineer caught sight of us and blew the whistle. They were towing many tank cars, and we speculated as to whether they were trying to get gasoline to the south, given how difficult it was for trucks to get around.

The trip back wasn't too fun, since I had to drive myself the entire way. Devin headed to Georgia to pick up his motor home, and I headed back to Georgetown. I was pretty tired by then, and had to stop many times because my legs were constantly shaking. Even with cruise control, I was surprised how much it took out of me energy-wise just to drive! I got home around 9:00pm... and I'm pretty sure I've been asleep since then. What day is it????

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Q&A in the Real World

Mantic59 asks: I know Texas is in a “State of Emergency” and was declared a disaster area. Will NASA let you "restart" the study at a later date?
Sarcasmo answers: Nah, we were too far along to start again, and the staff said that after any long-term study, we must wait a year before being eligible again. At this point, we would not pass the original physical screening.
Pillownaut Answers: More recent check-ins might be able to restart. However the facility’s first floor at UTMB is flooded and has no power, so I don't see them resuming regular operations anytime soon. We hope to travel there and visit when it does, just because we so worried about what happened to everyone!

ZwedishPzycho asks: Would you consider coming back for a second attempt at the whole thing? Would NASA let you?
Sarcasmo answers: If I had another shot, absolutely!
Pillownaut Answers: In a heartbeat.

Christy says: I bet it was weird to just stop laying down. Hey the good news is that you can have chocolate and pizza again :)
Pillownaut answers: Many of you are doing what we’re doing – finding that silver lining! We’ve had many discussions along the lines of enjoying all the things we CAN do now, such as WALK, order restaurant food, take proper showers, etc...
Sarcasmo answers: Yeah, we’ll probably always be bummed that we couldn’t finish our project, but I am glad I'm out while there is still some summer left, so I can travel to see some friends and family.

Roz of San Jose, CA asks: Could they not continue the tests after the hurricane?
AJ from Honduras asks: I'm sorry it had to end prematurely. I read somewhere in your blog that you'd have your beds wheeled out in case of an emergency. Since this was anticipated, couldn't they have wheeled you to ambulances or helicopters and put you in some other hospital? I'm just asking because it would've saved a lot of days/money worth of science studies.
Pillownaut Answers: We were also told that in the event of evacuation, we would be moved in a van at –6 and continue the study at a facility at JSC. However, while the emergency was “anticipated,” we actually left quite late. They originally evacuated the Florida Keys for Ike, and thought it would never reach Texas! When Hurricane Rita hit Galveston a few years back, they got the evacuation order a week before. We didn’t get an order until two days before impact.
Sarcasmo Answers: This was also a question of MAGNITUDE. Ike grew to the size of Texas itself. Normally, they said we'd move to the Space Center... but we then found Houston was also being evacuated! Any place they could have taken us where the same equipment existed and the medical personnel knew all our protocols… well, they were also being rushed north.
Pillownaut adds: Yep, priorities changed. All we could do was get clear to a regular hospital. Asking anyone to stay and worry about our particular diets and data would have been impossible, when they had to worry about their families and homes too.

Kim asks: It's been a pleasure to learn about the 'pillownauts' contribution to science. I'm glad we haven't bothered ya'll too much :) With your interest in space, I have one question, do you have to have a PhD to become an astronaut?
Sarcasmo Answers: We’re glad you enjoyed it! It's definitely never been a bother... we’ve had fun writing together, and will continue to do so as long as we get questions. I'm headed out, but I will still keep in touch by phone if Q&A continues.
Pillownaut Answers: The majority of the 300+ people who are or have been in the astronaut corps hold PhDs or multiple masters degrees in many sciences… most were pilots, most were in the military at some point of their lives, and a few were school teachers. However, to be an astronaut candidate, it’s never been a non-negotiable requirement. Neil Armstrong did not have a PhD. He had a bachelors and masters, and was given some honorary doctorates after walking on the moon. Reading some of the biographies of Active Astronauts, International Astronauts, Former Astronauts and Deceased Astronauts shows an incredible range of backgrounds, education, and accomplishments! Definitely worth the read.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Breaking Atmo

We took a few brief clips today as we returned to normal life...

Here I am driving Heather's SUV into Georgetown.

My interview of Miss H in her living room.

Turning Of The Page

The end of one story, the beginning of another. Today, we checked out of Seton Northwest Hospital in Austin, TX to begin our journey back to reality.

Funny story – the hospital Administrator & COO, Charles Durant, came up behind me and Devin while we were walking the hallways and asked, “Are you the Pillownauts?” LOL, yes we are! How did you know that word?? News traveled among the staff – at that point, the tremendously exhausted staff, who were all working extra because the hospital was crammed with evacuees. We thanked him for the hospitality during our stay, and let him know we’d had good experiences with the doctors, nurses and physical therapy crew. Thanks Chuck!

Pillow Nauts
Brent also came by this morning for our last exercise session… tormenting us on the stairs today! After that, we were all evaluated by our doctors and released. Marcus went to the airport to catch his plane to Seattle. So long Don Marco! Dánae, aka "Magic Fingers," agreed to get Dumb & Dumber back to civilization. Here is our last Pillownauts group photo, outside the Seton Lobby.

For all other photos of people in the study before the hurricane. see our UTMB Subjects Gallery -- also added to the PHOTO*Galleries in the sidebar.

Here are the photos we took before and after the hurricane, loaded into the Evacuation & Rehab Gallery ... showing all our adventures on the road and during recovery.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Crash Course Rehab

Heather: Here we are, "Three Healthy Cripples," almost able to walk normally. We waited until we were feeling better to describe rehab, because anything we wrote in the past few days would have just sounded like an out-of-tune chorus of OW OUCH OOH OW OW OW OW OUCH OW... (pretty boring).

Devin: We also went from a military sleep pattern to late nights, and also staying up all hours to check the news for hurricane updates. However, one good thing that happened was we all lost the puffiness in our faces, so no more fat-heads.

Heather: Yes, his good looks are intact ;) Getting out of bed in the morning is perhaps the hardest thing. Everything tightens up overnight, but as we move around throughout the day, the achy stiffness lessens and we do laps around the hallways. Marcus can already work up to a slow run, and Devin can navigate stairs now with minimal pain. He's the baby of the bunch and I'm the old lady here, so I'm bringing up the rear.



Devin: Yep, everyone's symptoms and pace are a bit different. For the most part, everyone has horribly sore calves and ankles. Another thing we all have in common is pain in the neck (haha, not just a cliché!) because we have not held our own heads up for months. When I first rose from bed, my calves got all swollen, almost tripling in size. Today is the first day the swelling has come down to almost normal, and I can flex to see what's left of the muscle. In other words, I went from jelly to jello. Not quite the chiseled gladiator I used to be. Marcus has problems in his hips as well as low back pain... and Heather had a little swelling and couldn't get into her shoes again, but that has also gone down. She no longer does the little ballerina spin before she's about to fall over.

Heather: Like I could spin, LOL... but it's nice to see improvement each afternoon. The day we rose from -6, we exerted ourselves too much. We felt good after the initial adjustment, but should have taken it easier that day, because we sure paid for it later! On Day 2, when I got up and tried to limp down the hallway, I thought: "This is what it must feel like to be about 120 years old."

Devin: We're using wheelchairs on occasion, but we've all had a noticeable increase in strength and fluidity of motion... except when Brent is torturing us. He is the exercise physiologist who did all our baseline tests. He and his wife Julie, a Phys. Ed. instructor, came up from Houston to conduct physical therapy with us each day. They basically monitor our work with weights, exercises and stretching routines, then report our progress to the Project Heads at NASA so they can decide when we should be released to go home.


With Brent in the Physical Therapy room

Heather: One of our coordinators, Rene, also brought us mexican food yesterday from Chuy's, a local favorite and our first restaurant meal! This should give you a sense of the ongoing dedication of the people at JSC and UTMB -- because folks like Rene and Brent are also recent evacuees. One lives on Galveston Island, the other in Houston, and both had to outrun Ike as we did. They are staying in Austin, waiting to hear when they can go home again.

Devin: Definitely going above and beyond the call of duty, we couldn't ask for more. We appreciate all their attention even though they must have a thousand other things on their minds. We know we are in good hands.

Heather: My family has been just as awesome. Dánae, my sister-in-law, is a massage therapist, and since our regular one wasn't able to visit, she's taken over that part of our rehabilitation. She made three very sore people VERY happy! Massages may sound trivial or like simple "pampering" on the surface, but when your muscles are practically water and your circulatory system is re-adapting, they become monumentally important to overall function. My brother Vince and my nephew Reece have also visited each day, bringing pizza and chinese food! We're eating SOME healthier foods in the normal hospital meals, but it's been fun to have some comfort foods too! Can't wait until we can go to a restaurant...

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Hometown Headlines

Here is the newspaper I usually get delivered at home, the Austin-American Statesman, and this is the first time I've seen it since July:

Hurricane Ike
Also got a phone call from one of the staff, saying the first floor of UTMB was flooded... so, we are increasingly relieved to have evacuated when we did.

Thank you so much again to everyone who made kind overtures -- and NO, it is not selfish at all to ask questions about our medical aftermath -- it keeps us busy and gives us something to do other than sit around whining about how much our legs hurt ;) We are happy to know folks are interested enough to express concern, and we are truly touched by how many people have said they are pulling for us.

If anything, we felt like we should pipe down about our tiny personal experience with such a gigantic evacuation, given how many hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and how many MILLIONS are now without power or assessing storm damage... but, we only have the power to work through each day, trying to take care of ourselves and each other.

We caused something of a stir among the nurses and patients here. Someone poked their head into my room this morning and said, "Are you one of the NASA people?" He wanted to ask about our study, and many of the nurses have asked for details. The hospital chaplain even descended upon Devin, wanting to know about the criteria for screening! So we are in the good hands of people who are watching us closely for problems, and also helping us reach our fitness goals each day! :)

Friday, September 12, 2008

Voted Off The Island

Where to begin... we have been through so much in the past two days! But first let me just mention we are safe and sound at Seton Hospital in Austin, and we thank everyone for all the calls, emails and comments! This has been a scary venture, and if we thought we had bonded during our unique medical experience, what we've been through now brought us together like never before.

Devin: And second, let me just say: Gravity Sucks. It HURTS.

Heather: Yes it does. After we got an evacuation order, we heard the entire gulf coast might be ordered out, and we only had a short time to get clear of Galveston Island. Our procedure for getting out of bed was accelerated.

Devin: I've seen a few people rise from bed rest. On day 91, they repeat the TILT TEST that we took at the beginning. Long story short, at a normal project-end, we are tilted upward for a brief time, but then leveled down again. A day later is "wheelchair" time. On day 3, you then rise from bed and (try to) walk under close supervision, held by nurses on either side.

Heather: We had to do this in 3 hours instead of 3 days. However, knowing that we were outrunning a possibly fatal storm, adrenaline took over! We each had our beds put level (no more -6 degree slant), but didn't feel much different. About fifteen minutes later, the beds were put an upward incline so our heads came forward. Everyone's blood pressure started to climb at this point, so we just stayed that way for awhile until we each felt like coming fully upright. I had immediate symptoms of disorientation when I turned to dangle my feet over the edge of the bed. They were all tingly! Deron and Kjell visited... they were already making laps around the ward at that point and seemed to be fine. The next blood pressure check was a horrifying number... never seen my BP that high! So I sat back awhile before trying to stand. Then Devin walked by the door.

Devin: I was furthest along at day 78, Heather was on day 50, and Marcus was on day 35. I had major foot pain... luckily no dizziness, but definitely felt very heavy as Nurse Cheryl walked me around. I stood in Heather's doorway and watched her get onto her feet. She came over to give me a hug for the first time.

Getting out of bed...

Heather: I'd never seen him standing before! I immediately felt like I had knives shooting into the soles of my feet, and it was weird to think I had not used my feet in nearly 2 months. I was less steady than Devin, but I knew they had wheelchairs at every door in case we needed to sit on short notice. While all this was going on, people were also bustling about, throwing things into our suitcases, cleaning out rooms, rushing to cover equipment in plastic, unplugging computers and other hardware. Mary, one of our coordinators, brought around packages of Skittles. The diet regiment was over!

Devin: Heather was so mesmerized by my good looks that she then had to run and buy me a bottle of Coca-Cola!

Heather: That's just what I said to get $1.50 out of you for the vending machine.

Devin: You lie. So we had a good sugar buzz going. We put on our NASA shirts, and despite being wobbly, we did a "50-year" photo shoot. It was hugs all around until Deron and Kjell had to leave for the airport, and the majority of the staff departed.

The Bedrest Bunch

Heather: We sure hope Deron and Kjell are able to return and start again, though unfortunately, we who had been head-down longer are de-conditioned, so the study is over for us. We may have follow-up testing, but cannot begin the campaign again in our current state. We look totally drunk tottering around barely able to balance!

Devin: The skeleton crew fed and watered us over the next few hours, as we reminisced over our time in the study. We swapped war stories, and even in what many might consider a moment of tragedy, I, Sarcasmo, rallied the troops and kept everyone's morale high with my comedic humor. Truly, many Hallmark moments. Especially when Heather collapsed in the cafeteria when we went for sandwiches.

Heather: Yes, ironic that I was the first to hit the floor, considering Marcus asked for a wheelchair first! We were told that sort of thing was normal, but I underestimated how incredibly FAST it can happen. One moment everything felt fine, the next, my legs wouldn't lock. You just have to rest in between limping about. We were finally called down to the lobby to get in "line" -- or rather, join the masses of beds, people, IV poles and oh my lord! I've been in fire drills, but never seen anything like this. You would not believe what it takes to evacuate an entire hospital campus, much less a whole island.

Devin: Organized chaos! Buses and emergency vehicles as far as the eye could see, down every street... I kept thinking of the movie "Convoy." 56,000 were being displaced in a fairly short period, and we found out later, more than 200,000 in Houston and across the Gulf Coast zip codes. We saw water pumps and sand bags coming in, and thus began the Three Amigos Ambulance Adventure!

The Triple-A

We got on the road in a fleet of ten ambulances headed north to various hospitals. We give a big shout out to Ashley and Jodi, our EMTs from St. Louis Emergency Services, deployed by FEMA. They're driving up and down Texas, sleeping in the back of their rig, making sure invalids like us make it to safety. It took 6 hours to reach the capital, and we checked in around 2:00am for some much-needed sleep. Way past our 10:00pm bedtime!

Heather: So that was yesterday. Today can be summed up in one word: PAIN. Our muscles are springing to life again, and like most people, we are glued to the news, watching Hurricane Ike. The route our ambulance took less than 24 hours ago is now under water! So although we are sorry to see our project end, we think they made the right decision and we are pretty darned glad not to be on Galveston! And we are very concerned for all the folks who had to evacuate their homes... we now know first-hand how alarming this upheaval can be.

Devin: Absolutely... our deepest sympathies to our extended UTMB family, many of whom had to pack and leave very quickly, and we hope they don't suffer any damages or losses! Everyone is in our thoughts and prayers.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hurricane Ike

Sad news today. This morning, the entire island of Galveston prepared to evacuate. The projected path of the hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico looks to be right on target to hit us. It may or may not, but the mayor and hospital administrators aren't going to chance it. We all rose a few hours ago and have been coping with gravity! No easy task when trying to pack to outrun a lethal storm!

So, here we are, Back on Earth. We are sad and disappointed, and it's hard not to be angry at the weather -- because of course we all would have preferred to finish our studies. Deron and Kjell, who had been down a shorter time, were driven to the airport and will fly home. Devin, Marcus and I may have health concerns now, because we've been head-down longer, and will require rehabilitation.

We three are now sitting upright, having a meal together and awaiting medical vehicles to arrive and drive us to a hospital in Austin, where we will continue re-conditioning and physical therapy.

We took some group photos this morning as we bid the staff farewell. We're pretty bummed NASA couldn't get more data out of us, but we're all pleased that many of us hit good milestones where our tests will be added to existing databanks.

The priority right now is simply to outrun the monster storm. So please keep all the good folk of the Texas coast in your thoughts and prayers, and we'll all check in again when we have an internet connection again!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Cardiovascular Functions

Some of the most commonly repeated tests are heart and blood vessel measurements... barely a week goes by without some combination of them. Usually, we only have a light breakfast of fruit before these, and then when the suite of tests are done, we have the rest of the meal.

On the main TESTS list page, there are new links to the three main Cardiovascular Tests, most of which are done at the same time, or in varied combinations with Reactive Hyperemia, where they inflate blood pressure cuffs on our arms and legs for about 7 minute intervals, and take measurements of vessels all over the body...

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Would you?

Space Travel
Exlcuding the goofy Muppet reference... and you had the cash just... lying around ;)

Monday, September 8, 2008

Chamitoff Reaches 100 Days

I've been following this chap because, technically, we're both feeling similar micro-gravity effects and also because we both go home at the same time in November, LOL... I'm quite sure he's working a great deal harder than I am, so I try not to begrudge the fact that HE gets to ride home on Space Shuttle Endeavor when I have to fly Southwest Airlines.

Anyway, for those of you who are interested in life on Earth's space station 220 miles up, Flight Engineer Greg Chamitoff was assigned to Expedition 17 and flew to the ISS on STS-124 Discovery, launching on 31 May 2008. He replaced Flight Engineer Garrett Reisman, who many of you may have seen on his two appearances on the Colbert Report (pictured below "on TV" and also in an interview clip on a past post in July).

NASA astronautsGarrett Reisman & Gregory Chamitoff

I posted a brief video of Greg back in my mention of the NASA Channel. You can keep up on his chess games with Houston ground control, and he also just did another Q&A session, where 7-year-old Emily from Idaho asked him: "Why we can't get gravity and put it in a jar?!" I'm with her ;)

In the News...

I am not sure if I should be amused or alarmed by these items in the morning news...

Stephen Colbert - NASA

Stephen Colbert interviews Astronaut
'Well Above-Average' Hurricane Season For 2008

Saturday, September 6, 2008


Day 58 of the study, and day 45 of the bed rest phase! Hard to believe! It seems to have gone swiftly to this point, but I find myself wondering if it will seem slower on the downhill side. Not too much happening at the moment... many consecutive days with no procedures for little moi. The newest head-down crowd also had some delays. We all went on high alert when it looked like Hurricane Gustav was potentially headed our way, but didn’t get even a drop of rain, so testing resumed soon after. Next week will see repeats of dorsal vein tests for me... I’ll be interested to see if those or other tests show any blog-worthy changes.

There are now definitely some noticeable physical and mental changes... the most irritating of which is that I cannot read for long periods anymore; either my focus wanders, or I feel like I might doze off, so I must vary my activities a bit more often to stay alert, particularly in the late afternoon. Things like meals, exercise and showers help, and I find I’m also listening to louder music throughout the day. My mother must have seen that coming – she just mailed me a heavy metal CD, which utterly cracked me up!

My neck seems like it’s always a bit stiff, though that may simply be normal tension from using the laptop & mouse a great deal during the day. Typing upward is getting to be more of a challenge, as I notice my arms have weakened. It seems to take a slightly more effort to type or write, though I still do plenty of both. The soles of my feet are tingly to the touch now, and they are baby soft from lack of use. I was told to expect all of this, and it is indeed occurring! They ask daily if I have pain anywhere, and other than intermittent sinus pressure, my answer is almost always no.

One weird thing that I hadn’t predicted is random eye-watering episodes. For no reason, sometimes my eyes glaze over and secrete excess unexpectedly. Perhaps my tear ducts simply chose this time to rebel against being upside down?? There is rarely any warning or pattern for it... I won’t have any foreign object in my eye or be engaged in a weepy movie... sometimes I just move my head to the side or blink, and lacrimal fluid slides down my temples. Harmless but odd.

I’ve settled into a routine here, and I think at this point I’ve met all of the staff involved, even those who only come and go infrequently. Overall I just feel a bit tired sometimes, but I’m so pleased with all I have been able to read, write and accomplish! I updated my Activities List, and there are new pieces of mail in the Postcard Exchange. For everyone who emailed me this past week, Devin and I did a marathon of card-writing so check your mailboxes! :)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Neuroscience Team & Test

The description of our Functional Neurological Assessment has been added to the TEST section, and here is an interview with some of my favorite folks to work with here, two members of the Human Adaptation and Countermeasures Division.

Matthew Fiedler - Biomedical Engineer - Neurosciences Labs
Born in the quiet farming village of Scranton, Iowa, which he describes as “miles from nowhere,” Matthew earned his Master’s degree in Biomechanics and Exercise Science from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Good to know NASA recruits in Captain Kirk’s homestead… describe what you mean by a quiet farming village?
Matthew: Scranton is a peaceful place where folks are practiced in the art of plain living. There is sun and rain enough for the crops to grow, the animals to graze and the birds to sing. I like to take my daughter there when I can. Altogether there are no more than a few hundred people in and around my home town. It's the kind of place where the graduating seniors would drive their tractors around the school honking horns and cheering.

And how did you get on the path to pursuing a job at the Johnson Space Center?
Matthew: I was contacted by Wyle (NASA subcontractor) a little over a year ago. I had never expected to be involved in the space program, and since coming here it has been one nice surprise after another…I enjoy the quality of my colleagues and the working atmosphere at NASA. I feel fortunate to be working in a strong engineering and research environment.

NASA Neuro Team
Of course I only see you when I do balance tests at UTMB, but what other types of work do you do in the "home office laboratory"?
In addition to the -6 bed rest I am involved in several other projects. In a related study, I am part of a team developing the lunar analog simulation which resembles head down bed rest only the bed is tilted up 9.5 degrees. This mimics the condition of being on the moon and allows scientist and engineers to study the physiological effects of lunar gravity on humans.

I’ve seen the gear, it's awesome to think we'll use it on the moon! When you’re not with us, do you work with actual astronauts?
Yes, I study concepts of postural stability (or lack thereof) in the astronauts returning from space and how terrestrial space suit design affects the stability of the person inside it. Personnel in the neuroscience lab study the effects of different motion environments on humans, pre-flight adaptation and virtual reality training, and sensorimotor stimulus.

Have you ever done these tests yourself?
I have been tested on the platform a number of times. The first time is memorable because it is such a novel experience. It is a good test for the body's physiological systems related to balance. Reading your blog often, by the way... and you explain the science and "reasons for the science" in such clear terms it makes me happy.

Good to know! And always feel free to jump in with corrections so I know I'm getting this stuff right as I learn about it too...
Johnson Space Center TeamJulie Esteves - Research Specialist - Neurosciences Laboratory
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Julie attended Williams College in Massachusetts, where she earned a B.A. in Biology and Psychology with a Neuroscience concentration. She started her research career in San Diego but soon decided she’d rather be closer to her family, and moved near her sister in Houston.

So how did you get on the path to pursuing a job at the Johnson Space Center?
“I've always been interested in the space program. Who isn't?? And I was even more curious when I found out about the available opportunities. To be honest, I wasn't aware they even had a Neurosciences lab onsite! It's great to be a part of this enormous effort and it's especially rewarding to see so many disciplines working together. I was drawn to the Flight Analog Project and about how we can mimic spaceflight in order to study its effects on the human body. It's not just about going to the moon and Mars (although that is unbelievably exciting), but we can also apply this research to our everyday life here on Earth.”

What is most important about your area of expertise?
The balance control system helps keep the astronauts safe after spaceflight by ensuring they are able to go back to their normal routines. Driving and bending down become harder, since their bodies need time to re-adapt to Earth's gravity. This same posture system is also used the test the elderly and patients with inner ear problems.

Have you ever done these tests yourself so you get a feel for what astronauts and FAs go through?
I'm actually now in the process of finishing up my Air Force Class III physical in order to participate as a subject in several different projects, including a normative Balance Control study, so I've been asked not to be tested on the posture platform just yet. While I was at the Human Test Subject Facility, however, I met someone who's been a subject at JSC for over 20 years and was involved in a study which led to the shuttle's onboard hygiene system! The study required a strict "no showering or washing your hair at home" policy and only taking care of personal hygiene at the study site.”

Yeah, what a shame there is no blog for that study ;)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Ongoing Q&A

Devin rolled over to my room for a visit, so we could type weekly Q&A... and brought his pet fish so he could (and I am not making this up) "take Sharkie for a walk." Time for another psyche assessment dude.

GregL of Santa Clara asks: If you have an evacuation, does that end the test? Or do they take you inland and keep going?
Pillownaut answers: I was told before I started that if we must evacuate for a hurricane, we would be wheeled on a gurney into a sizeable vehicle, and driven to a safe destination off the island. Each time a storm has come “within range,” we’ve gotten phone calls from Wyle, who ask if we wish to leave voluntarily, though no one has elected to do so.
Sarcasmo answers: NASA can make their own decision to evacuate earlier as well, and we can go with the other UTMB patients to whatever safe facility everyone was heading... say, if we couldn’t get to Houston due to flooding in between I guess.

We had to research other possible events, because I only knew the weather drill. So…
Nurse Tammy says: In the event of a localized emergency such as a fire… it would depend on where fire broke out. We can roll beds to other wards and close fireproof doors behind us. If that isn’t possible, and we cannot use the elevators, all subjects would immediately have to sit up. We have special Garaventa Evacu-Trac CD7 Evacuation Chairs inside wall units. Every subject would be fastened into one of these and "rolled" (or really, "slid") down the stairs. In both cases, the study would end. Whether wheeled out or down, subjects would ultimately be flown home to complete rehabilitation somewhere near where they live.

Cindy Heitman of Lena, IL asks: I was wondering about the meds they are injecting. Is there anything that may come back to haunt you later in life? Did you sign a waiver releasing them from responsibility if something happens to you as a result of the tests, or even if you get an infection at an IV site? I work in a hospital and know how "bugs" run rampant there.
Pillownaut answers: If we have any problems as a result of testing, they are committed to treating us. Of course, we all hope we have no long-term ‘hauntings,’ but the truth is we just don’t know. I asked the same question during screening, and we were given a written description of everything that would be injected. The medications have one or many of the following effects:
  • Constrict blood vessels
  • Enlarge or relax blood vessels
  • Treat nasal congestion or reduce inflammation
  • Raise or lower blood pressure
  • Raise or lower heartbeat rate

And yes, we definitely signed stacks of papers. It boiled down to us accepting "reasonable risk." Also, the meds are given in such tiny amounts that side effects are rare. The worst I’ve had is headaches from the meds that widen vessels, and among the group, some other subjects have described mild to severe nausea. Fingers crossed that it never gets any worse than that!
Sarcasmo answers: One of the papers we signed said that if anything happened, they would cover all the medical care… we’d be transferred into the UTMB complex as a regular patient. I suppose if it was something we didn’t disclose, like a pre-existing medical condition, it would be our own deal – but if it’s caused by the study, they take care of us before sending us home. I also got a headache from the nitro, but that’s common for everyone, even heart patients who take it by prescription for cardiac events.

DevRay of Austin, TX asks: Er, dear heart, 12 pull-ups is actually pretty good compared to some of us who can’t even do one. Are you TRYING to make us sick?
Pillownaut answers: LOL, no not in the least, and I apologize to anyone who looked at that and imagined a comparison. I only compare myself to what I used to be able to do at a younger age. Back in high school I could fire those out during the fitness tests every year, and I simply cannot anymore. That was genuinely all I meant.
Sarcasmo answers: Okay sissies, here’s what a real man can do. I did 36 of those bad-boys. FEEL THE BURN. The second try, I did 42.
Pillownaut: Okay see now we know why I felt like a wimp for doing 12. I could SO outrun you though ;)

Patrick in Connecticut asks:
1) How much space do you get for stuff?
2) Are hand weights allowed? Webcams?
3) When moved, do nurses push the beds or do you get land oars?
4) Have you considered trying to contact Mike Rowe to get him to shoot part of an episode of Dirty Jobs on the bedrest study? You may not get dirty, but I think it would fit in rather well for an episode, given how the study is at times.

Pillownaut answers: Space-wise, we each have a closet of shelves and a 3-drawer dresser. We also have a table on each side of the bed where we stack books and DVDs, but mostly those are for our laptops and meal trays. No handweights allowed, but yes on the webcams, a few folks have had those. And sorry, I had to google Mike Rowe, as I have never seen that show.
Sarcasmo answers: They requested we keep luggage to a minimum due to limited space. I drove down, so I left my suitcase in my car. Those who fly just set them behind furniture. We’re told to bring 7 days worth of clothing, and that’s really all you need. They wash our laundry weekly. We are not allowed to push ourselves with anything. Some previous study subjects could reach to the floor and move the bed along, but that is no longer allowed. The new rule is two staff per bed in terms of rolling us around… although that might just be to avoid smacking the beds into the wall! Good idea on Dirty Jobs! Not so much for the subjects, but maybe he could do the nursing job here for a day ;)

Want to see some (more interesting!) Q&A ? Click here for Astronaut Greg Chamitoff's recent written and video replies from the International Space Station! I love the part where he and Sergei Volkov give one another haircuts...

Monday, September 1, 2008


There is a new link on the sidebar for a Postcard Exchange.

Many people have requested space-themed cards from me, and my family/friends are also sending a great collection of incoming images... (I figure I am not spending anything on gasoline, I may as well make it up in stamps!) I have dozens outgoing at this point and will certainly continue until I return home.

Would you like a NASA postcard? Email me at, as also noted in my profile contact section. I have a great stash of cards from the Johnson Space Center and would be happy to address to your kids, class or any other recipient.

Care to send one to us to share your city, state or a nearby landmark that is special to you? It might be fun to see how many states and countries we can feature! Email me for our address and anything sent will guarantee a return :)