Thursday, June 27, 2013

NASA Bedrest Double Duty


Following updates on the European Space Agency flight simulations, I'm happy to say I see new press about JSC sims too! Rooms in the NASA facility are full again!

Justin Ciaciura of Conroe, Texas completed a 105-day study. 70 days were spent tilted, so he beat my 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... freaking awesome, however: $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 wears off pretty quick. This is hard work. 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, as measured by DEXA Scans, can lose mineral density and mass, plasma volume can decrease, heart and surrounding muscles can change, and your sense of balance and depth perception, as measured by posturography, can go... what's the technical term? Totally wonky.

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

NASA Research Studies

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

Many 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, but many of us are willing to do it for the sake of future space exploration. Howard described his typical days, with 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 weighed in with scientific descriptions of things the studies explore about bone, muscle, and bodily fluids.

NASA Vertical Treadmill
Howard and Dr. Cromwell list behavioral and medical tests  -- many of which are analogs of everything done to astronauts before, during, and after spaceflight. I found the third segment the most interesting, where Howard describes returning to normal gravity, noting things the body must "re-learn" in order to walk, resume daily tasks, drive a car, 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 fearmongering on the internet; read stories like these about people who have actually completed them.

Only active, healthy people with strong bones and great blood pressure are selected in the first place, and we are HIGHLY motivated to get back into shape again afterwards. Every participant gets us one step closer to Mars!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Pillownauts Across The Pond

Vladyslav Atavin is back!  Last year, in his blog, Astronaut of the Pillow, Vlad was kind enough to share his experiences while participating in the European Space Agency Flight Simulations. Their French, Irish, Austrian, German, and Italian scientists came together to conduct tests similar to those I underwent at NASA.
Oh, the things we do for science!

Last December, Vlad wrote about the first phase of their experiments in French.  In April, he completed phase two, and wrote about his medical tests in English. The third phase, set for autumn of 2013, will be recorded in Russian. FlightSim sure is turning into an international endeavour!

There are twelve individuals in their ongoing study: 10 Frenchmen, 1 Spaniard, and 1 Russian.

The entire program is ambitious in size and scope:
Four pillownauts will spend 21 days at a head-down tilt while engaging in recumbent weight-training and a vibrating exercise contraption. Another foursome will engage in the same, but add whey protein to their diets to see if there is any difference in muscle building. A final four will spend the same amount of time in bed, but lacking any of these attempts at "countermeasures."  Throughout the program, they will undergo various tests and experiments.

2011: the year the term PILLOWNAUT crossed the pond

These studies, with Mars in mind as a destination, are designed to find countermeasures to keep astronauts and cosmonauts healthier on long-duration missions. Vlad's detailed journal includes descriptions of program phases, photographs of the study facility, lists of his requirements and protocols, medical tests, and how the subjects spend their leisure time.

Many protocols are identical to those used at NASA: -6 degree tilt, food regimen, calculated fluid intake, blood tests and urinalysis, plasma volume measurements, DEXA bone scans, and neurological balance tests; and also minor details, such as having to shave certain body areas to accommodate electrodes, and having massages to prevent thrombosis.

Poor Vlad had to shave his hand, wrist, and leg for various tests, including multiple biopsies. So dedicated! He still looks great, in spite of it all! Rehab and exercise after FlightSim is no easy matter, but he met all the challenges...

Reading his daily updates brought back so many memories of my own experiences with the many tests: Posturography, Isometric muscle activities and of course, the dreaded Tilt Tests.  We did so many of the same things! (With slight differences in style and equipment.) It's been fun to compare my logs to his in terms of his work in Toulouse, France -- and my work in Galveston, Texas.

Honestly though, he does something a LOT that I never did in any of my Flight Simulation programs: he constantly gets folks to photograph him shirtless. Ladies, enjoy!

If you think you might be interested in participating in such paid studies, they tend to be very lucrative for healthy volunteers -- and now they are going on across three continents!  I used to get many international questions, and always had to break it to people that NASA only takes US citizens. But the Russian and European space agencies will now be conducting analog FlightSims, too.

Keep your eyes peeled for application promotions -- and of course, whenever I hear of a new study that is recruiting, you will see it here on my blog!

Sunday, June 16, 2013



50 years ago today, on June 16, 1963, Soviet Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the very first woman to fly a space mission. During 70+ hours in orbit on Vostok VI, she completed 48 orbits of planet Earth, which was more than all the American astronauts of Project Mercury combined!

Valentina Tereshkova 50th Anniversary

Later that same year, the hardy young Tereshkova married cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev, and their daughter, Elena, was the first child born to parents who both went into space.

Born in 1937, Valentina was only 26 years old at the time of her mission, making her the youngest space traveler up to that date. Training included isolation tests, centrifuge spins, rocket theory, spacecraft engineering, weightless flights, 120 parachute jumps and pilot training in MiG-15UTI jet fighters.

Valentina TereshkovaВалентина Терешкова

During her 3-day trip on Vostok 6, Tereshkova collected the first data on the female body's reaction to spaceflight; she also conducted experiments, manually maneuvered the capsule, and took photographs of the horizon from space, which were later used to identify aerosol layers within the atmosphere.

Tereshkova went on to graduate from the Zhuykosky Air Force Engineering Academy in 1969, and earned a PhD in Technical Science in 1976. She was awarded the title "Hero of the Soviet Union," received two Orders of Lenin, the Joliot-Curie Medal, and was honored with the UN Gold Medal of Peace. Of course, these are just a few of the dozens of awards from many nations.

Cosmonaut Tereshkova
Woman of the Century

She even has a crater on the moon named after her! There is also a main belt asteroid, "1671 Chaika", which commemorates the callsign of her space capsule.  In the year 2000, Russia's "Cinderella of the Stars" was named the "Female Achiever of the 20th Century."

To this day, Valentina is still the only woman who ever flew a SOLO space mission.

Although there were already "plans on paper" for further space flights by Russian women, it was 19 years until the second, Svetlana Savitskaya, flew in 1982. 

Валентина Терешкова
Major General Valentina Tereshkova

 And yeah, let's pretend the Russians weren't the only Good Ol’ Boys club, considering it took the American space program a further year to put Sally Ride in space on Shuttle Challenger in 1983. Seems hard to believe now, but apparently those guys in the 1960s thought they were going somewhere without us.

Good luck with that :)

But hey, let's appreciate progress and end this on a happy note! Cartoonist/musician and all-around awesome gal Lucy Knisley wrote a beautiful song about Tereshkova, called simply "Valentina"... and included it on her album, "Handsewn" in 2011.  You can listen to the tune and download a free MP3 from her PureVolume collection.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Beyond the Space Choir


I took a break from writing, partly because I was on the road for 23 days, and wanted to focus on events with fellow spacetweeps, and partly because WiFi was often undependable unless on a handheld device. (I find it hard to blog on an iPhone.)

Between the SpaceFest Conference, Space Shuttle Endeavour, and Mojave Space Port, I detoured to visit college pals in Hollywood, California -- stepping conspicuously out of both my comfort zone and knowledge base. I could pick Tom Hanks out of a line-up, but sometimes feel like I have no idea what anyone is talking about when it comes to modern entertainment. If there are no hockey pucks or Star Trek uniforms involved, I am often out of the loop!

The Temple, and Reigning God of Hollywood

In a world of celebrity power, where every waiter or valet is a struggling actor hoping to stumble over an agent, where stars tip off paparazzi via speed dial just so they can "pretend" to wave off photographs at restaurants (yes, I just learned that's how it actually works), and where wealthy film producers "hold court" at schmoozy-boozy business meetings disguised as lobster-and-diamond encrusted parties, there is no way to relate.

Science holds little sway, here. Everyone is trying to find the perfect formula for getting famous, staying famous, making the next awesome TV show that lasts 10 seasons, or the perfect movie that profits hugely at the Box Office and wins an Oscar ... but there's no single way to accomplish any of these things! By all accounts, much of it is accidental, or at least far off any charted course.

My college pal joked that we both chose careers "among the stars", and we laughed together. Certainly the truth! I come from a world where everyone wants to be an astronaut. Everyone wants a huge budget, but for completely different reasons. It is amusing, however, that a simple synonym applies to both of our worlds, which couldn't possibly be more categorically far apart.

Emmy, the lesser money God, but no less worshiped
(Hey, I've never done a selfie with anything that didn't fly!)

In the space of 3 days, I was invited to two film screenings with "industry people", and enjoyed two evenings in lush theatres at the two big academies: motion picture and television. While awaiting seating at the TV venue, couples nearby asked what I had seen in Los Angeles so far, and seemed surprised I had visited Space Shuttle Endeavour. They were long-time residents, but none had gone to see it. None had plans to see it. None were interested.

Why not? I wanted to know. Didn't you know it flew 25 missions, made nearly 5,000 orbits, carried 154 astronauts, docked to 2 space stations, and deployed satellites? They neither knew nor much cared, though I gathered this not at all from hostile disinterest. Nothing about the conversations were terse or competitive -- they were just amazed I had come to L.A. specifically for the Space Shuttle.

It simply wasn't part of their world. It was entirely removed from what they cared about on a daily basis, and they were living what seemed like fairly happy lives without worrying about space in any way. Fair enough, I shrugged, since I don't really care about Johnny Depp's new film, this season's hot pilots, or whether the newest attempt at translating the book "The Great Gatsby" into a movie would be successful or profitable. [Hint: Not.]

They figured, and I quote: "Isn't the space program over?"  However, one did know enough to ply me with questions about the "robot that got parachuted down to Mars" (another direct quote). They were surprised to know NASA has 80 (yes, eighty!) active missions.  Once their interest was piqued, the entire conversation turned to space exploration, our existing hardware in the solar system, and they were 12 different kinds of WOWed when I told them both Voyagers are in the outermost layer of the heliosphere.

Great! Now at least 5 more people in our country understand the definition of HELIOSPHERE.

It was then that I realized: I spend most of my outreach time "preaching to the choir" about space news and space concerns -- and not enough time reaching out to people who know nothing about space programs. In the industry, or in science circles, it's easy to imagine that everyone is interested in missions and the next space station being built... but honestly, youngsters in upcoming generations know more about singers, movie stars, and the newest celebrities performing voice-overs in video games than they may ever know about astronauts.

Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Sciences Center

I wondered, do I talk about space too much? Are my family or older friends humoring me? I've always been interested in science, but for those who don't live and breathe the space program each day, will I lose the ability to talk casually about anything else?  Or am I worried about the wrong thing. Even if some people think I'm a "rocket launch chatterbox" -- should I care? Shouldn't I always be a guaranteed pillar of verbal or social media outreach?

Most of my twitter followers and my entire chosen feed are "Spacetweeps" or people who have attended NASA events. They want to hear and read and talk about space all day, too. Most of my Facebook (and Myspace, Pinterest, Tumblr!) friends are space enthusiasts, or work for a space agency/company somewhere in the world. The bulk of my photos are space-related tourism, space museums, space crafts, or events at space conferences in various states or foreign countries.

In the same way Hollywood people are just gobsmacked that not everyone is holding their breath for the next big buzz in the mighty entertainment industry, I genuinely forget there are people out there who aren't anticipating the next major launch or astronaut selection announcement.

After much pondering, I thought -- perhaps the question isn't whether I'm talking about space too much or not enough, but am I singing the hallelujah praises to the right people?  I'd love to have more opportunities to discuss missions and milestones with "civilians" outside of spage agencies, particularly those who may simply never have the chance to see a launch, a NASA press conference, a Mars rover animation video, or shake hands with someone who has traveled into space.

Perhaps, when all is said and done, I should stop "preaching to the existing space choir" -- and start more conversations with people in line for the movies: "Hey, new random friend, did you know that Curiosity is coming up on her 1-year anniversary on Mars?!"

My goal now is to make at least one-person-per-day understand what that means and truly CARE about it by the time anniversary is actually upon us.