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!