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Ball State researchers play major role keeping astronauts healthy

Wednesday, April 23, 2014 - 12:01 am

Twenty years ago, members of Ball State University’s Human Performance Laboratory were intrigued by NASA’s simple but daring proposition for researchers at universities across the nation: Identify and create an optimal exercise program to protect the health of astronauts as they lived and worked in space.

NASA knew that long-duration space flights were the next opportunity for expanding human reach in our small part of the cosmos as the International Space Station was being designed and various governments around the world were discussing trips to Mars. It called upon researchers at universities and colleges around the United States, Europe and Russia to work together to determine how exercise could be used as a countermeasure to the effects of space flight.

Our journey began in the mid-1990s with a 17-day space shuttle flight. An HPL team evaluated muscle and cardiovascular function of astronauts before takeoff, during flight and upon landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Using special scientific tools, our goal was to examine how the human body changed while in space. We learned a tremendous amount from that first space flight, and it set in motion a productive and rewarding relationship with NASA.

In 2001, we tested our first astronaut as part of a six-month stay on the ISS. Five years later, we had tested 10 astronauts from the U.S. and Russian space programs. Our research team traveled to the Russian Space Center to test the astronauts within hours after they landed in Kazakhstan.

Around the same time, we were also traveling to Toulouse, France, to be part of a 90-day bed rest study.

As it turns out, strict bed rest mimics what happens to the human body while in space for similar periods of time. Volunteers went to bed for 90 days and were not allowed to get up for anything. Our job was to test a new exercise program using equipment designed for use while in bed to see if we could protect the health of these extraordinary volunteers.

It didn’t take long for researchers around the world to understand that the space environment is very harsh on the human body. Simply, if astronauts went to space for six months and did not exercise, they would return to Earth as frail as an 80-year-old. We quickly came to the conclusion that exercise is very powerful for protecting human health while in space and here on Earth.

In 2011, with newly installed and more advanced exercise equipment on the space station, NASA began a new set of scientific experiments on astronaut health. We are now studying a new generation of astronauts who are performing the most advanced exercise program ever tested.

Our research partnership with NASA has been an incredible experience. We have traveled the globe on this project, but we’ve also looked up at the skies from our backyards as the International Space Station passed over, wondering how the exercises were being handled in zero gravity.

We will take a look back at the last two decades Friday, when Ball State hosts representatives from NASA in a free event open to the public. Our team has plenty of video and pictures to share what we have learned about astronaut health and how this translates to aging and athletics here on Earth.

NASA will also have its Driven to Explore exhibit on site, which includes imagery and audio and visual technology to connect visitors with the space program. NASA is even bringing a moon rock — one of only eight lunar samples in the world made available for the public to touch.

Twenty years may seem like a long time, but it’s just the beginning for our trips into space. We believe that Ball State and our partners at other universities will play an important role in developing exercise equipment and workouts that will keep our astronauts healthy as they travel to the stars.

Scott Trappe is the director of Ball State’s Human Performance Laboratory and the university’s John and Janice Fisher professor of exercise science. Ball State will host a presentation from NASA about Ball State’s research 3-5 p.m. in Pruis Hall. NASA’s Driven to Explore exhibit will located outside of Pruis from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Both the presentation and exhibit are free and open to the public.