Space Makes Astronauts Weak; This Suit Aims to Toughen Them Up
Amid the excitement around the idea of a manned mission to Mars, a sad possibility exists, according to Dr. David Green, a senior lecturer of human and aerospace physiology at King's College London. In an interview with the BBC, Dr. Green says that, "When man takes the first small step on Mars, there is a strong possibility the space traveler could end up with a broken hip."
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Green is part of a team of researchers who have developed skin-tight space suit designed to prevent a health problem unique to space travel — muscle loss and spine expansion.
While the zero gravity of space makes for some amazing acrobatic feats, the lack of gravity also takes a toll on an astronaut's body. Even during short stints — like lunar voyages or tottering around a space station — the lack of gravity has been found to weaken the immune system (astronauts have been known to experience reoccurrences of childhood bouts of the chicken pox) and even shrink muscles. A 2010 study of several astronauts' skeletal muscles before and after six-month space station voyages found that regardless of the physicality of the 30- to 50-year-old astronauts before departure, and despite the fact that space protocol requires two hours of exercise a day, they returned to earth with the musculature of an 80-year old. And though muscles wither and shrink, the spine painfully expands rendering your average astronaut roughly three inches taller in outer space than on Earth. While many of us wouldn't mind an added inch or two of added height, the spine's expansion could lead to long-term back and health problems. According to estimates, a trip to Mars would take three times as long — roughly 18 months there and back for a total of three years, putting tremendous strain on astronauts bodies and possibly rendering them all but ineffective upon arrival.
The project Dr. Green is working on uses designs developed at MIT, an international team of researchers, and both Italian and American tailors, to develop a suit composed of several layers of elastic material woven in two directions to gradually produce head-to-toe tension. Microgravity suits aren't new. Russian astronauts first began using the Pingvin exercise suit, or penguin suit, in the 70s, but astronauts complained it was uncomfortable and prone to overheating. And, perhaps most importantly, it didn't fully resolve the issues of muscle loss and spine expansion.
Dr. Green and his team hope that this suit will be more comfortable and more effective. And, like many space aged technologies it could have use on the ground as well — helping bedbound patients retain muscle mass. Such patients can lose as much as 15 percent of muscle mass in a single week.
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