Research in Space
Gideon B. Ariel, Ph.D.
Biomechanics is fundamental to understanding the work
performance capabilities of humans in space. Biomechanics as practiced by NASA has the
primary goal of conducting operationally-oriented research focusing on maximizing
astronaut on-orbit performance capabilities. One immediate and important objective of this
research is to minimize the effects of deconditioning during spaceflight using
individualized exercise "prescriptions" and in-flight exercise facilities
combined with extensive biomechanical analysis of movement in micro-gravity. Results from
experiments on the Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab missions suggest that regular exercise is
helpful in minimizing several aspects of spaceflight deconditioning (1,2,3). In fact,
exercise is the only countermeasure that can potentially counteract the combined
cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and neuromuscular effects of adaptation. One of the ways
the human body reacts to the reduced physiological and mechanical demands of micro-gravity
is by a deconditioning of the cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and neuromuscular systems.
Deconditioning produces a multitude of physical changes such as loss of muscle mass,
decreases in bone density and body calcium. It is also responsible for decreased muscle
performance, strength and endurance, orthostatic intolerance, and overall decreases in
aerobic and anaerobic fitness. Deconditioning presents operational problems during
spaceflight and upon return to I-G. Muscular and cardiovascular deconditioning contributes
to decreased work capacity during physically demanding extravehicular activities (EVAs);
neuromuscular and perceptual changes precipitate alterations in magnitude estimation, or
the so-called "input-offset" phenomenon; and finally, decreased vascular
compliance can lead to syncopal episodes upon re-entry and landing. Extravehicular
activity is the most physically demanding task that astronauts perform on-orbit. Space
Station Freedom and manned Lunar and Mars missions will greatly increase the number,
frequency, and complexity of EVA's within the next 10 to 20 years.
The purpose of our biomechanical analysis in space is to
provide a program of exercise countermeasures that will minimize the operational
consequences of microgravity-induced deconditioning by providing individualized exercise
'prescriptions' for each crew member. Task requirements have been defined in terms of the
musculoskeletal and neuromuscular system demands induced by microgravity, and training
protocols developed to address deconditioning in these systems to serve as the basis for
training prescriptions. To achieve these training protocols it was necessary to develop
flight exercise hardware and associated software related to biomechanical measurement
Some of the critical issues that had to be addressed in
order to achieve the above goals were:
- What type of exercise devices such as weight training,
bicycling, rowing, swimming, running, etc. are necessary to train all of the organ systems
affected by deconditioning?
- Which indices are the most reliable indicators of changes in
- Which reliable indicators of changes in fitness best
describe the changes caused by deconditioning?
- How does training in micro-gravity differ from training in
- What are the differences between training that includes
impact forces and training that uses non-impact forces?
- Can an artificial intelligence expert system be developed to
aid in monitoring, controlling, and adjusting prescriptions?
Next, an exercise dynamometer had to be designed for
exercise purposes that could also analyse muscle functions and efficiencies. Some of the
requirements of such an in-flight O-G exercise dynamometer were:
- The flexibility of performing exercises and diagnostics in
isotonic, isokinetic, isometric, accommodating velocity at variable loads as well as
accommodating resistance at variable speeds, or any combination of these exercise
- The ability to perform exercises and diagnostics from a
pre-programmed sequence of tests and exercises stored on computer disk. The investigators
needed to be able to prescribe for object, testing and rehabilitation programs from a
library of specialized programs or be able to create specific protocols tailored for a
- To offer user-friendly, menu-driven software packages which
would be easy learned and are simple to operate.
- To allow for data transfer to other commercial or custom
software packages for extraordinary graphing, data report formats, statistical analysis,
- Allow for external analog data acquisition that could be
correlated with the acquired force curves such as electromyographic and load cell data.
Such a system has been developed by the author and its
utilization in a micro-gravity environment shows great promise.
- Thornton, W. et al. In: Biomedical Results From Skylab,
Chapter 21, NASA, 1977.
- Johnson, R.S. In: Biomedical Results From Skylab, Chapter 1,
- Moore, T.P. Proceedings of NASA Sponsored Workshop On
Exercise Prescription For Long-Duration Space Flight, Houston, Texas, 1989.