Feb. 6, 2001 University Park, PA -- This March, four Penn State undergraduate engineering students will risk their equilibrium and stomachs aboard NASA's KC135, the "Vomit Comet," to test modifications to exercise equipment used in space.
Chosen as participants in NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, the group will test a modification of the Subject Load Device, the equipment currently used aboard the shuttle to tether astronauts to a treadmill in an attempt to ward off microgravity-induced osteoporosis. "We don't know whether astronauts are loading their hips and spines to levels found here on Earth," says Dr. James Pawelczyk, assistant professor of kineseology and one of the group's co-advisers. Pawelczyk was a payload specialist during STS-90 on the space shuttle Columbia.
NASA's current Subject Load Device is passive, providing only the force of springs to tether the subject.
"We wanted a meaningful experiment, not just something we created to fly on the KC135," says Dawn Noga, a sophomore in engineering science. "We wanted a practical application to keep humans healthy in space."
" The problem is that the current design can't accommodate the range of motion found in typical human activities like squatting and running," says Pawelczyk.
Combating osteoporosis in microgravity is important because inhabitants of the Russian space station MIR experienced a bone-loss rate of 1.5 percent a month, 15 times greater than that experienced by postmenopausal women. Osteoporosis may be the limiting factor in long distance space flight, but understanding bone loss in space might also help treat age and immobility induced bone loss. "Generally, NASA wants to load the hips of the astronauts with force equal to their body weight," says John Halenar, senior in electrical engineering. "But with the current system, if they load a 200-pound person to 200 pounds of force, the tension on the springs will be set at specific values. If that person bends over, then the tension decreases and the equipment would apply a proportionately lower load."
The modified equipment the students plan to test will have an active feedback system to produce a constant load. The new approach will also allow exercise that requires bending or squatting, exercise that will not work on the current system.
Four of the eight-student team will fly aboard the Boeing KC-135A, two in each of two flights. John; Dawn; Ben Weber, senior, mechanical engineering and Bill Marshall, senior mechanical engineering will brave the "Vomit Comet." The other four team members, Amy Seaman, sophomore chemical engineering; Mike Moss, sophomore, electrical engineering; Robyn Berridge, sophomore, electrical engineering and Dana Ahmed, sophomore, electrical engineering will provide ground support. The group, including their co-advisor Sven Bilén, assistant professor of engineering design and graphics and electrical engineering, will spend a week at NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas and will test their device both on the ground and in the air.
"The NASA Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program provides an excellent interdisciplinary design experience for the students," says Bilén. "The students are in several different majors and are at different stages of their education. They have found that they have to work together effectively to meet deadlines and to develop a winning and ultimately flyable design." The KC-135 simulates microgravity conditions by flying a roller-coaster shaped path, where the roller coaster has a 12,000-foot hill and the participants ride 40 times in a row. The topmost portion of the hill and the change in direction provide from 20 to 30 seconds of simulated microgravity during each loop. Although NASA routinely issues motion sickness medications, the "Vomit Comet" generally earns its nickname.
The Flyin' Lions' device will consist of a force plate, laptop computer, and the modified subject load device consisting of two stepper motors to provide the active feedback force, a worm gear system and backup springs, along with the existing exercise harness.
The force plate upon which the students will walk or squat will be fixed so that the subjects will be lying down during most of the flight, helping them to avoid motion sickness. During the simulated microgravity portion of the flight, one student acting as the subject will either step in place or squat while wearing the exercise harness. Halfway through the flight, the two students on board will switch places and continue the experiment.
The students recognize that this is a proof-of-concept experiment that may or may not prove useful. Pawelczyk, however, believes that the experience goes far beyond the experiment or the classroom. "These undergraduates have had to sit before the Behavioral and Biomedical Institutional Review Board, they have been through a design review, reacted to feedback and written their proposal. These are real life experiences that they will find valuable in their professional careers." The students have also planned a broad outreach program which includes a project journalist, Katie O'Toole, writer and co-host of "What's In The News," a WPSX public television show aimed at grade school children. O'Toole will also be on the plane with the students.
While NASA provides flight time and training, it does not provide funding. The Flyin' Lions need to raise transportation and living costs and equipment funds. Some of the equipment has been donated by professors and funds were received from the college of Engineering, the Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium, the Department of Engineering Science and the Envisioneers.
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