June 7th: Pillownauts

By on June 7, 2011 in
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Date: June 7, 2011

Title: Pillownauts

Podcaster: Heather Archuletta

Organization: Human Test Research Facility of Johnson Space Center – https://bedreststudy.jsc.nasa.gov/

Description: An inside look at the people who are “playing astronaut” in NASA’s Flight Analog program, where space flight simulations seek to find counter-measures for the effects of weightlessness on long duration missions. Can we find ways to live and work in space without health risks? Can we keep the fragile human body healthy on a voyage to Mars? Some people get paid to engage in test cases where scientists explore these crucial questions.

Bio: Heather Archuletta has been involved in the technical industry for 17 years and currently works with NASA on medical and marketing projects that help scientists learn how to keep astronauts healthy in space. Her “Pillow Astronaut” blog at Pillownaut.Blogspot.com has been featured in Wired, Popular Science and FOX news in America, as well as news outlets in England, Scandinavia, India, Japan and Russia.

Sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by — NO ONE. We still need sponsors for many days in 2011, so please consider sponsoring a day or two. Just click on the “Donate” button on the lower left side of this webpage, or contact us at signup@365daysofastronomy.org.

Transcript:

My name is Heather Archuletta, and I write the Pillow Astronaut blog, which describes all the NASA space Simulations in the Flight Analog Program. Today, I’m going to talk a bit about these programs at Johnson Space Center in Texas, and how you can actually be a part of them if you apply to NASA.

Researchers at Human Test Subject Facility, or HTSF, are developing methods to reduce the side effects of weightlessness on astronauts. Of course, over the past 5 decades, we’ve been putting humans in space for a few days at time, then a few weeks, and now, in the modern era, people go to the space station to spend many months in micro-gravity.

Very specific and significant changes happen to the human body when you live without gravity, and as far as we have come, getting to Mars and back would take about 18 months. That’s a pretty big jump, so we need to know more about effects of living in space, including what it will do to our brains and our bones as we endure it for longer periods.

In both the American and Russian space programs, head-down tilted bed rest and water immersion techniques have been used since the 1950s to simulate the changes the human body undergoes when floating through space. Initial space motion sickness is well documented, along with issues with muscles and bones, but thanks to medical advances, we’re also taking a much more sophisticated look at heart health, blood pressure, and the vestibular system, which helps the body maintain its sense of balance.

So the purpose of the studies is to see how men and women of all different ages react to those physiological changes when they happen – and then in the follow-up phases of these studies, scientist also look at re-adaptation to normal gravity, in other words, what happens to your body once you come back down to Earth.

… And of course, all of this has the end goal of developing counter-measures for symptoms and side effects, as our voyages into space hopefully become longer and longer.

I personally have done head-down studies, forward lunar gravity study, tilt tests; I’ve worn compression garments that might be used in future space suits; I’ve spent 50 days in bed and then allowed my bones and joints to be scanned for changes. The clinicians also use centrifuges and vertical treadmills, where you run – literally – up the side of a wall, mimicking the actions of the treadmill on the space station.

Some of my fellow testers and I have done some pretty goofy things for science! But certainly loved every minute of it, we made some great friends, and learned a lot about space science along the way… and a lot about the human body… including what it will truly take to get our species off the Earth, and to another planet.

It’s going to be no small trick to pull that off, and make sure those travelers are healthy when they reach their destination. You not only have to be able to survive the trip there, but you have to be healthy enough to collect rocks samples and conduct experiments, and then survive the ride home. So a lot of us get to play Fake Astronaut on Earth to investigate these things, so that by the time real astronauts make this kind of journey, we can predict their performance.

And most of the questions that I’ve gotten over the years revolve around those plot points of realism in the simulations: Did you really experience what the astronauts experience? Can you actually make money at this? Or wearing test clothing for astronauts, or trying out new exercises or equipment that scientists hope to put on the space station?

Yes, you absolutely can. These are very accurate simulations. You’ll go through a lot of the same physical and psychological screening that the astronauts have to start with. A lot of the tests you perform, and their side effects are spot-on identical. It’s a standard $160 per day. You are paid for screening time and physicals even when you go to Houston for the tryouts. I remember the first time they paid me to come visit, I thought well, even if I don’t make it… hey, I just got a free trip to Mission Control. So that was fun too, getting to see the touristy areas of NASA before I had to go to work.

When I did get in to the program, I initially started my blog as a way to track all my tests and progress throughout that first trial… and that turned out to be such fun, I continued through two more studies, and also now use it to encourage other people to apply for the program.

To this day I still get people who email me about it, saying, “This can’t be real. You can just go volunteer for the space program?” So I’ve featured nurses, doctors, scientists – all the people involved in the bed rest studies, I’ve got details about all the protocols, I’ve listed everything needed to go through screening, what kinds of tests you can expect when you do a full study; it’s really grown into a wonderfully detailed resource that I am so proud of.

And the great thing is, each year brings new studies and new techniques. The first study I did was 64 days, then another was just 21 days, another was only a week… so they have a lot of different options, and those change quite frequently as they hunt down certain types of data. So don’t worry if you can’t get away from work for 2 months; they have all different kinds of campaigns, and it never hurts to ask if one fits your schedule or your interest.

I invite anyone to come read all our Pillownaut stories; my blog follows quite a few people who were willing to speak to news channels, pose for pictures during tests, and one young man even wrote a great journal that he allowed me to publish, discussing all the daily routines in his particular study.

Now more than ever, with the Shuttle program coming to a close and the future of manned spaceflight facing budget concerns, we need support for these types of programs . I so desperately want humanity to make it to Mars in my lifetime… and when we do finally have the money to go, we need to be ready with all the knowledge and resources that will make the trip possible.

I wanted to be able to say, personally, that I was part of making that happen. I can say: NASA has my data, and every piece of data gets us a centimeter closer. It’s all part of the process that is forwarding human exploration… so, I’m passionate about these projects. I know there are a lot of people like me out there who would want to see what they’re made of, to see if they can hack some of the things our astronauts go through, both the fun parts and the challenging parts.

Our passion for knowing what’s out there, our passion for getting ourselves out there… that’s why websites like 365 Days of Astronomy are so important in connecting all the people who believe in these greater aims of humankind, and so I thank you for allowing me to share these thoughts with you.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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