Preparing Major Tom for Microgravity

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Sending astronauts to Mars and back requires more than a feat of rocketry. It takes a thorough understanding of how the entire human body responds to long-term space travel. “We do not know enough to declare that it’s safe and it’s worth the risk for humans to do this,” says Dr. Martin Kushmerick M’63 Gr’66. “NASA will not send people on a suicide mission.” To shed some light on this key question, Kushmerick has been named leader of the newly formed Integrated Human Function Team of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute. Kushmerick, a joint professor in the departments of radiology, physiology and biophysics and bioengineering at the University of Washington, is overseeing research projects of five institutions, including the University of Pennsylvania Health System. The team’s initial focus will be on the heart and skeletal muscle, with plans to eventually integrate research data about all of the body’s systems, from the molecular level on up.
    “We have a pretty good understanding of how many calories you need to eat for [long-duration space travel],” Kushmerick explains, “but we don’t have an understanding of the major changes that occur and the tremendous muscular atrophy, the tremendous loss of bone calcium and structure” as well as the alterations in the cardiovascular system.
    Studies of patients at bed rest suggest that muscular atrophy and other changes “are appropriate physiological adaptations to the new environment,” Kushmerick says. “So right away, this is a somewhat new idea. Before, there was the idea that this was a kind of maladaptation that had to be prevented. Well, that’s bad medicine. What we want to do is facilitate the body’s normal responses to these things. The best we can do is understand why and how they happen and devise countermeasures to alter the physical environment to make sure these changes are reversed [upon return from space].”
    One team is trying to determine what exercises or stresses might counteract muscle-loss in space. Researchers are investigating the use of exercises similar to the kind that top body-builders perform, such as lowering a weight heavier than one can actually lift. Coupled with certain drugs, Kushmerick says, this might solve the problem.
    Another team is looking at treatments for heart arrhythmias, which required one of the former captains of the Mir to be brought down from the Russian space station. Although there are drugs to treat this potentially fatal condition, Kushmerick said, “we don’t really understand how those drugs work and if there are differences in space versus on the ground.”

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