CAMBRIDGE, MA—Astronauts on the International Space Station work out about two hours a day, using treadmills, exercise bikes and a special weightlifting machine. Exercise can help reduce the loss of muscle mass and bone density in the weightlessness of space.
There’s a looming problem, however. Given the new generation of smaller spacecraft needed for long-duration flights to Mars and beyond, it’s impractical to bring along so much exercise equipment. This challenge has prompted researchers from Draper and MIT to find new ways to help astronauts stay in shape in space.
Thomas Abitante, a Ph.D. candidate studying health sciences and technology, sees promise in equipping astronauts with a wearable device that works silently and unobtrusively to contract muscles using skin electrodes to achieve the equivalent forces on bone from walking on Earth. “The idea is to innervate the muscle, which pulls on the bone, potentially reducing bone loss,” Abitante explains. Because astronauts can wear the device as they go about their day, it reduces the need to burn vital calories otherwise used for exercise.
Rachel Bellisle, a Ph.D. candidate in the same program, has focused her latest research on a skinsuit for astronauts that compresses the body vertically to replicate some of the forces normally experienced in the Earth’s gravity. “Living in space can lead to back pain, bone loss, muscle loss and other issues. Astronauts actually get taller, and this spinal elongation is often associated with back pain,” explains Bellisle. One goal of the skinsuit is to act as a countermeasure to various effects on the body of working and living in low gravity environments for long durations. In her research, Bellisle is assessing the operational comfort of the skinsuit and its impact on neuromuscular activity. The research uses the MKVII Gravity Loading Countermeasure Skinsuit developed at MIT’s Human Systems Lab.
Abitante presented his work at a recent meeting of the International Society of Biomechanics in a poster titled, Can electrically induced contractions replicate walking in microgravity? Kevin Duda, group lead for space and mission critical systems at Draper, supervises Abitante as a Draper Scholar.
Bellisle will present her research at an IEEE Aerospace conference next year. As a Draper Scholar, Bellisle works under the supervision of Caroline Bjune, a principal member of the technical staff in Draper’s mechanical design and system packaging division.
The research efforts were conducted under the direction of Dava Newman, director of the MIT Media Lab, as well as the Apollo professor of astronautics, and a former NASA deputy administrator. Newman’s work in advanced space suit design, and in dynamics and control of astronaut motion, serves as the foundation for the researchers’ work in mechanical countermeasures for spaceflight.
This research was funded by the Draper Scholar Program. Since 1973, the Draper Scholar Program, formerly known as the Draper Fellow Program, has supported more than 1,000 graduate students pursuing advanced degrees in engineering and the sciences. Draper Scholars are from both civilian and military backgrounds and Draper Scholar Alumni excel worldwide in the technical, corporate, government, academic and entrepreneurship sectors.
The Draper Scholar Program gives graduate students the opportunity to conduct their thesis research at Draper under the supervision of both an MIT faculty advisor and a member of Draper’s technical staff in an area of mutual interest. Draper Scholars’ graduate degree tuition and stipends are funded by Draper.