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Bedridden for 60 days in the name of science

Fabian SchmidtSeptember 9, 2015

Wednesday is the start of a most unusual study at the German Aerospace Center. For two months straight, test subjects will be forced to lie in bed to simulate space travel. And we swear - they are doing this voluntarily!

Image: DLR

Twelve men between the ages of 20 and 45 were selected for the first-of-its kind research project at the Envihab in Cologne, a laborious endeavor that will subject them to zero gravity in a bid to test the effects of space travel on the human body.

To simulate weightlessness and the ensuing physical repercussions, the subjects will lie at a six-degree inclination with their heads below the rest of their bodies. According to Edwin Mulder, director of the study, this position recreates the change in blood flow - in addition to the bone and muscle depletion - suffered by astronauts subject to true weightlessness in space.

The experiment will begin with a two-week phase in which the subjects are measured to chart changes in their bodies. This data will be compared with that collected after the two months are up.

At no time during the 60 days will the subjects be able to leave their beds. One shoulder must be touching the inclined mattress at all times, even while they clean their bodies. How, you may ask? The Envihab's shower is equipped with a waterproof six-degree table.

A "reactive jumps" study will use a newly developed exercise device that allows subjects to jump in a horizontal position using low-pressure cylinders to recreate gravity. The experiment is designed to examine bone, muscle and coordination, and is the first time that reactive jumping will be looked at as a possible way of avoiding muscle loss in space.

Astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS) are forced to exercise for two hours per day, in a bid to prevent muscle and bone depletion as best as possible. The researchers are looking for the most effective exercise methods to achieve this. "Short, crisp training with strong muscle stimulation - this has never been done in space before," said Mulder.

A total of 90 experiments will be conducted at the Envihab over the next two months, examining insulin resistance, the cardiovascular system, balance, the eyes, thermoregulation and how the brain copes with upside-down rest. Apart from this, scientists will also be monitoring how simulated zero gravity affects a range of specific organs.

DLR Bettruhestudie im Envihab DLR
Image: DLR

Boredom not a problem

Lucas Braunschmidt is one of the volunteers. He told DW that the two-month stint would be a perfect way to bridge the time he has before starting a new job as an occupational therapist. "I'm interested in the experience," he said. His line of work will also deal with people suffering from long periods of being bedridden, and the consequent need to rebuild muscle and bone mass.

Braunschmidt said the experiment could lead to new things, perhaps even studies in medicine. "It will be a way to see the latest methods of examination and also to get an idea of how research really works."

A team of doctors and researchers will keep the subjects like Braunschmidt on their toes. "I don't think I'm going to be bored," he laughed.

Besides, he brought a library of entertainment with him - DVDs, books, magazines. And though he won't be in space, he'll be one of the few people out there who can say they've watched Star Wars or Apollo 13 while feeling virtual weightlessness.