KSC Test Facility Aids Researchers in Preflight and Post-fli

by Kennedy Space Center

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Returning Expedition Five crew members will take part in a series of experiments designed to help scientists find ways to help astronauts counter the effects of long-duration space flight on balance, mobility and eye coordination.

The studies -- which will use an obstacle course, a treadmill and a Revolving chair -- could also lead to better testing methods and treatment for people on Earth who suffer balance and coordination problems because of birth defects, illness or aging.

The astronauts who have volunteered for the experiments will undergo their first post-flight tests in Kennedy Space Center's Baseline Data Collection Facility (BDCF) before they return to NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, where their testing will continue.

Although the human research program is managed at JSC, Kennedy provides support with the BDCF, an example of the interdependence of NASA Centers and the "One NASA" concept.

Dr. Jacob Bloomberg, a senior research scientist in JSC's Neurosciences Laboratory and the principal investigator in one of the upcoming experiments, stressed the importance of the BDCF to national and international researchers studying various aspects of astronaut physiology from bone loss to neurologic effects.

"Only here at Kennedy can you study the astronauts' response to spaceflight immediately after they land," Bloomberg said. "That's crucial to our understanding of how the astronauts are affected."

Expedition Five volunteers who spent months living aboard the International Space Station will begin their testing soon after Endeavour lands Wednesday, completing mission STS-113.

Astronauts who spend months on orbit typically take about 10 days to gradually regain their balance and coordination, Bloomberg said. While those effects of weightlessness are uncomfortable on Earth, the discomfort would be greater for longer-term missions to Mars. It would hinder astronauts and leave them vulnerable after their landing on Mars.

"We believe we will be able to use the data from the Expedition Five crew and future crews to find training methods that will allow long-term Space Station inhabitants to more quickly recover their balance and coordination when they return to a gravity environment," Bloomberg said. "It also has promising potential for the elderly and others who could undergo training to strengthen their balance and coordination."

Bloomberg pointed out that many senior citizens who break their bones first have a period of unsteadiness that precedes the fall. These balance disturbances are a typical part of the aging process, but they can be minimized through training, Bloomberg said.

"Your average person is aware of the need to add calcium to their diet and to work on strength training for the muscles and aerobic exercise to strengthen their heart, but they don't know about the importance of training for balance and coordination," Bloomberg said.

The BDCF, which is managed by Bionetics, functions as part of the biological sciences area of KSC's Spaceport Technology Center Directorate.

"We at the BDCF work to facilitate human research by NASA scientists and NASA-funded scientists across the world," said Mimi Shao, Bionetics' manager of the mission operations flight experiment program at KSC. "It's rewarding to support research that has lead to many improvements in medical science for all of us here on Earth."

A media opportunity for viewing the BDCF facilities at KSC and speaking with key researchers is set for Tuesday, Dec. 3 at 1 p.m. Interested media who want to attend the event should contact the KSC Press Site at 321-867-2468 before close of business Monday.