A Trip to Mars Could Reduce Astronauts' Muscles to Spaghetti

By Andrew Moseman | August 19, 2010 10:53 am

treadmillBreaking free of the the Earth’s gravity and floating in zero-G: It’s certainly a thrill for those who get to experience it, either through traveling to space or simulating the journey. All good things, though, must come in moderation. Too much time free from the grip of gravity and we turn into weak-muscled wimps, which is a huge hurdle for hopes to travel to Mars or deep into space.

Robert Fitts wanted to know just how quickly the lack of resistance on one’s muscles makes them out-of-shape and atrophied. So his team tested nine astronauts before and then just after their six-months stays aboard the International Space Station. The study appears this week in the Journal of Physiology.

The losses in fibre mass, force and power translated into a decline of more than 40 percent in the capacity for physical work, Fitts reported. Ironically, beefing up before the trip had no impact on muscle loss. In fact, crew members who began with the biggest muscles turned out to have the biggest decline in muscle fitness [AFP].

And it’s not like astronauts are eating Doritos and watching marathons of Lost In Space up there. NASA knows the muscle problem full well, and the astronauts aboard the ISS adhere to a strict exercise regimen that requires running on a treadmill 2 and a half hours a day nearly every day, with harnesses holding them down so they can “walk” in zero-G.

There’s nothing like the real thing, though.

“The lack of load” — pressure on muscles — “is the main problem,” said [Fitts]. “There is no gravity and so any fibers within those muscles are unloaded. The load normally maintains protein synthesis and the size.” Even with plenty of activity, the lack of load leads to atrophy [Wired.com].

If this sounds familiar, it is: We reported last year on a similar study that said living in space gives healthy astronauts the muscle tone of elderly people. But Fitts’ study suggests the deterioration is even worse. Which makes one wonder: How are human explorers going to get to Mars without withering away to nothing?

These ISS missions last six months. For a prospective mission to Mars, astronauts could be traveling 10 months in each direction with a year stay on the red planet in between. That means they’d be gone from the Earth for nearly three years, or six times longer than the ISS astronauts. Without a better system to stave off muscle atrophy, they’d never make it.

With the new Advanced Resistive Exercise Device, NASA’s Lori Ploutz-Snyder says, the ISS at least has the first piece of a better system.

Installed in November 2008, the ARED allows astronauts to perform a variety of weight-training exercises, such as squats and bench presses, with loads of up to 600 pounds. How do astronauts weight-train in zero gravity? Ploutz-Snyder said the ARED generates loads using vacuum cylinders. It also has flywheels to generate the inertia needed to get the load off the rack [Space.com].

But let’s be honest. What we really need is to invent Star Trek-style artificial gravity so we can head for Mars without having to run three hours every day and avoid seeing our muscles turn to goo.

Related Content:
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DISCOVER: Works in Progress explores solutions to the health effects of living in space
80beats: Despite Exercise, Zero-G Makes Astronauts As Wimpy As 80-Year-Olds

Image: NASA

  • dan

    Why not build a ship that has a section that spins? produce gravity via centripetal force. very little energy is needed to keep that section ‘under gravity,’ only adding more thrust to compensate for the friction of the joints. Certainly, it would be a engineering challenge, but NASA has a history of taking on those and succeeding.

  • chrisb

    why use something easily broken like vacuume cylinders when they could use a bowflex/crossbow type machine with technology we’ve had for a few decades? nothing but pulleys, cables, the “bows” to bend and some seatbelts.

  • http://blog.denniswilliamson.us Dennis

    There’s a lot of activity between workouts that would be under load in a 1G environment. If you’re only doing workouts under load, you’re missing out on all that other work. Has any thought been given to replacing comfy coveralls and shorts-and-tshirts with full-time resistance suits that would put *every* flex and extension of arms, legs and shoulders and torso bend under a load?

  • Jumblepudding

    I second the idea of incorporating resistance bands into an astronaut’s suit. If successful, this could translate into new fitness solutions for earthbound folk as well.

  • har3

    just a thought but could steroids be used somehow?

  • M. Keller

    There is a simple and cheap solution to this problem. It involves setting up two large circular tracks inside an existing ISS module or mars spacecraft. A bed or two could be attached to these circular tracks so that a persons head is near one track and the feet are near the other track. With the help of several motors the beds would circulate in such a way as to provide artificial gravity to the astronauts while they are sleeping. It works on the principal of the carnival spinning ride where the floor drops out and folks are pinned to the wall. It is easy enough to transport and setup and teardown as needed.

  • Brian Too

    Put the astronauts to work. Have their workout generate electricity, or pump water or ammonia, or something. At least their exercise would have some utility beyond exercise.

  • http://N/A William R. York

    We need to either create a nuclear plasma rocket, that reduces trip time, or we need to invent artificial gravity. Both are possible. The former seems a decade or more away. The latter may be possible on a shorter time frame through a centrifuge habitat module. Both would require significant expenditures of resources and new technology. Both would be good for long term economic development. Even so, right now we do not have the knowledge base in medicine to know whether we are sending a crew to Mars to explore, or simply building an enormously expensive “coffin” to hold the dead crew that returns.
    We do not even have sufficient medical data to know what the effects of long term lunar gravity would be. Furthermore, the effects of extended low-g or 0-g travel on humans are also not known. For now this constitutes a brick wall in the path of space exploration. We must be patient and build a manned space exploration and settlement program that makes sense and does not put people at risk for unrealistic goals. For now going to Mars is a dream!

  • TRJc

    Instead of tracks or a ship that spins, consider tethered satellites. Two satellites are connected by a cable, and are made to co-rotate slowly about the center of mass. The cable is lengthened and the rotation speed increased until the desired artificial gravity produced by centrifugal force is achieved. This requires much less mass than a rigid spinning ship to produce the same G force. For a human mission to Mars, one satellite can carry the astronauts and the other carry supplies needed on Mars, or each module could carry 1/2 of the crew. Set the gravity at 1 Martian gravity = 0.38 G, which would be much easier than to supply full Earth gravity. If the astronauts cannot remain healthy at 1 Martian gravity, the trip is not possible, since the astronauts must live and work on Mars for 1 year.

    Tethered satellites were investigated in Europe in 1999. I don’t know what progress has been made since then.

  • http://clubneko.net nick

    Or invest in myostatin inhibition solutions – you know, that crazy thing that makes the rare few that have it super-body-builders with almost zero effort (I’m talking a 5 year old who can do hand-stand pushups like most of us can stuff twinkies in our maws) – that kind of effect should allow folks to muscle up in zero-g.

  • m

    wouldn’t the inertia on a Mars bound ship be enough to maintain the “load” factor? After all..comparing it to the ISS seems kinda silly since the ISS doesnt move as much as a ship would and is still within earth’s gravity (it is not a completely Zero-G environment)

  • mars direct

    Why can’t they just take a look at the Mars Direct plan? It’s the best one so far and it includes rotating living quarters for artificial gravity.

  • Michael

    Wellwell, I guess the picture of the Psilons was an accurate representation after all.

  • jason wilburn

    Is it not possible to manufacture a full body suit that will react to magnetic force exuded from a treadmill on the floor. This force will pull the entire body towards the treadmill simulating gravity over the entire area of the body. The strength of the force could be intensified and monitored for a training program specific to the individual. I understand that magnetism and electronics can create problems, but I’m sure that outside the exercise area, a nullification of the magnetism can be achieved. Just a hypothesis that I’ve been thinking about.

  • Dave in Calif

    Why not use a waldo type of control but have the machine attached to the astronut, in that, as they move a resistance is felt forcing the person to exert more, longitudinal more so than say sagital. This could also assist the person making them stronger and faster if needed, then go back into resistance mode. I bet they could do this with off-the-shelf equipment right now.

  • Hardie K

    Maybe we should just ditch these physical bodies and move on to the next phase…

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    But let’s be honest. What we really need is to invent Star Trek-style artificial gravity so we can head for Mars without having to run three hours every day and avoid seeing our muscles turn to goo.

    Yes, let’s leave the puns. The spin inertia idea is an old one, most primitively by spinning two capsules joined by a long tether. No need for artificial gravity if simulated may suffice.

  • http://www,bonsaikingdom.com Bonsai King

    Get a space junk orbiting earth near the space station orbit, assuming that the journey launches from the space station. Attach by teether to ship. Accelerate both masses towards mars orbit, this would need more propulsion than usual because of the added junk mass. Then a small pulse will spin the system for the 6 month journey and create centripetal force for the artificial gravity. Stop spin before orbital insertion. Leave junk in orbit for the return trip. Land on Mars and enjoy.

  • Jennifer Angela

    Fascinating article. I relish the vivid descriptions in it and the picture spices it up too. I assume NASA is working at an intelligent solution to solve this issue. I can tell folks in here are evidently also interested in enforcing progress regarding this matter too, (and I am not being sarcastic).

  • http://www.perpendicularity.org Perpendicularity

    This was an interesting article that covered an important subject. Although, in due time, if we haven’t blown the planet’s inhabitants up by then (for whatever reason), we will remedy this simple solution with anti-gravity knowledge/awareness. Hey, Sci-Fi and imagination are always one step ahead, but at this rate, Star Trek will be a reality soon. Besides, look at the bright side: if we were to become an advanced race of aliens for other planets to marvel over, we will be dropping down in style with obesity factors sent into oblivion…

  • http://N/A William R. York

    Some final ideas! Do we really want to use pharmaceutical muscle-building drugs? I am not knowledgeable on this subject but suspect it requires a great deal more R&D to determine the potential gains and losses or and possible side effects.
    One concept that I had forgotten to mention is some work DARPA has been doing in what I am going to call powered armor (PA). A good deal of research has been on artificial muscle tissue. What about a space suit that has an artificial muscle system that would enhance the wearer’s strength by some factor (lets say two times normal). Would this allow the crewperson to compensate for any loss of muscle strength? Add (PA) exoskeletal frameworks and there begins to be a glimmer of compensating for deterioration of long flights.
    However, this would still leave a group of physiological basket cases if they managed to make it back to Earth orbit. There is no standard to gauge this by, save for the old Soviet and Russian cosmonauts, and those returning from long stay missions in the space shuttle and the ISS. And those missions require no spectacular physical efforts midway through the voyage. All of the returning cosmonauts had to be lifted and carried out of their landing sites.
    Regarding the tethered habituate idea, the last one I remember was launched off of the Shuttle, and it snapped. For this to work you will need some strong new materials. Something like this could be accomplished by the use of buckminsterfullerene. These “buckyballs,” as they are called, are a new allotropic form of elemental carbon.
    There are also tubes of carbon atoms called nanotubes which can create very strong chains that could form a tether. However, I believe that this would require multiple tethers to perform as a back-up contingency. A tether failure would be disastrous for both the crew and mission. One way to make it work was first presented in the mid seventies. Back then the building of orbiting solar power stations were all the rage as a rational for the Space Shuttle and ISS to have something to do.
    One of the original concepts for these stations was a miniature factory like object that operated as a spider does. It was designed to travel on the girders and trusses it created constantly spinning new ones out of carbon and graphite that would act as a framework for other factories that would lay solar panels. Something like this would be required to spin out new tether as it was needed. This would probably be very adaptable to a tethered habituate concept.
    We have a great deal on our plate that requires our attention. First is the protection of Humanity and the Earth from the effects of a disastrous asteroid or comet strike. Then we must settle the Moon as a staging area for further settlement. Why! The first is obvious. A relatively large sized object of only a kilometer will devastate the Human race and the Earth’s environment for a century or more. While it is likely we would survive it, the same could not be said for most of our modern infrastructure and therefore our civilization.
    The second is just as obvious. We have done this before even if only on a limited and very short term basis. It was a proof of concept if you would, and was achieved as much as a legacy of a fallen President as it was for the political gain in showing the world we could. The former makes good sense, the latter was a gesture of nobles oblige.
    So far the public and Congress does not really seem to take the chance of an asteroid or comet strike very seriously, either that or they do not have their priorities straight. No pun intended! Therefore for now, it is my opinion that we should take care of these priorities first and then move on to the other more complicated problems.
    In the late 1990’s, I remember talking with Dr. Robert Zubrin at a meeting of the Houston Space Society. After listening to his lecture on his plan for Mars exploration and settlement, I was thoroughly convinced that if someone gave him the money that he would go the very next day. At that meeting we discussed the mission and what he considered the more important, in short going to the Moon and settle it as a prelude to Mars or going to Mars first.
    Dr. Zubrin’s mission, and make no mistake about it he is a missionary where this subject is concerned. He has a great deal of the zealot in him and is fired by a passion few of us could sustain. He wants Humanity to get to Mars and settle ASAP and for the same reasons stated above. Our survival depends on getting Humanity on as many planets and moons as possible.
    Now regarding those same more complicated problems mentioned above there is a way we can explore Mars and the rest of the Solar System and do so in a most economical and user friendly manner. For now manned space flight should focus on building a couple of permanently manned base camps on the Moon, and making them self-sustaining as to air, water, energy, and food. They could provide a testing program of the effects of working in a low-G environment. In doing so they would provide a base for further testing of human capability of building and working on science and research for say fifty years of medical research on human-factors in low-G environments and then see where we are…
    In the meantime, on Mars we should focus on building and deploying more sophisticated unmanned rovers? These would be an entirely new class of rovers, something about the size of a pickup truck, which can endure the climate on Mars, and which draws power from nuclear fuel cells as well as solar power wings that deploy from a clamshell like cover that, when closed would be capable of powering the rover down during a storm. It would have the ability to launch tethered or free flying balloons with cameras and sensor packages. They might also employ recoverable UAV’s with similar sensor and imaging technology.
    Although, such a rover would be a single part of a full court press of Mars exploration. That is, we might send a completely unmanned suite of missions to mars. This would be similar to the manned mission profiles, but would be on a scale as yet unparalleled. It would consist of at least six of the above mentioned new rovers as primary explorers. Add to this several types of Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAV’s) from balloons to blimps, to planes. UAV’s offer a perfect platform for long distance, low altitude studies of the planet. One such platform could be similar to the Aerosonde hurricane spotter vehicles utilized by NOAA in 2006. Other possible entries would be akin to the Bell Aircraft “Eagle Eye” which has been offered to the USCG for remote sensing capabilities.
    Although these vehicles would be more on a par with the RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV’s, as well as NASA’s Pathfinder, Pathfinder Plus, Centurion and Helios solar, and fuel cell/battery powered long endurance “atmospheric satellites”. Another option is the ARES Eagle high altitude UAV which has been deployed past 100,000 foot altitudes. Another is a project that DARPA has developed is a UAV called “Vulture”, which is said to be capable of a stunning endurance of about 5 years.
    In combination with the rovers and UAV concepts there is the possibility of utilizing a semi-autonomous system like those used in the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, but aided by some form of AI robot-like worker units that could assist in setting up the infrastructure for a manned base. However, these would not resemble the rovers. Rather, they would resemble a human like skeletal framework, which again relies on the enhanced artificial muscle to provide strength and load bearing capacity.
    These TARETSU’s (Teleoperated and/or Autonomous Robotic Exploration and Technical Surrogate-worker Unit) as I call them already exist. Robonaut 2, or R2 as it is styled, is human-like robot deployed earlier this year on the ISS. R2 weighs in at 300 lbs., and is set up like a human body that consists of a head and a torso with two arms and two hands and is designed to assist the crew in work on the ISS. All of the concepts when integrated into a seamless whole would allow us to explore the Solar System in the short term, until we frail mortals have the tools to finally make it to Mars, the rest of the Solar System, and the stars in person.

  • http://biggest-loser.se/kosttillskott Alphonse Breakfield

    theyre called dumbells and they can be effective but they require someone to help u and they can be costly and consume space in your house (unless u go to a gym) but i only do push ups and sit ups and i have a fit body even tho i eat alot of fast food after school 😡


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