A team of Colorado State University students is counting down the days before they will take off aboard a NASA aircraft to test an exercise machine they developed for astronauts.
The four-member student team will travel to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, March 8-20 to test their machine aboard a NASA KC-135A aircraft, a plane that can simulate the micro-gravity environment of space. The airplane is used to familiarize astronauts with the feeling of weightlessness. NASA also uses KC-135A flights to evaluate hardware, experiments and medical procedures that may be used aboard space flights.
The members of the Colorado State team are biology student Tara Ruttley, civil engineering student Jon Dory, mechanical engineering student Jack Zentner, and exercise and sport sciences student Paul Colosky. The students are members of Colorado State University’s student branch of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The team’s faculty advisor is Tim Tong, chairman of the mechanical engineering department at Colorado State.
The exercise machine invented by the Colorado State team is designed to prevent muscle atrophy and bone weakness experienced by astronauts while on long space voyages.
A Exercise bikes and treadmills have historically been used by the space program, said Ruttley, the team’s leader. While these provide cardiovascular exercise, they neglect to provide the daily resistive forces required for bone and muscle maintenance. Both cardiovascular training and strength training are essential during long-term missions.
Rubber band and bungee devices have been designed in the past for this purpose, but do not provide the constant force that is necessary for optimal muscle maintenance, Ruttley said. The students machine simulates the constant resistance that free weight training provides on earth. The machine looks similar to a weight machine in a gym, but instead of weights, it uses special springs to provide constant tension.
Ordinary coiled springs lose their resistance level, said Ruttley. The constant-force springs we used are wound up like a tape measure to provide consistent resistance throughout the exercise. The exercise machine requires no power to operate and consists of a series of cables and pulleys attached to small units that contain the constant-force springs, or force packs. Each pack provides a different amount of resistance. Each row of packs simulates weights ranging from five pounds to 185 pounds. All the packs used together provide as much as 370 pounds of simulated weight.
"The machine adjusts for various body types," said Colosky. "A custom set of cables is designed for each person using the machine."
The students’ two week trip will include two flights aboard NASA’s KC-135A. The KC-135A climbs and descends through a series of parabolas to create a zero-gravity environment. During each two-to-three hour flight, the airplane will maneuver through a series of about 40 steep ascents and descents, creating about 25 seconds of zero-gravity environment on each parabola. During the flights, the students will take turns exercising on the machine while a computer electronically monitors how their muscles are reacting to the resistance. After the flight, the team will analyze the data and adjust the machine. Physiological training, hypobaric chamber tests and extensive safety reviews by NASA experts will be required the week before the flight.
The Colorado State team was one of 48 teams chosen from across the nation to participate in NASA’s 1999 Reduced Gravity Student Fight Opportunities Program. The program invites college students around the country to test the effect of micro-gravity on a variety of scientific experiments. The Colorado State team will join 48 other selected teams for this spring’s program. The Colorado State University team will be the only team testing exercise equipment aboard the flights. The wide variety of experiments chosen for the three-year-old program have included testing the effect of microgravity on such things as plant pollination, capillary action and human creativity.