The :envihab laboratory at the German Space Agency in Cologne has contracted 12 perfectly healthy volunteers to lie in bed for 2 months for an experiment known as the “Bed Rest Study”.
The experiment is designed to study the long term effects on the human body of the weightlessness associated with lack of gravity in space through simulation.
Living in space for more than a few days causes the muscles and bones to waste away and bodily fluids to pool in the head giving astronauts bloated faces and a feeling of a constant head cold. Even the immune system and eyesight are affected.
US astronauts Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko are currently nine months into a year-long stay on the international space station to investigate the challenge of long duration missions. A flight to mars and back would take at least 18 months.
The aim of the Bed Rest experiment in :envihab is to conduct a similar study to the one taking place in orbit, but in this case, the volunteers have to lie in bed for 24 hours a day for sixty days. The volunteers have to lie in single hospital beds tilted so their heads are tipped towards the floor. Closed circuit TV cameras are used to monitor them in case they try to sit up.
The volunteers have access to TV, phone, laptop and internet. Speaking to BBC’s Richard Hollingham, one of the volunteers identified only as Christian says that he can even occasionally glimpse the sun through a frosted glass roof light.
In the ordinary world, Christian is a freelance IT consultant. He describes the experiment as a holiday from everyday living. Christian further says he joined the study because he was interested in science and excited by the prospect of long duration human space flight.
Going to the toilet involves bedpans and flasks and the volunteers even have to shower horizontally on a special waterproof bed. As for the food, Christian describes it damningly as “very healthy”.
On the international space station, astronauts have to spend at least an hour and half every day exercising trying to maintain bone and muscle. The “Bed Rest Study” volunteers also get to exercise, jumping and hopping while lying down using a specially designed exercise bed.
The results of the Bed Rest study won’t only be used to help future astronauts. They should make life easier for patients facing long stays in hospitals. Space research into bone and muscle loss is already benefitting people suffering from conditions such as osteoporosis.
Asked what he looks forward to most when he finally goes back to the outside world, Christian said, “Taking some very deep breaths.”