Among the plains and cornfields of Kansas, a mock Orion space capsule is helping to ensure that astronauts return safely to Earth. The full-scale simulated spacecraft is part of project by a Kansas State University kinesiology team led by assistant professor of exercise physiology, Carl Ade, and professor of exercise physiology, Thomas Barstow, to study the physical challenges faced by astronauts returning to Earth after prolonged space missions.

Ever since the first animal flights into orbit, scientists have been deeply concerned about the effects of the space environment on human health and how to minimize its effects. The main goal of these studies is to keep astronauts as healthy as possible on long-duration missions that could last several years, but the Kansas team in conjunction with the Johnson Space Center, Houston is taking a slightly different approach. They aren't simply asking how healthy a returning astronaut can be, but how healthy an astronaut must be.

The problem is that projected Orion missions, which could include everything up to a three-year mission to Mars, won't end when the parachutes open. Unlike the Space Shuttle, which landed at an airfield, Orion will come down in the water and the crew may need to initiate emergency escape measures while the very unshiplike spacecraft is bucking and twisting in the open sea.

To see if astronauts after a two-year mission will be up to getting out of their seats unassisted, climb a ladder, and go from the capsule to an inflatable life raft, the Kansas team is looking at how much strength, cardiovascular health, and aerobic capacity the crew will need to carry out their duties with a reasonable degree of safety. Because prolonged exposure to zero gravity causes bone and muscle atrophy and affects the cardiovascular system to the point where many astronauts have trouble even walking shortly after returning to Earth, these are important questions.

To answer these, the team used measurements of the Orion capsule from the original blueprints to build a wooden mock up at the campus in Manhattan, Kansas. The capsule will be used to study research subjects, who will perform the same tasks as the astronauts during an escape. The difference is that the subjects will wear special gear that measures their muscle activity, oxygen uptake, heart rate, blood pressure, and other physiological parameters to assess the stress the body undergoes.

The university hopes that the findings will not only help NASA to gauge how healthy the astronauts need to be on return, but may also benefit Earthbound patients who may be confined to clinics or are in remote areas without access to proper medical facilities.

"If we can figure out how to keep an astronaut healthy in this extreme environment, we can translate that to life on Earth," says Ade. "This research is really helping both individuals: the astronaut and those here on Earth."

The video below shows the construction of the mock Orion.

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