Science & Technology

This Space-Travel Simulation Study Wants You to Stay in Bed for Science

It's not easy to get to space. You have to be a relatively buff pilot with a science or math degree, or you need more money than NSYNC's Lance Bass. Luckily, you can simulate the experience of space travel — or at least the health effects — simply by lying down, according to the leaders of a forthcoming NASA-backed study.

How Is Space Like a Bed?

It's not a perfect analogy. Outer space is bigger, maybe infinitely bigger, than a bed. But outer space and bed life have one thing in common: neither is great for a person's muscle tone or bone density. In fact, prolonged bed rest impacts the human body in much the same way zero-gravity does, and it's much easier to study in a lab on Earth.

So to learn about the effects of space travel — and the benefits of potential therapies for astronauts — NASA, the German Aerospace Center, and the European Space Agency have all teamed up to study the effects of prolonged bed rest on women at a lab in Cologne, Germany. This isn't the first bed-rest study, and it won't be the last — but it is one where you still have time to volunteer if you want to (and qualify, which we'll get to later).

Inside the Horizontal Life

The study, which will run from September through December, isn't as cushy as it sounds. This bed rest lasts way longer than a Netflix binge — we're talking 60 full days of total bed rest. No bathroom breaks. Participants have to lie down even while they eat, bathe, and use the restroom.

They won't even get to lie flat. Space travel makes bodily fluids move towards the head, so to better simulate it, participants will lie in beds set at a slight tilt, with their heads lower than their feet.

If this sounds like senseless torture, though, it's not. The study exists partially to understand the toll that bed rest (and, by extension, space travel) takes on the body, and partially to test something called a "short-arm human centrifuge." This new technology generates artificial gravity by whirling people around at high speeds and could help prevent muscle atrophy in people on bed rest — or in astronauts. Every day in this bed-rest study consists of 23.5 hours in a tilted bed and half an hour in the centrifuge.

But that's after they get acclimatized. To start, participants will spend 15 days familiarizing themselves with their setting: envihab, a German lab designed for simulating extreme environments. From there, subjects spend 60 days on full bed-rest-slash-centrifuge duty, eating carefully calibrated diets that won't make them gain weight but will at times include pancakes. (Recruitment materials specifically mention pancakes!) After that's done, they spend 14 days in astronaut rehab, stretching and relearning how to stand up.

The women who participate — the scientists are only looking for German-speaking women ages 24 to 55 — will get €16,500, or about $18,500 USD, in compensation. So it's not a totally insane thing to do. It's a real public service, too; if the centrifuge works, it could save astronauts loads of time. Right now, they fight muscle atrophy in space by playing sports for "most of their day." (Where was all the mandatory space soccer in "Interstellar," huh?)

Ultimately, though, extreme bed rest is probably less cool than space. Astronauts' muscles atrophy, too, but they also get to do extremely epic things, like make history and leave their poop on the moon. Still, this could be the perfect vacation for the right person.

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Hear more hilarious details of preparing for space travel in "Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void," by the legendary science writer Mary Roach. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice April 25, 2019

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