'04s make weightless trip on board of NASA craft

by Kate Lyon | 11/1/04 6:00am

Flanked by a "Dartmouth 2004" banner, Stephanie Feldman '04 and Lauren Talbot '04 floated weightlessly on board NASA's microgravity plane in the opening slide of their presentation "A Weightless Wonder: Our Foray into Microgravity" in Spannos Auditorium at the Thayer School of Engineering on Sunday.

As part of NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunity Program, Feldman, Talbot and Lea Kiefer '04 spent the last eight months designing and testing experimental exercises to prevent muscle atrophy in astronauts while in space.

The project culminated in a chance to test their ideas in the "Weightless Wonder," an antigravity aircraft that simulates the feeling of weightlessness in outer space at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, in July.

Calling themselves the Dartmouth Resistance Exercises for Anti-Gravity Muscles, or the DREAM team, the women said they were inspired to search for better ways for astronauts to avoid the atrophy of muscles during weightlessness by the work of their adviser, Dr. Jay Buckley, a professor at the Dartmouth Medical School.

On earth, muscles get constant exercise because gravity gives them something to resist. In space, however, there is no gravity to fight, and muscles begin to shrink, causing problems when the crew returns to Earth; thus, the need to exercise in space.

Previously, astronauts have used exercise machines that have proven to be ineffective while on board space ships because of their weight, limited scope in muscle targets and inaccessibility for crew members. Kiefer, Feldman and Talbot, all athletes while at Dartmouth, found resistance bands to be a lightweight, widely applicable way to exercise in space.

The women developed a series of exercises targeting five major postural muscle groups -- calves, quads, hamstrings, hip flexors and the lower back -- using resistance bands to perform the exercises while floating. The women measured the electricity generated when muscles contract using an electromyogram, or an EMG, to show that the exercises were effective while on board the "Weightless Wonder."

Kiefer, Feldman and Talbot were selected to test their exercises on board the KC 135 flyer -- a flying lab that simulates zero gravity by flying a series of parabolic arcs. By flying in this way the plane, the equivalent of a Boeing 707, can effectively go into free fall, and create 20 to 25 seconds of microgravity.

The plane, used to film several of the weightless scenes in the movie Apollo 13, can also perform "Luna" parabolic arcs to recreate the feeling of Neil Armstrong's moonwalk, and "Martian" parabolic arcs, which cause the body to feel as though it weighed one-third of its body weight.

The hardest part of executing their experiments in space was logistical, said Feldman.

"The toughest part was trying to figure out how to position our body so we could target the muscles and not worry about flipping around," she said. "But after three parabolas it became really comfortable."

The women said they considered their experiment a success, though they will not be continuing to work further on the project, as the program is an undergraduate initiative.

"We were able to complete the exercise, and we saw significant EMG activation," Feldman said. "We hope NASA is going to be able to use it."