NASA recently granted UC Irvine researchers $1.5 million to construct a fitness apparatus to keep astronauts healthy in space.
The Yo-Yo inertia Wheel Technology, named for its resemblance to the childhood favorite, was built to maintain muscle tone while providing a workout in space. Bearing resemblance to a rowing machine, in which the user pulls a weighted bar from feet to chest while sitting. The Yo-Yo would provide astronauts with resistance training that is similar to that done on a rowing machine.
Although astronauts have always been required to exercise on a daily basis, developing resistance training in the absence of gravity has proved difficult. Traditional aerobic exercise devices do not provide enough resistance to benefit the muscles, or even to reduce the negative effects of microgravity.
Microgravity, the condition in which lack of gravity results in weightlessness, quickly contributes to muscle loss and the degeneration of bone density.
While gravitational resistance constantly forces muscles and organs to work harder, microgravity renders muscles useless and decreases the intensity of other organs, such as the heart, which pumps less in the absence of the pull of gravity. The result is demineralization and loss of strength.
Furthermore, microgravity negatively impacts the nervous system. The legs, which are normally activated due to the pull of gravity, stop sending messages via neural pathways to the brain when in space. Decreased use negatively affects the feedback loops in the nervous system and contributes to atrophy.
Although the effects of microgravity are mostly reversible upon returning to earth, the Yo-Yo ensures less of what is essentially an accelerated aging process of the bones and muscles, in addition to making the healing process of sore muscles easier on returning astronauts.
Under conditions where even barbells and dumbbells are weightless, the Yo-Yo exploits microgravity and creates resistance to target muscles and bones in longer flights.
“The Yo-Yo allows you to mimic weight squats, and you can get aerobic exercise through a rowing motion,” said Gregory Adams, UCI physiologist and head investigator of Yo-Yo experiments on campus.
Furthermore, the Yo-Yo does not require external power, and Adams said that he plans to make the device compact enough to fit into carry-on vehicles on space shuttles.
Adams has begun to test his fitness machine by asking local UCI students to experiment with it, specifically male students from the ages of 18 to 35 who do not exercise, smoke or have any types of brain, bone or heart disease. Volunteers must also be able to commit to five weeks of training, in sessions of two to three hours per week.
“I don’t see how this is beneficial,” said first-year undeclared student Raisha Kruckmeyer. “It sounds like too much money being spent for the wrong reasons … do astronauts really need a gym in space?”
First-year business economics major Yuliana Sanchez agreed. “The money that NASA is spending is from the government. The United States could use this kind of funding to help so many other problems facing our nation. It does not make sense how public schooling gets so many cutbacks while programs like this receive abundant funding.”
However, researchers around the world continue to test the device in the hopes of eliminating the possibility of broken bones and other problems for astronauts at the height of long-term missions.
Inventor Per Tesch has been researching the device for 15 years after being commissioned by the Swedish National Space Board and NASA.
The device was recently delivered by the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station (ISS), the first in-space test. However, results are not expected for another couple of months.
Thus far, ground experiments with the device in training centers around the world have proved successful.
Tomasz Owerkowicz, a UCI staff member working on the project, asks anyone interested in volunteering to contact him at either firstname.lastname@example.org or at (949) 824-3356.