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Wanted: Couch Potatoes with Right Stuff, To Simulate Space Travel

June 4, 1990

THE WOODLANDS, Texas (AP) _ Help Wanted. Baylor College of Medicine seeks 16 good sleepers to spend a month lying down. Salary uncertain, but benefits include breakfast in bed - lunch and dinner, too.

It sounds like a couch potato’s dream, but there’s a catch to the deal being offered by researchers David Cardus and Wesley McTaggart.

When they say the sleepers will be confined to bed, they’re not kidding. The people they select won’t be allowed to get up for the the entire month, and they’ll spend part of their time spinning around in a space-age sleep chamber that looks like something straight out of the movie ″Aliens.″

The experiments also will require the research subjects to be hooked up to sensors that monitor a dozen bodily functions.

Other than that, the job’s a snooze.

Cardus and McTaggart, using a $650,000 grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, are involved in a three-year program to see if the physical strain can be eased on astronauts making lengthy space voyages.

The reseach is designed to counteract some of the physiological effects of weightlessness during space travel - a pertinent topic in light of the nation’s plans to establish a permanent space station and to send astronauts to Mars.

″What happens if you stay in bed?″ asks Cardus, a physiologist who has worked with astronauts since the beginning of the nation’s manned space program. ″You get deconditioned. And why don’t you get completely deconditioned? Because you spend two-thirds of the day carrying your weight around.″

Once someone gets into space, they don’t have any weight to carry around. Their bodies, especially the cardiovascular systems, get deconditioned by weightlessness.

Early astronauts sometimes fainted upon their return to Earth, and even now, space shuttle crews and cosmonauts on the Soviet space station must halt their work after a few hours to do exercises to keep their muscles in shape, he says.

To simulate weightlessness, Cardus and McTaggart intend to decondition their subjects by keeping them off their feet for about two weeks.

Then, for about another two weeks, the subjects will be put to bed again - this time on one of four blow-up mattresses that sit under plexiglass canopies atop a centrifuge platform.

From time to time, the entire platform, which fills a 30-by-30-foot room, will turn, spinning the four subjects about 20 times a minute to simulate one ‘G’ - or about the force of Earth gravity. The speed produces a force that travels from the head to the feet in a horizontal position.

Scientists believe a regular schedule of exposure to one-G or more will have the same effect as frequent exercise. And they’re hopeful that if it works, a similar machine could be included on the space station or the ship that heads for Mars. They also want to find out if the reconditioning works while the subject is either asleep or awake or both.

″We think the apparatus will meet its purposes, but of course you don’t know the problems until you start to use it,″ Cardus said.

Baylor has been advertising for men between ages 20 and 40 who have at least a month to spend laying around.

They’ve received replies from all over the world. But a limited budget, and the need to retest the subjects periodically after the experiment, has them looking primarily in the Houston area.

So far, they’ve interviewed about 10 candidates. They’d like to get 16 subjects - four groups of four men.

After the initial 16, Cardus says he may try to recruit women.

″The physiology of the male and female is a little different. This individual will be studied in considerable depth and we don’t want to complicate the experimental design,″ he says. ″But the principal reason is this: Our work is complex enough.″

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