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News Release — 3 December 2009
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ARLINGTON - Is it possible for the human body to withstand living on the moon and eventually a manned mission to Mars? An assistant professor of kinesiology at The University of Texas at Arlington is helping NASA's space program search for an answer to that question.
David Keller is the principal investigator in a NASA pilot study examining how exposure to the moon's partial gravity affects astronauts' ability to regulate their body temperature.
Keller has obtained a three-year, $500,000 grant for the study, which is tied into The Vision for Space Exploration announced by President George W. Bush in 2004. Bush called for a return to the moon by 2020 for extended stays as preparation for what would eventually be a manned mission to Mars.
One major obstacle is that the human body isn't suited for space. When astronauts return to earth, their skeletal muscle shrinks, and their heart function is often reduced or impaired and they lose bone density.
"When people come back to Earth from space they have trouble even standing upright," said Keller, who is an expert on human physiology and cardiovascular distress. Humans also lose the ability to regulate their body temperature, which is what Keller is tasked with solving.
Other researchers will examine how exposure to partial gravity affects basic heart functions and the digestive system. What's already known is that exposure to the microgravity environment of space impairs an astronaut's ability to increase blood flow to the skin for adequate heat dissipation.
"It's relatively unimportant when they're in space because there's less demand on skeletal muscle, and therefore, the heat generated by the muscle during work is minimal due to the microgravity. The demand on the skeletal muscle is next to nothing," Keller said.
"But when they land on the moon where there is partial gravity, how will that exposure affect them? Will they be able to accomplish their work? NASA needs the research to help in planning missions on the moon and for astronaut safety against heat illness, stroke or heat-related death," Keller said.
Also, current space suits don't allow sweat to evaporate to cool astronauts down.
Keller's lunar pilot studies will simulate lunar gravity effects on the body using a bed-rest model. Human volunteers will be confined to a bed for 30 days with the angle of the bed adjusted between 10 degrees head up and zero degrees when they sleep, which is normal.
"For microgravity, historically we have used a six-degree head down tilt which mimics, from a cardiovascular standpoint, the effect of removing gravity," Keller said.
The moon's gravity is about one-sixth that of Earth.
Keller said the bed-rest model project is tentatively slated to begin in March and last one year at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
NASA hopes to use the research to develop countermeasures.
Keller's work is representative of the kind of research that is a hallmark of The University of Texas at Arlington, an institution of 28,000 students that is on the rise and working toward becoming a nationally-recognized, Tier One research institution.
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