How staying in bed for 60 days could help us get to Mars

31 Aug 2015

A person undergoing a bed rest study. Image via DLR

Much like NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) is pushing human endurance in testing to see if humans can last for long periods of time in space, but a 60-day bed-rest test might be its best challenge yet.

While the idea of staying in bed for 60 days sounds like a dream on a Monday morning, the test will actually be rather uncomfortable for the test subjects who have agreed to the ESA’s experiment to see whether we can one day go to Mars.

For the last number of years, the ESA has been organising a series of bed-rest studies of varying durations, but this marks the first long-term test that will send 12 men go to bed for a solid 60 days.

Given that this isn’t a holiday for the test subjects, a bed-rest study is just like any other study in that it must be strictly controlled.

To meet the criteria for a bed-rest study, the bed must have an inclination of 6° so that your head is lower than your body, while at least one shoulder must touch the bed at all times.

The effects of long-term resting in bed will somewhat replicate the experiences of astronauts in space, like current NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who will experience a year aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to see how bone and muscle react to underuse.

Sleeping on the job unlikely

Due to get underway next week, the 12 men will be poked and prodded continuously with 12 scientific groups planning approximately 90 experiments.

These include checking their insulin resistance, the cardiovascular system and how the brain copes with upside-down rest to test how simulated gravity affects specific organs.

The participants will also be measured to chart changes in their bodies two weeks before and two weeks after the study.

Equally as uncomfortable, a newly-developed test will be run as part of the ‘reactive jumps’ study, allowing subjects to ‘jump’ in a horizontal position as well as in space using low-pressure cylinders to recreate the effects of gravity.

This experiment will target the patient’s bone, muscle and coordination and will be the first time that reactive jumping will be tested as a way of avoiding the loss of bone and muscle.

Giving insight into the rather uncomfortable experiences the subjects are about to undergo, Jennifer Ngo-Anh, the head of the ESA’s Human Research Office said: “Organising month-long scientific studies is a huge task and aside from coordinating the researchers from all over Europe, choosing the test subjects is extremely important as the success of the study depends on their commitment.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic