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NASA EPSCoR Research Active at UK, U of L, Western

By Jennifer Bonck

Image of human powered centrifuge
(click image to enlarge)
The human centrifuge, pictured above, is used in artificial gravity training in one of UK’s Kentucky NASA EPSCoR projects.

Funded jointly by NASA, Kentucky and state institutions, the programs contribute to the long-term development of human potential for Kentucky’s future in an advanced technological age and enhance the Commonwealth’s economic development. The research and development projects involve collaboration with NASA field centers to assist the continued human presence in space and the development of space resources, while benefiting the quality of life on Earth.

 

March 12, 2003 (Lexington, Ky.) -- On Saturday, Feb. 1, Charlie Knapp was having his customary weekend respite of a quiet morning and breakfast. Like many Americans, he turned on the television and discovered that the astronauts on the space shuttle Columbia were not returning home.

“First and foremost, it was a tragedy of lost lives,” Knapp said. “There was also a loss of a tremendous amount of science.”

Knapp, professor of biomedical engineering and director of the University of Kentucky Center for Biomedical Engineering, has a connection to the space program, beyond the collective human sympathy and sense of loss the nation felt after the Columbia tragedy. Knapp is part of a collaborative effort in space-related research involving several Kentucky universities.

After the success of the initial Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) grants, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began a similar initiative. The Kentucky NASA EPSCoR program and the Kentucky Space Grant Consortium (KSGC) formed partnerships between NASA and Kentucky for the purpose of developing expertise and capacity in space-related research. The programs are funded at $ 4.4 million and $ 2 million, respectively.

Funded jointly by NASA, Kentucky and state institutions, the programs contribute to the long-term development of human potential for Kentucky’s future in an advanced technological age and enhance the Commonwealth’s economic development. The research and development projects involve collaboration with NASA field centers to assist the continued human presence in space and the development of space resources, while benefiting the quality of life on Earth.

The five original cluster projects of the NASA EPSCoR program contribute technological applications relating to space habitats, image recognition, microgravity, space exploration, and physiological adaptation in space travel.

One of UK’s cluster projects involves the study of physiological adaptation, specifically the response of the cardiovascular system to space flight. The project is attempting to find ways to improve the body’s ability to adjust to the conditions of space, as well as to readjust to the environment of Earth.

Because of the conditions of space travel, the human body goes through several changes. For one, there is a decrease in exercise capacity. This makes it more and more difficult for the body to do work. Secondly, the body decreases its plasma volume, seeming to be dehydrated.

Also, due to the lack of gravity in space, the body reacts as if it is lying down. Fluid moves from the legs to the face. The body does not replenish the fluid loss, and when astronauts return from space, they have a tendency to faint. “It is like they are ‘a couple of quarts low,’” said Knapp. “They may get lightheaded and faint. We are studying a countermeasure to this response.”

A countermeasure is a device or technique used to change a physiological response to the effects of space flight. Knapp’s project involves a particular NASA countermeasure, artificial gravity training that attempts to fool the body into thinking that it is standing up. The training involves a human-powered centrifuge that looks like a circular table. The centrifuge has two seats and pedals. Volunteers place the backs of their heads in the center and their feet on the pedals. As they pedal, the table spins and the centrifugal force causes blood in the chest and head to move to the legs and feet. The body responds as if it is exercising on Earth, standing up. This countermeasure aims to build resistance against the negative effects of micro-gravity on the human body.

The research team tests volunteers before and after the centrifuge training. Volunteers are placed on a table and tilted upwards to 70 degrees to see how well their cardiovascular systems respond to the pull of gravity after training.

In the next phase, volunteers will be placed in simulators (six degrees head down beds) to mimic space flight; some individuals will go through centrifuge training, and others will not.

The results of these experiments may lead to improved cardiovascular response to space flight, as well as an increased understanding of cardiovascular function in
general.

Kentucky NASA EPSCoR and KSGC projects involve more than 60 faculty members and 60 students at UK, University of Louisville, Western Kentucky University, Eastern Kentucky University, and Morehead State University.

The projects contribute to scientific and medical knowledge and capabilities, and also, offer especially wonderful experiences for Kentucky students.

“Our graduate students go out to NASA to conduct experiments, and our undergrads get things ready from the university,” said Knapp. “These experiences not only contribute to education, but also may lead to future professional opportunities with NASA for our students.”


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