Astronaut Leroy Chiao talks about how scientists need to find a way to solve the many health problems that astronauts face, including bone and muscle loss.
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Leroy Chiao on Space Travel Health Question: Are you still involved with NASA at all? Leroy Chiao: Yes, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute was created about, let's see, I think it was about 12 years ago by NASA, and it was looking for a way to funnel research dollars through this institute to go out and collaborate with universities and other research institutes in a way that NASA would have more difficulty doing because NASA is a government agency. And so, it was created and run by the Baylor of College of Medicine and I was hired on, probably about, let's see, I guess it's been about three years. And I am the Chairman of the User Panel, and what we are, we're a panel composed of current and former astronauts as well as current and former flight surgeons. And what we do is we advise the Chairman, we're an Advisory Panel, and we advise the chairman on the research projects that we think are operationally relevant. That is, what do we need to learn about and what do we need to develop a protocol for to deal with a medical problem in space? So, as an example, one of the biggest concerns about going out beyond lower Earth orbit is the radiation. We find that exercise seems to counteract a lot of the negative effects of space flight, like bone loss and muscle atrophy and cardiovascular systems issues, but really, the radiation is something you worry about. If you start going on a trip to Mars, you're going to get away from the Van Allen Belts, you're going to be susceptible to solar flares, and what do you do. So, that's one of our big areas of concerns and so we see us advising the Director for the NSBRI, but we should fund more research on developing better detectors, or pharmaceutical counter measures maybe, to help protect astronauts from radiation, or even looking at shielding. What kind of lightweight shielding would be effective to create a safe haven in a spacecraft going to Mars. Other areas, as I mentioned, were bone loss and muscle loss and cardiovascular atrophy. Those are always significant areas that we are worried about. You know, exercise, as I said, seems to counteract a lot of that, but right now, we exercise two hours a day on the station, which is a huge hit out of your day. I mean, it's great for staying in shape, but you know, it cuts into the productivity of the crew and if you look at how expensive it is to get a crew into space, if we can keep them healthy and have them exercise, but spend less time doing it, we can get more done. Question: What sort of exercise regime do astronauts perform in space? Leroy Chiao: Well, it's very important, first of all if you think about it, especially in a long flight like a six month space flight and on the ISS. If you didn't exercise and used the analogy on earth, it would be like laying in bed. So, just imagine laying in bed for several months, and even just trying to get up and walk, you probably wouldn't be able to. But if you got up and you exercised two hours a day, you'd probably be okay, and that's the same in space. The exercises we do, we do cardiovascular and resistance exercises, and so we have a treadmill, but of course, we have harnesses and rubber Bungies to hold us down to the track so that we don't float away. We have exercise bicycles and we also have a resistive exercise device that uses loaded cords that we can vary the resistance on and you can attach a bar or a harness to these cords and do weight lifting type exercises. So, that helps keep your bones and your muscles in shape. Question: What has been done to address bone loss from space travel? Leroy Chiao: Well, one of the ultrasound experiments that we did onboard was very interesting. We were doing something called telemedicine, where we were using the ultrasound. I'm not an M.D., and neither was my crew mate onboard, but we were able to, with very little training, show that we could produce diagnostic quality images of bones, eyes, internal organs, and things like that. And so, on