Real participatory exploration: NASA’s bed rest analog study (Interview with @Pillownaut)

| I had just started at NASA when I saw Nick Skytland give this presentation on Participatory Exploration, and it captured my imagination. Participatory Exploration View more presentations from Nick Skytland This time you get to participate. Not ‘you get to read about it,’ or ‘you can carry the briefcase of the real heroes.’ Not ‘you get to sit […]

I had just started at NASA when I saw Nick Skytland give this presentation on Participatory Exploration, and it captured my imagination.

This time you get to participate. Not ‘you get to read about it,’ or ‘you can carry the briefcase of the real heroes.’ Not ‘you get to sit on the sidelines and clap for other people.’ Everyone can do something that matters, that contributes to the mission. Participation is one of the core tenets of Open Government, and one we take very seriously. When NASA creates opportunities for inspired citizens to participate by contributing their time, talents and resources in meaningful ways, we improve the flow of ideas and solutions into and out of the space program.

Today I want to share about a great example of real participatory exploration… in some of the coolest work that NASA does!

Analog missions are a vital part of what we do for exploration. We have NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) on the Florida Coast, the Inflatable Lunar Habitat in Antarctica, the Short Distance Mobility Exploration Engineering Evaluation Field Tests in Washington and Arizona, the In-Situ Resource Utilization Demonstrations in Hawaii, and the Haughton Mars Project in Canada. Each of these sites enables us to “make an analogy” about spaceflight, creating a test environment that helps us understand how people, equipment, and experiments might (or might not) work in the extreme environment of a mission. (Go here to read blogs by the Analogs Field Testing team – most recently the Desert RATS project.)

But we have other analogs too – and one of the best examples is the NASA Bed Rest Study, hosted in Galveston, TX. Head down bed rest is a good way to mimic a person traveling in space without gravity. This amazing project demonstrates how much your body, tilted down slightly with head down and feet up, for 70 days, 24-hours a day, without getting out of bed, except for limited times for specific tests, is like an astronaut’s body during the weightlessness of space flight. (Cool, huh?)

Heather Archuletta, also known as Pillownaut, is just a “regular joe” (in her own words) who realized that everyone could contribute to NASA’s exploration mission in a substantive way and decided to go for it and join the bed rest study. She continues to tell the story of her experience and increase the awesome all over the country, getting people excited about space and exploration.

bicycling to exhaustion!
Bicycling to exhaustion… one of the many tests involved in the study!

What originally motivated you to volunteer for the bedrest study?

Heather: A co-worker emailed me a link to an article about bedrest analogs.  The headline was “Go To Bed For Science” or something similar to that, so I initially thought it was a joke.  I sought more articles about it, and learned all the physiological changes that occur, and I was fascinated at how these studies have evolved since the 1960s.  Really, you can simulate spaceflight in bed?  I loved that idea, of how we play with gravity. I enjoyed the career I had at the time, but it was just another IT job for average tech clients.  When I changed my focus and went to Johnson Space Center, I was intrigued that just a normal joe like myself could do something like this for my space agency, even for all of humanity.  I am a lifelong NASA geek, and I love that their motto is, “For The Benefit of All.”  It was something higher, something meaningful, and I felt I had to go for it.

How did your work there affect/support/engage the space program?

Heather: This question makes me laugh inwardly, because I did so little!  The doctors and scientists who work for the spaceflight simulations programs are the ones who truly make a difference, and I saw some of the most dedicated and earnest people I’ve ever met in my life. It is inspiring to see folks who are absolutely passionate about what they do for a living, and they never lose sight of their mission.

Other than going through their screening process, and qualifying as a healthy non-smoker with naturally strong bones, my tasks were pretty minimal.  However, no one before me had ever described the process in detail as it was happening to them, so that was why I decided to blog along the way.  I was happy to share the medical reality of space flight with many readers who were very supportive.  I just tried to be cooperative and positive for the researchers, and now I try to encourage others to get involved in the program if they are healthy enough to qualify.  When the first human sets foot on Mars, we will be able to say, “I did my small part in making that happen.”  I desperately hope a red planet landing occurs in my lifetime!

How many days exactly did you spend in bed for space?

Heather: I’ve done three studies for the Human Test Subject Facility (HTSF), two of which required tilted bed rest.  In the first, I was at a -6 degree head-down tilt for 50 days, simulating the micro-gravity of the space station.  In the second, I was at an 8-degree tilted-up angle for 14 days to simulate lunar gravity. Hopefully this data will be used in the Moon and Mars programs, when we further explore these bodies.

What was the best part? A favorite story?

Heather: The best part is definitely the TIME you have, and the break you get from outside life.  You aren’t in your normal routine generating bills or paying for gasoline!  Someone brings you three meals a day, does your laundry for you, and you get a massage every other day – it’s quite surreal.  Thetesting schedule comes first, of course, but on days when there are no tests, you have an incredible amount of time on your hands, which is a rare and precious commodity in adulthood!

I got SO much work done, it was incredible; I actually found the bottom of my email inbox for about the first time in ten years.  In terms of leisure, I blazed through thirty books that I previously hadn’t had time to read.  NASA tends to recruit people who are industrious and able to keep busy without getting bored.  Some of us were learning languages, others took classes, and still others brought their art supplies or instruments.  Many of the participants at the time would all get together in the common rooms for movie nights, or shared crafts projects.  I was lucky to be with a fantastic group who were very friendly and caring; we all still keep in touch through Myspace and Facebook.

What there a time you wanted to quit and go home? What kept you going?

Heather: Yes, of course. That is human nature when we undertake odd challenges or out-of-the-ordinary activities.  The very first time I did a Tilt Test, I remember thinking, “Oh for heaven’s sake, what have I gotten myself into?”  It is stunning to lie in a centrifuge or be strapped into posturography machines, and think “I get to play fake astronaut!”  There were days when I had some discomfort, but I never wanted to go home.  I would have stayed at the NASA facility longer if I could have.

I did have some side effects, such as watery eyes and occasional back aches, and when I got up after my longest stint in bed, my feet were quite tender.  What kept me going was thinking, wow, astronauts go through these same steps.  They are the kind of people who don’t give up, and I won’t either.  I wanted to see if I could make it through whatever they threw at me, but of course I don’t kid myself that I ever worked as hard as real astronauts do.  They train for years just to spend a few days in space.  I learned a lot about what they endure, and did a great deal of my own research into the space science to which I was contributing. So it’s a participatory learning experience.

How else (other than being a test subject) have you gotten involved with NASA’s mission for exploration? 

Heather: Tweetups! Honestly, I think they are the single greatest outreach idea to come along in years.  I’ve been to five NASA Tweetups now, I’ve been a NASA mascot handler, and helped with media events at NASA centers.  Anyone who finds me online can see I am constantly passing on space news about NASA missions.  It was sad to see the shuttle program end, and it’s difficult to see manned spaceflight face such an uncertain future due to budget problems or naysayers.  I’ll keep trying to generate interest in all things space, especially in children.  My favorite part of continuing my blog all these years has been when little kids send me questions.  I always think, people their age are the ones who may walk on Mars, and it’s crucial that we heighten their awareness of the importance of space travel.

rehab
Heather learning to walk again after a long time in bed

Thanks for sharing your adventures, Heather — and for helping everyone get inspired about what we do at NASA.

Not everyone can spend this many days in bed for science, but there is something that everyone can do. If you are a dreamer, an excite-r, an explorer, a hard worker, a thinker, we need you to come be a part of what NASA is doing.

Interested in knowing more about spaceflight analog studies with the Human Test Subject Facility? Go here for current opportunities.

Have other ideas about how people can participate and contribute to the mission? Click the ‘Share your Ideas’ tab at the bottom of the page and let us know about them.


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