Now over the half-way mark on their long mission, the explorers are
relaxed, confident of success and fully adjusted to their new
environment. They are supplying ‘mission control’ with a steady stream
of valuable data and all systems are nominal.

There’s just one thing. These space explorers are not in space. They’re
in bed. Their spacecraft is the Clinique Spatiale at the French Space
Agency’s MEDES centre, located at Rangueil just outside Toulouse. The
mission they are engaged upon is designed to investigate the changes
that take place in human muscle and bone during long-duration
spaceflight, as well as other physiological and psychological

To spend three months lying in bed is a lot tougher than it sounds. For
a start, the volunteers lie on a slope, with their heads angled downward
at 6 degrees: it is the best way to simulate some of the effects of
weightlessness here on the surface of the Earth. And ‘lying in bed’
means exactly that. The 14 volunteers eat their meals, visit the toilet,
take showers and undergo countless medical tests without even sitting
up — far less standing on their feet.

Even so, when CNES advertised for volunteers last year, thousands
applied. Many, of course, were wildly unsuitable; but after the initial
winnowing process, MEDES was still left with 600 serious candidates for
the 14 places on the ‘mission’.

Dr Jacques Bernard, one of the 10 European scientists involved in this
study, explained.

“The final selection was made first on grounds of health risk: we
didn’t want anyone who was likely to have a coronary, for example.
And of course we were looking for psychological stability.

“We are using men only in this experimental campaign for reasons
of scientific consistency. But women have taken part in bedrest
experiments in the past, and will be again.”

So what motivates the 14 men who went through the selection process?

“Well, the money comes into it just a bit. More important though, the
experience represents a break in their lives. Some of them are fed
up with their careers. This gives them a change without losing their
job: from their employers’ point of view, the experiment counts as
being ‘on leave’. Some of the volunteers have a real interest in
medical research; for others, it’s space science. And of course, for
everyone the whole thing is seen as a challenge.”

The volunteers spend their three months two to a room, but they
are not isolated from each other: there is much moving around the
centre — and a good deal of banter — as people go for medical
tests and although they are physically distanced from the outside
world each is equipped with a mobile phone and an internet-linked
computer. Unobtrusively, video cameras (operating by infrared at
night) and movement detection radar confirm that the volunteers
stick to their discipline, but right from the beginning they have
been as determined as anyone to make the experiment a success.

Says Dr Barnard: “They are a group, now; it’s a complex chemistry but
they are a real group, with leaders and no one excluded. They phone
each other all the time.

“The three sub-groups — exercise, medications and the control — had
to be selected at random. The choice of roommates was made by a team
of psychologists. Not so much to find pairs who were compatible as
to avoid pairs that were incompatible.”

What does the research team hope to gain from the campaign?

“We are learning more about muscle and bone adaptation to a new kind
of life in space. It’s not a deterioration: it’s an adaptation, an
important distinction. Of course, it’s a ‘disadaptation’ for life
back on the ground. So we are examining the process of adapation in
a group of healthy men. As I said, we have divided them in three
groups: one will receive certain medication for the stabilisation
of the bone tissue, the second special exercise routines and a third
control group only basic care. At the end of the campaign, we’ll
compare the results. And follow-up tests over the next two years
will teach us much about the re-adaptation process, too.

“We have been asking the same questions for 20 years: there have been
many bedrest experiments around the world. But we have never really
demonstrated for certain that there actually is bone loss. We’ve
always been sure that it occured, but we have never really proved it.
Now, though, we have much more powerful tools available for analysis.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) for instance, and more accurate ways
to measure bone density. Throughout the campaign, we have been making
regular muscle biopsies and with today’s equipment we can learn much
more from biochemical analysis of the samples.

Certainly, the volunteers seem to be thriving. And as the experimental
campaign moves into its second half, the atmosphere behind the doors
of the MEDES centre is relaxed. It’s a curious place: on the surface,
it is very hospital-like, with white-coated specialists and support
staff moving around with purposeful efficiency, discussing
professional business or simply chatting amicably. In their beds,
the ‘patients’ occupy a different world, with a different timescale
and a different sense of duration.

But there the resemblance ends. There is a good deal of laughter, a
sense of a shared mission and a shared achievement. The volunteers
are not patients: they are pioneers, and they know it.

Are there any complaints?

“Oh, they complain about this and that. And they like to make a fuss
over their food. We take a great deal of care with the food: we have
a dietician and a cook, and in the end we usually satisfy the
volunteers. Still, every day there are long discussions.” Dr Bernard
waves towards a window that overlooks the city of Toulouse. “But out
there it’s exactly the same. After all, this is still France.”

Related news

* Three months in bed to simulate effects of long-duration Space
Station missions

* Are you male, aged 25 to 45 and need a rest?

Related links

* MEDES website

* Human Spaceflight website


[Image 1:]
-6 deg head down tilt. Using a computer during the bedrest study in
Toulouse (October 2001).

[Image 2:]
Three months in bed — bedrest study Toulouse (October 2001).

[Image 3:]
Meals are served in bed — bedrest study Toulouse (October 2001).

[Image 4:]
Taking a shower in bed — bedrest study Toulouse (October 2001).

[Image 5:]
Closely monitored — bedrest study Toulouse (October 2001).