In the sublevels of a German building, volunteers will soon be lying at an unnatural angle, all to help better understand the effects of space travel on the human body. Richard Hollingham reports.

The recently opened Envihab at the German space agency (DLR) near Cologne looks like a building of the future. Possibly one of those dystopian futures where everything looks superficially shiny but something deeply sinister is going on just beneath the surface.

Ominously, most of the facility is indeed just beneath the surface.

Surrounded by utilitarian research labs and office blocks, Envihab resembles a flat rectangular white slab – like a giant block of Lego – resting on the ground.

We enter along a concrete pathway cut through the grassy bank. A security guard opens the glass doors and we descend a staircase into a maze of corridors lined with white walls, white floors and ceilings. There are no windows or pictures, no soft furnishings or colour; nor are there any handles on the doors.

Once inside we could be anywhere on Earth… or, indeed, space. Perhaps an outpost of humanity on a distant world. Or the set of a 1970s episode of Doctor Who. I half expect to see a patrol of Daleks trundling around the corner.

Test for space

This feeling of other-worldliness is deliberate. Envihab is designed to feel like a space station, where scientists, doctors and engineers can simulate the environment beyond the Earth.

“We can control all the environmental conditions – noise, light, temperature, even the mix of gases in the air,” says Ulrich Limper, a cardiologist for DLR’s Institute of Aerospace Medicine, and my guide to the facility.

“It gives us the opportunity to do very controlled studies which are important for spaceflight, but also for science on Earth as well.”

Limper uses his key fob to open a set of double doors, which swing open with only the faintest mechanical whirr. We travel through a further set and enter a hospital ward. The white corridors are lined with 12 windowless rooms, each containing a single hospital bed.

“From inside here, there’s no way of knowing whether it’s day or night,” says Limper. “There are no clocks on the walls, and you have no idea what time it is, what season it is.”

But before this gets too nightmarish, Limper is keen to stress that everyone who stays in this facility is a paid volunteer. “We select them during a structured and intense screening process and they know what the challenge will be.”

Simulated weightlessness

In the first major study to be carried out in Envihab, the challenge will be to lie in bed for 60 days in a row to study the effects of long duration spaceflight. The experiment starts this summer and the medical team is currently in the process of selecting 12 participants.

“These bed rest studies give us the opportunity to simulate the effects of prolonged weightlessness,” explains Limper.

Understanding how the body adapts to life without gravity is essential if humans are ever to leave the Earth for more than a few months. A mission to Mars and back – assuming you plan to land – would take at least two years, with at least 18 months of that in space.

Studies carried out on astronauts have shown that lack of gravity leads to bone loss and muscle deterioration and causes bodily fluids to pool in the head, making it swell (astronauts really are big-headed). Crew on the International Space Station (ISS) frequently report the feeling of a head cold.

US astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko have recently begun a year-long mission to investigate the effects of long-duration space flight. However, bed rest studies on the ground in Envihab will enable doctors to examine a larger number of subjects under completely controlled conditions.

But do not imagine it is going to be any more comfortable.

Life at an angle

“To cheat gravity, we tilt the subjects head-down by six degrees,” says Limper. “This is very important, so that the head is below the rest of the body.”

Stuck at this peculiar angle, the volunteers will also be expected to eat a nutritionally controlled diet and go to the toilet using bedpans and urine bottles. They will be monitored 24 hours a day on close-circuit TV and even be transferred to special water-proof tilted beds to take a shower.

Dlr has carried out several previous bed rest studies in partnership with the European Space Agency. Results from these studies have also been used on Earth in studies of bone disease and to plan care for people confined to bed in hospital.

The latest research requires relatively fit men aged between 18 and 40. “A big problem for us is the variability between subjects,” says Limper, “and gender has a big effect but other investigations might use women.”

As well as spending life at an angle of -6 degrees – reading, sleeping, watching movies or playing video games – the subjects will also take part in a range of experiments. Over the three weeks inside the facility, they can expect to be measured, prodded, pricked and scanned in tests of blood, bone and muscle.

There will, however, be some respite from the regime of rest and test. As one of the purposes of the study is to investigate ways of countering the debilitating effects of microgravity, participants will be given specific exercises to see the effects on muscle tone and health.

Future studies will also employ a device located at the heart of Envihab: a human centrifuge. Contained within a large white (windowless) cylinder, it consists of four arms, around three metres long, arranged in a cross about a central axis. One of the arms is fitted with a bed, so doctors can spin volunteers to simulate varying accelerations.

It is deliberately smaller than most human centrifuges. “We think this is more or less the size we could implement on a space station,” says Limper.

Difficult transition

The aim would be to carry a human centrifuge on a future space station or deep space mission to enable astronauts to exercise under artificial gravity conditions.

Anyone signing up for two months in bed, being subjected to whatever the doctors can throw at them, is going to feel disorientated by the end of the study. To help them cope with the transition back to the real world, the facility includes a “living quarters” area where the volunteers will live and socialise once the bed rest phase of the experiment is over.

It still feels far from home. Although fitted out with comfortable chairs (you can only imagine what it would be like to finally sit down) and a massive video screen, there are no windows or pictures on the walls. The only decoration is a DLR logo on the wall and a red fire extinguisher in the corner.

Who would have thought doing nothing could be so difficult? Yet, despite the challenge of signing up for 60 days in a bed, Limper says that – thanks to careful selection – volunteers seldom drop out.

Even after only 90 minutes underground I have lost all track of time. As we emerge into the daylight, I ask Limper if he would take part in his own experiments.

“I wouldn’t do it,” he replies. “No.”

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