Chair Force Engineer

Monday, April 02, 2007

Marathon Woman

Astronaut Sunita Williams is running the Boston Marathon, at least in an honorary way, from the International Space Station. Due to her extreme (220 miles above the earth!) circumstances, she'll have to participate by running on the station's treadmill for 26.2 miles.

The differences between the space marathon and the real Boston Marathon are worth commenting on. Aside from the fact that the ISS is not Boston (unless the Boondock Saints buy a trip on a Soyuz,) the running environments are very different. An astronaut doesn't have to contend with wind, hills, insects, rain, temperature fluctuations, or other runners; the experience is somewhat mundane in comparison to the real thing. It's probably easier on the body, because the feet aren't impacting the treadmill with the same force that would be necessary to run under one G.

There are several drawbacks to running in space. For a 26.2 mile run, I'm certain that it will become very monotonous, very quickly. Hopefully the astronauts have TV screens to watch while on the treadmill, but all runners look forward to seeing new and interesting locales when they run. Another important factor is the deterioration of the body that occurs while in a microgravity environment. While the astronauts stay physically active, will that be enough to allow an astronaut to run the equivalent of a marathon in space?

Another good question is how long it will take Sunita Williams to get back in marathon shape upon her return to earth. While science has much to learn about the physiological effects of long-term microgravity on the human body, we've seen enough to learn that prolonged weightlessness is pretty bad for people. Muscles atrophy and bones decalcify. While many symptoms of weightlessness reverse themselves when astronauts return to earth, some do not. My guess is that Sunita Williams will eventually run the Boston Marathon again while on earth, but it may be years before it happens again.

Perhaps NASA should commit itself to artificial gravity solutions immediately. An artifical gravity, manned spacecraft would be a worthy experiment to conduct in earth orbit. It would certainly achieve a good deal of risk reduction before we send humans to Mars or the asteroids in an artifical-gravity ship.

The first space marathon appears to be a stunt more than anything else, but it poses important questions about the physical effects of weightlessness that will have to be overcome if humans are to live in space for years at a time. The extreme physical exertion required to run a marathon, even in the sterilized environment of a space station, will give the physiologists a lot to study. The recovery of an astronaut, to the point where he or she can run a terrestrial marathon again, will also be a fascinating venue of research.