Human Guinea Pig to Blast Off With Space Shuttle

Tony McNicol in Tokyo
for National Geographic News
March 10, 2009
When NASA's space shuttle Discovery lifts off, currently planned for March 2009, it will carry the first Japanese astronaut to make an extended stay aboard the International Space Station.

As part of his mission, former airplane engineer Koichi Wakata, 45, has volunteered to be a human guinea pig—downing pills, wiring himself with sensors, and recording how smelly his underwear gets—all in the name of science.

The results of Wakata's three-month visit could help solve some of the medical and practical problems of space living.

Deodorant Clothing

There are no washing machines in outer space, so astronauts take a full supply of outfits, wear them as long as possible, and bring them back to Earth in hermetically sealed bags.

Wakata will need 45 pairs of underwear—enough for a change every other day—during his three-month tour. Each of his T-shirts must last a week.

To supplement his NASA-issued togs, Wakata will also bring seven days' worth of clothes developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Japan Women's University, and five Japanese companies.

The additional clothes are completely seamless to reduce skin irritation and are tailored to match the natural position of the body in a weightless environment—semi-sitting, with the neck tilted slightly forward and the arms floating away from the body.

(See pictures of a prototype skintight space suit.)

The outfits also use anti-static Velcro to prevent sparks that could damage electrical equipment.

Perhaps most important, the threads contain antibacterial material.

"According to our experiments, the underwear can be worn for three days without any bacterial growth," said Megumi Ogawa of JAXA's Space Biomedical Research Office.

Bone Density

An astronaut's bone density decreases ten times as fast as that of an elderly woman on Earth over the same time period, said Hiroshi Ohshima, also of JAXA's Space Biomedical Research Office.

That's because weightlessness interferes with an astronaut's ability to store calcium in his or her bones. In space the body excretes about 250 milligrams more calcium a day than it takes in.

In addition to weakened or even broken bones, excess calcium moving through the body's waste system means that astronauts risk developing excruciating kidney stones.

In an effort to fight bone loss, Wakata will take a weekly bisphosphonate pill, a medicine shown to increase bone density and reduce fractures in osteoporosis patients.

The density of bones in his legs, spine, and heels will be measured before and after the mission.

Cosmic Radiation

"Being in space is like having an x-ray every day," said Aiko Nagamatasu of JAXA's Space Environment Utilization Center.

"[And the radiation] is quite different to that on the ground. Space radiation consists of heavy ions, which cause a remarkably high degree of DNA damage and mutation."

Long-term cosmic ray exposure increases the chances of developing cancer and eye cataracts.

To help measure the risk to ISS residents, Wakata will wear a small personal device called a dosimeter and position 12 similar gauges around Japan's Kibo module, where he and the other astronauts will reside.

Orbital Telemedicine

For two 24-hour periods aboard the ISS, Wakata will wear an electrocardiograph (EKG) to monitor his cardiovascular functions.

Flight surgeons on Earth will pay particular attention to his heart during space walks, which require great exertion. The EKG will also monitor changes to his body clock caused by the absence of dawn and dusk.

After the electrodes are removed, a high-definition camera will be used to check Wakata's skin for rashes. A similar system could one day help doctors on Earth remotely examine injured astronauts.

The People's Challenges

Not all of Wakata's tasks are quite so weighty. On March 5 JAXA announced 16 special challenges for the astronaut suggested by members of the public.

Wakata has been asked to fly on a "magic" carpet, use eye drops, fold clothes, and arm wrestle in space—among other offbeat tasks selected from more than 1,500 entries.

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