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Newman Talks About Research Combining Space and Biology

Mir Research On Effects of Gravity Leads to Mars Discussion

By A. S. Wang

STAFF REPORTER

The Biomedical Engineering Society concluded its fall Distinguished Lecture Series yesterday with a talk by MacVicar Fellow and Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Dava J. Newman.

Newman’s lecture, “From Mir to Mars: Aerospace Biomedical Engineering,” focused on her experiment on the effect of low gravity on human mobility.

Human health in space

Newman’s talk began with a discussion of her research on the Russian Space Station, Mir. Newman’s two-year experiment attempted to understand the impact of extended exposure to a lack of gravity, known as microgravity, on human mobility.

“After roughly 30 days, I found that the astronauts are completely adapted to the microgravity environment,” Newman said. “And in cases of such extended space flight, there is significant evidence of physiological de-conditioning.”

She gave the example of muscle density loss, where “the data shows a bone mineral density loss of 1.3% with every 30 days of exposure to microgravity.” Among her other findings, Newman was excited to report that “There is very strong evidence of a pre-programmed motion response in the brain that is ‘retrainable.’”

Newman discusses Mars travel

The second part of Newman’s talk focused on more general topics in of aeronautical research. Newman talked about the research implications of the International Space Station. “The construction of the International Space Station is scheduled for a 2007 or 2008 completion ... and I am optimistic that 2014 will make a great launch date for a manned Mars exploration mission.”

“That gives us only 10 years to develop all the technologies and capabilities we need, and I am willing to devote 10 years to help put man on Mars,” Newman said.

Among current technological insufficiencies, Newman cited the space-suit as a major limitation. “We currently have a 300 pound suit ... which is okay in a weightless space station, but on Mars we are really looking for something ... much lighter!”

“Astronauts need to be able to get into their suit easily, like putting on regular clothing,” Newman said. Interesting suggestions Newman has considered include a spray-on suit. “I do not read science fiction,” Newman said, “... technologies we have recently found are actually very promising.”

However, “NASA does not currently fund any programs or research for any manned mission to Mars, they only fund programs involving robots,” Newman said. Still, she is very confident that in the near future, manned Mars exploration will happen. Thus she concluded her talk encouraging students to join her in this area of research.

BMES offers expanded schedule

BMES Vice-President David Yin ’03 said after the lecture, “BMES has definitely become more active, especially this year. We are going to continue to do these lectures on a wider range of topics relating to current events.”

“Over IAP, BMES will be offering a symposium of six to seven faculty members,” said BMES President Philip Mahdjoob-Alexander ’02. “MIT’s [bioengineering] resources are scattered. BMES tries to bring some of these resources together, the IAP symposium is designed to do that.”

The Newman talk followed an earlier talk by Professor Laurence R. Young on human space exploration.

The talk was co-sponsored by the Biotechnology Process Engineering Center.