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Despite an uncertain future for manned space travel, NASA has charged UNO researchers with finding ways to help astronauts better adjust to gravity when they return from a mission.
Then-President George W. Bush announced the end to the space shuttle program in 2004. In its place was Constellation, a program to return Americans to the moon. President Barack Obama, however, canceled that program and called on NASA to focus on new, deep-space capabilities to carry people to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars by 2030.
The last shuttle flight returned to Earth this summer, so the U.S. now has no vehicle to carry people into space. And budget cuts that besiege NASA raise questions about if or when the nation will carry out the ambitious plans to land on an asteroid or Mars.
Still, the UNO research could benefit future space travel. And it could also help anyone whose center of gravity has been affected by stroke, multiple sclerosis, aging or other ailments.
"Astronauts are superheroes," said Nick Stergiou, a University of Nebraska at Omaha professor of biomechanics who is leading the study. "But these results will be applicable to the rest of us."
The experiments aim to trick the mind into correcting balance and gait problems common after astronauts are weightless in space, often for months at a time. Astronauts lose muscle and bone mass after being weightless and often have trouble walking normally when they return.
Nebraska astronaut Clayton Anderson said that when he's returned home after a long space mission, he has a tendency to lean to the right when he walks until his body gets used to gravity again. And going for a jog is out of the question until his muscles repair, which can take days, weeks or months — depending on the length of stay in space.
"You walk like an older person," said Anderson, an Ashland native. "Your gait is smaller and your steps are smaller. Going to space can be a huge shock to your system."
Stergiou and his team will test subjects by doing such things as placing vibrating insoles in one of their shoes. Or they might look at a virtual reality screen of rotating stars. Or they could walk or run on a split treadmill that puts one foot on one speed and the other foot on another speed.
The subjects also might undergo a combination of the three.
Such methods can help test subjects use their senses to correct balance and gait problems, Stergiou said. "The science behind it is fantastic."
UNO launched the study earlier this year. The school was selected to receive a $750,000 grant from NASA to complete the project.
UNO will provide an additional $250,000, Stergiou said.
NASA funding for space travel has been cut in recent years. The agency requested $18.7 billion for 2012 but is likely to get as much as $2 billion less once Congress approves the federal budget. The result is likely to be the agency's smallest budget in several years.
Even so, NASA says, space exploration will continue.
In addition to trips to the International Space Station on Russian spacecraft, NASA has long-term plans.
NASA spokesman William Jeffs said the agency is developing new spacecraft with Lockheed Martin's space systems division to launch astronauts to the moon, Mars and asteroids.
Those missions, have no specific launch date. However, an unmanned spacecraft test flight is scheduled for 2014, Jeffs said.
Anderson said that despite current funding problems, NASA research should take place to benefit astronauts once the budget situation improves.
"You don't want to send somebody to Mars without knowledge first," Anderson said. "If an astronaut snaps both femurs when they step on Mars, what good is he or she to the exploration of the surface?"
And if scientists can apply the research to help people on Earth improve their health, Anderson said, "That's where you get the real bang for your buck."
Scott Tarry, director of NASA's Nebraska space grant program, agreed that the UNO research is timely.
"NASA has not given up its mission to have human exploration of space," he said. "What it's grappling with is what it's going to look like: How do you get to Mars? How do you colonize the moon? This is about the long-term exploration of space, colonization and the moon, Mars and beyond."
Despite its 50-plus year history, NASA scientists are still looking for ways to better prepare astronauts for adjusting to Earth's gravity after spending time in space. Space missions are longer than in years past, and NASA didn't focus much on how the long-term impact of weightlessness would affect astronauts.
In more recent years, the pool of astronauts has gotten bigger, and missions have been longer than they were in NASA's early days.
A typical space station mission is now three to six months. Anderson said his longest stay in space was 152 days.
"We've known about (the effects of gravity) for a long time but now you have the opportunity to do more," he said.
Added Tarry: "There's still a lot to be done. We're still looking at the changes the body goes through or doesn't go through, and how it affects a person when he or she comes back from a space mission and is living in the Earth's gravity and the Earth's atmosphere."
Tarry said the need for space research is still there. Astronauts can do experiments in space that scientists cannot do on Earth, such as medical research.
"Most people realize that space exploration is still important."
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