Weightlessness on Earth: Preparing astronauts for microgravity

Researchers from the ESA SciSpacE team are looking after participants in VIVALDI – an experiment looking at dry immersion as a way to study the effects of microgravity on the body. Although dry immersion is more commonly used by Russian researchers, the ESA SciSpacE team is testing to see how similar it is to actual spaceflight. Through VIVALDI, they hope to determine specifically the changes that occur to the body during weightlessness, how long these changes take to occur, and how they compare to each of the microgravity isotopes found on Earth. The first phase of this trial, VIVALDI I, involved a group of women just to fill in a gap in the current research. Combined with VIVALDI II, the soon-to-be-started second station featuring male participants, the data collected will give researchers an idea of ​​what stresses microgravity for astronauts of any sex, so that effective mitigation methods can be designed at scale. Credit: ESA

During missions on the International Space Station, astronauts’ bodies go through a wide range of changes due to a lack of gravity – everything from vision to cardiovascular health to bone density is affected.

Although astronauts exercise and take nutritional supplements to mitigate some of these effects, understanding more about the lack of conditioning in microgravity could allow clinicians to design better treatments. Not only will this be useful for travelers; It can also improve treatment strategies for common health conditions here on Earth.

Staying dry in a humid state

To do this, the ESA SciSpacE team and a team of European scientists designed VIVALDI, which is being performed at the Meases Space Clinic (Institute of Space Medicine and Physiology) in Toulouse, France – one of the only facilities in Europe that can host such studies.

VIVALDI is an experiment that focuses on what is known as dry diving – an earthly analogue of the effects of microgravity on the body. As the name implies, dry immersion involves immersion in water for extended periods, while staying dry. To do this, participants wear a waterproof cloth and are placed in specially designed water baths. Their bodies are then submerged over the torso, with a waterproof tarpaulin that keeps their arms and head above the water.

During VIVALDI, participants spend five full days in this position. Meals are taken with the help of a floating board and neck pillow. For bathroom breaks and other activities that require removal from the water, participants are assisted in a cart, maintained in a relaxed position, and temporarily removed from the water by staff.

Dousing participants in this way causes participants to gain more weight off the body, which leads to microgravity-like changes in the nervous, cardiovascular, and metabolic systems, to name a few. Fluids inside the body are transformed, and physiological processes They begin to resemble those seen in astronauts during spaceflight.

Weightless on Earth with VIVALDI

No lunch breaks – VIVALDI participants remain reclining while eating. Credit: European Space Agency

However, the convenience of being on Earth allows researchers to perform all kinds of practical medical assessments, and closely monitor how systems change through the weightlessness pathway. This analog also allows researchers to collect data about physical changes from more people, as well as to draw firm conclusions about what they are observing more quickly.

Microgravity on Earth?

Although dry immersion is more commonly used by Russian researchers, the ESA SciSpacE team is testing to see how similar it is to actual spaceflight. Through VIVALDI, they hope to determine specifically the changes that happen to the body during weightlessness, how long it takes for those changes to occur, and how they compare to each of the microgravity isotopes found on Earth.

“Our first goal is to use analog to get a better understanding of how humans react physiologically, and to some extent psychologically, to and adapt to such intense stimulation,” says Angelique, ESA Discipline Leader for Life Sciences. “It’s a good tool for getting a better understanding of how astronauts are adapting to spaceflight, and it also allows us to test and verify countermeasures.”

The first phase of this trial, VIVALDI I, involved a group of women just to fill in a gap in the current research. Combined with VIVALDI II, the soon-to-be-started second station featuring male participants, the data collected will give researchers an idea of ​​what stresses microgravity for astronauts of any sex, so that effective mitigation methods can be designed at scale.

Post-Space Effect

But it’s not just astronauts who benefit from this research. The research that helps us get to the Moon and Mars can also be translated into healthcare here on Earth. Understanding deconditioning using dry immersion may also help researchers and clinicians design new treatment approaches for patients, such as those with musculoskeletal diseases, those who are immobile, and the elderly.

“At ESA, we really try to also focus on this translational aspect,” Angelique shares. “If we can test countermeasures, such as certain types of exercise or Nutritional supplementsAnd we see that it works so well, maybe health researchers could consider testing it for certain patients, too.


All-female crew in a spaceflight study of the water tank


Introduction of
European Space Agency


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