Space is a very harsh environment, to say the least. It's -455 degrees Fahrenheit, full of small sharp objects flying at hundreds of miles per hour, full of solar radiation, and is zero-gravity. The brave astronauts who man the International Space Station are laying the grounds of research for the space age that will come in future generations.
One of the most important studies and hurdles that they’re trying to overcome currently is how to stay healthy in space. It turns out that when humans go too long without gravity, they begin to get very weak, very fast since their bodies don’t have to resist the usual gravitational pull of the Earth’s surface.
While the best solution to this problem would probably be to create artificial gravity, that is a solution that is a lot farther away. For now, astronauts are just required to maintain their health through good old-fashioned treadmill runs.
Today, we’re going to be taking a look at the COLBERT treadmill, what makes it special, and why it’s one of the most important parts of the International Space Station.
Contrary to popular belief, this treadmill isn't specifically named after comedian Stephen Colbert, although he did play a part in the naming by encouraging fans to vote on the name when NASA was looking for options. Like most things made by NASA, it's an acronym which stands for Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill.
How’s that for a mouthful? COLBERT is a lot easier to say for sure.
The journey to create the COLBERT space treadmill began with a simple hospital style treadmill that was used to rehabilitate patients who had suffered various leg injuries. Everything else, however, is completely different.
The biggest challenge of working out in space is that there is no gravity, and your body isn’t going to go in the direction that you want it to go into for most traditional exercise movements. When you combine that with the fact that each movement has greater impact, there were a couple of large problems to overcome when designing this treadmill.
The most notable difference is the large elastic strap system that is designed to hold runners in place. If you were to take a normal running step in zero-gravity, then you would rocket your body straight into the ceiling.
The straps are attached the astronaut's suit and body to hold them in place creating a similar feeling to jogging with a backpack.
One of the biggest challenges that engineers faced when creating the COLBERT space station treadmill was to design it to be vibration-proof.
In zero-gravity environments, vibrations carry far longer and have more impact than they do on earth where everything from the dirt to air can absorb them.
Every step that astronauts make would need to be completely absorbed by the system to prevent disturbing delicate experiments going on within the space station and to keep from annoying the other crew members.
They managed to do this through their Vibration Isolation System. In between the treadmill and its base, there are a layer of springs hooked to vibration dampeners which keep almost all of the vibrations within the system and prevent them from dissipating into the surrounding surfaces.
Why do most normal people workout? We each have our own reasons. Some of us want to get lean, some of us are trying to improve our leg strength, endurance, or cardiovascular health, and some of us just enjoy the energy rush and happiness that the endorphins give us.
These are all even more important when you’re subjecting your body to the harsh and lonely environment of outer space.
The two primary reasons that astronauts need to use a space treadmill are for physical health and mental fortitude.
While bouncing around in a zero-gravity chamber can definitely be fun for a few hours, imagine having to float around everywhere you wanted for an extended period of time. Eventually, you would want something tying you back down to earth. Aside from this, it's also vital for the health of your bones, muscle density, cardiovascular health, and more.
Even a person who’s sitting in a chair or laying in bed on earth is getting a minor workout due to the fact that they have to constantly resist the all-encompassing power of gravity. Their bones have to maintain a certain strength, muscles have to resist the pull, and your blood has to flow a certain speed.
In the vacuum of space, however, the body doesn't have to maintain the same standard that it does on Earth. In an effort to conserve energy, it will stop ensuring your physical strength, and allow the astronaut's body to instead adapt to their current environment, which has far fewer strains than Earth.
Exercising has numerous proven benefits to the individual's mental health. It's a form of energy release that allows pent-up emotions and energy to dissipate. It boosts serotonin levels, increases self-confidence, and gives a feeling of general health and well-being.
There are very few people on the International Space Station which means that loneliness or “cabin fever” from lack of exposure to the outside world can become major issues. Daily exercise helps to prevent some of these negative mental side effects.
After reading that, your morning run doesn't sound so complicated any more, does it? Being strapped down to a treadmill, and dealing with massive vibrations, and weakening joints sounds a lot harder than running a couple of miles with gravity keeping you centered.
What are your thoughts? Could you see yourself running in space? Feel free to drop a comment below.