July 15, 2016 – When astronauts travel far beyond Earth on the journey to Mars, keeping them healthy in space will be critically important. They’ll need to be in top physical form when they make it to their destination so they can effectively pioneer new frontiers and be able to recover relatively quickly when back on Earth.
While engineers across NASA and industry are working to build the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket that will venture to deep space for the first time together on the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 in 2018, a group of NASA engineers and scientists have made it their objective to find answers to an important question that must be answered to make deep space missions with crew successful – how do you take what we know about the exercise equipment needed to keep astronauts healthy and fit in space and make it exponentially smaller, lighter and more robust while also offering the same benefits?
To exercise in Orion beginning on Exploration Mission-2, the first mission of the spacecraft with crew, astronauts will use the Resistive Overload Combined with Kinetic Yo-Yo (ROCKY) device, developed by Zin Technologies of Middleburg Heights, Ohio.
“ROCKY is an ultra-compact, lightweight exercise device that meets the exercise and medical requirements that we have for Orion missions,” said Gail Perusek, deputy project manager for NASA’s Human Research Program’s Exploration Exercise Equipment project. “The International Space Station’s exercise devices are effective but are too big for Orion, so we had to find a way to make exercising in Orion feasible.”
On the space station, astronauts have a treadmill, resistive exercise device and a cycle ergometer that collectively weigh more than 4,000 pounds and occupy about 850 cubic feet within the space station. Astronauts workout on this equipment for more than two hours a day to stay healthy during their multi-month stays in space. ROCKY will be about the size of a large shoe box, weigh approximately 20 pounds and take up about one cubic foot of room.
“Our long-term goal is to develop a device that’s going to work for us for exploration,” said Cindy Haven, project manager for the Exploration Exercise Equipment Project. “Between now and the mission, we’ll have different phases where we’re going to evaluate it for functionality, usability and durability to refine its design.”
Astronauts will be able to use the device like a rowing machine for aerobic activity and for strength training with loads of up to 400 pounds to perform exercises such as squats, deadlifts and heel raises, as well as upper body exercises like bicep curls and upright rows. The device can be customized with specific workouts for individual astronauts. It will also incorporate the best features from a second device evaluated during the selection process called the Device for Aerobic and Resistive Training, or DART, developed by TDA Research in Denver, under NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research Program, including a servo-motor programmed to deliver a load profile that feels very similar as free weights to the exercising astronaut’s muscles.
After an Orion launch, the crew’s seats will be collapsed to provide more interior space for the astronauts inside. ROCKY will be located near the side hatch of the spacecraft that astronauts will use to get in and out.
While Orion’s early missions with crew will last only a matter of weeks, staying fit will also be important in the unlikely event astronauts need to get out of the crew module unassisted after splashdown. NASA’s plans call for recovery personnel to arrive to the landing site shortly after splashdown, but the crew will need to be prepared to exit the spacecraft on their own in sea conditions if they were ever to land off course.
Over the next several years, NASA’s Human Research Program will be refining the device to optimize it not only for near-term Orion missions with crew, but for potential uses on future long-duration missions in Orion that dock with a habitat in the area of space around the moon known as the cis-lunar proving ground. They will be looking at ways to expand its capabilities even further while keeping mass and volume to a minimum.
The team will include engineers and scientists from Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio and Johnson Space Center in Houston. They will be responsible for building and certifying the hardware for flight on Orion and will incorporate lessons learned from the development of exercise equipment for the space station, recent Mini Exercise Device-2 demonstrations and ground-based research to optimize the device. The team also plans to fly ROCKY on the space station in the coming years.
Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Littleton, Colorado is the prime contractor for the Orion spacecraft.