CORVALLIS - While much of the nation's attention has been focused on the recent space shuttle launch, an increasing number of researchers around the country are working on a far more ambitious space project that won't take place for more than a decade - a manned flight to Mars.
The research projects aimed at visiting "the red planet" may have benefits on Earth long before the anticipated flight in the year 2011.
Seed money from NASA is funding two such projects at Oregon State University. And a larger grant of nearly $1 million is under consideration by NASA to fund additional research at OSU and in collaboration with partners at other institutions and in private industry.
"There is a lot of interest in a flight to Mars, but the logistics of such an undertaking are enormous," said Gene Korienek, director of the Biological Control Lab in OSU's College of Health and Human Performance.
Korienek, who joined the OSU faculty in 1997, is overseeing two separate projects begun this summer when he was a visiting research fellow at NASA's Ames Research Center in California. One of the projects is aimed at helping astronauts adapt to the different gravity on Mars. The OSU research team, which includes several undergraduate and graduate students, is working to create what it calls "Mars pants," which would allow astronauts to hone their balance and perceptual motor adaptation processes, Korienek said.
A person who weights 100 pounds on Earth would weigh only 38 pounds on Mars because of the difference in gravity, he pointed out.
"That difference can really affect locomotion and balance," Korienek said. "When astronauts walked on the moon, they were there to explore, and stayed for a relatively short period of time. A Mars flight would be a research mission. There would be five or six people staying there for 500 days, conducting scientific experiments and doing the kinds of activities they would do on Earth.
"The ability to move effectively therefore becomes critical," Korienek added. "There will be an expectation for a high level of movement skills because the astronauts are going to be doing a lot of work."
The OSU researchers' efforts to develop Mars pants have just begun. They created a rudimentary model that was able to reduce the weight of OSU grad student Tyson Harty by some 20 pounds.
"It's a start," said Harty, who worked with Korienek at the NASA Ames Research Center. "When I try to walk with the Mars pants on, I can actually feel myself rise up some off my feet. It changes my center of gravity and affects the way I move."
The researchers hope to develop a state-of-the-art device for simulating Martian gravity while on Earth. The more sophisticated version of the Mars pants would include feedback control systems and a variety of sensors that measure pressure and ground reaction force.
Eventually, the researchers will combine the "lower body positive pressure" device with a treadmill and a computer-generated, virtual Mars valley to provide a pre-flight adaptation trainer for astronauts.
While the project is aimed at a future Mars flight, there may be a more immediate, therapeutic spinoff, Korienek pointed out. The technology could be used to aid stroke victims and other patients entering rehabilitation by lessening their supported weight.
"It has therapeutic implications for both balance and walking programs," Korienek said.
A second space-related research project at OSU involves the creation of better robotic arms by simulating human biology. The project - an extension of Korienek's post-doctoral research at Simon Fraser University - is attempting to use the principles of human motor control to develop new, improved robotic arms that could be used in space or aboard Mars rovers.
The human implications are profound.
"We're trying to create a 'smart arm,' or intelligent prosthetic limb that comes much closer to producing realistic and functional movement solutions for patients with limb loss," Korienek said. "If you can take a person with no limbs and give them the ability to, say, reach out and grab a cup of coffee, you've done something."
The researchers hope to create a prosthetic arm that not only can grasp objects, but can point, reach and have a high degree of flexibility. Two prototypes are being constructed and tested in the Biological Control Lab. One is an experimental arm integrating electronics with the fundamentals of a skeletal limb, and has more implications for human prosthetic use. The other consists of a series of moving, flexible components which can be manipulated to hundreds, even thousands of positions.
The two Mars-related OSU projects involve faculty, undergraduate and graduate students from a number of disciplines, including human physiology and movement, artificial intelligence, mechanical engineering, robotics and biology.