Astronauts Try Out ‘Skinsuits’ To Prevent Slipped Discs and Spine Stretching

A taste of Earth’s gravity, now in unitard form.
February 22, 2018, 2:00pm

If you’ve ever wished you were taller, you might want to consider becoming a space traveler. The absence of gravitational pressure in orbit has been shown to stretch out the spines of astronauts, an effect that’s fictionalized in The Expanse franchise with the belters, a super-tall human population raised in microgravity.

While this might seem like the kind of therapeutic treatment you’d get in a specialty salon, it comes with all kinds of drawbacks, including back pain while in space, and a greater chance of slipped discs after returning to Earth’s gravity. That’s the catch to this magic height-enhancing technique—like belters, astronauts experience pain when their bodies are rejiggered by differing gravity environments (though not quite to the torturous extent shown in the scifi series).

To address these negative impacts, scientists at King’s College London and ESA’s Space Medicine Office have been developing a “Skinsuit,” which is a tight spandex outfit designed to squeeze astronauts so that they retain their normal skeletal structures.

Read More: NASA's Quest to Reclaim Lost Spacesuits Before They Were Auctioned

It’s understandably tough to develop a unitard that can trick the human body into thinking it’s still under Earth’s gravity, without making astronauts feel like they’ve been freeze-wrapped. Early versions of the Skinsuit, designed to simulate 80 percent of Earth’s gravitational pressure, were too constrictive to be worn for periods longer than a few hours.

However, the most recent “Mark VI” model of the Skinsuit dialed the pressure back to 20%, which provided a better tradeoff for astronaut wellbeing.

“The first concepts were really uncomfortable,” said Philip Carvil, a space physiologist at King’s College’s Centre of Human & Aerospace Physiological Sciences, in an ESA profile of the Skinsuit project posted Wednesday. “The Mark VI Skinsuit is extremely comfortable, to the point where it can be worn unobtrusively for long periods of normal activity or while sleeping.”

Carvil and his colleagues use half-filled waterbeds as a stand-in for microgravity when they test out these Skinsuits in the lab, but earlier versions have also been worn in space by ESA astronauts Andreas Mogensen and Thomas Pesquet during stints on the International Space Station.

As humans push farther into space, and spend longer periods away from the gravity well we evolved to inhabit, these suits will become more important to our comfort and survival.

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