Flexing on Mars: Student Research Examines Astronauts’ Muscle on Missions

NASA, HHP Partnership Supports Student’s Investigation on Astronaut’s Health on Long-Term Assignments

A Ph.D. candidate in the University of Houston department of health and human performance (HHP) has received some help from NASA as he researches how the muscles of astronauts respond to microgravity.  Lyle Babcockwill receive $60,000 as part of NASA's partnership with the department.

"I came to Houston and UH because of HHP's ongoing research in the area of space life sciences," Babcock said.  "The scholarship and the possibility of working with NASA made the move much more attractive.  I am very grateful to NASA and the department of health and human performance."

The funds will be distributed over three years.

The University of Houston and NASA are partners through a Space Act Agreement that allows UH students, faculty and NASA scientists to share information and resources.

The UH Space Life Science program includes a master's degree in human space exploration and sciences and a Ph.D. in space life sciences.   Many HHP students have opportunities to pursue valuable internships with NASA-Johnson Space Center researchers. Additionally, many HHP faculty are former NASA researchers.

"Our partnership with NASA and its life science contractors generates many opportunities for our HHP graduate students to conduct research of great importance to the future of exploration class manned space flight," said Mark Clarke, HHP professor and Babcock's adviser.  "The type of research Lyle is conducting has applications not only for understanding muscle atrophy in astronauts, but to many clinical populations here on Earth where muscle wasting is part of the disease, such as spinal cord injury, cancer cachexia and muscular dystrophy."

A one-time all-star collegiate swimmer, Babcock opted to pursue science and research.  He will work under the guidance of Clarke, himself a NASA veteran. Babcock's current project aims to assess the behavior of particular proteins known to contribute to muscle wasting, a large concern for astronauts on long-term space flights.  The issue of muscle wasting has been a longtime challenge for astronauts.

"The next great human achievements will be establishing a lunar base and putting a human on Mars. But we have to help them stay healthy," he said.  "The reality of muscle wasting means that an astronaut may get there and not be functional, or get back to Earth and not be able to walk. This research will enable them to stay healthy."

Babcock is using the HHP Laboratory of Integrated Physiology to conduct his research.  He and other HHP students will have access to the department's Center for Neuromotor and Biomechanics Research (CNBR) in the Texas Medical Center. The CNBR is home to a human performance laboratory dedicated to better understanding the mechanism of human movement control. Professor William Paloski, a 23-year NASA-JSC veteran who has researched postural stability control and sensory motor performance in astronauts during and after space flight, directs the center.

"I know the area of research I am pursuing and that is currently being pursued at HHP will be growing because the need is growing," Babcock said.