Taking indoor rowing out of this world
Going into space is tough work. For astronauts, physical fitness is central to their well-being both on earth before departure and while they are in space. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are testing a state-of-the-art rowing machine to help keep them in top shape.
This is no easy mission in the zero-gravity environment of space. Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques, who will join the crew of the ISS in 2018, talked to World Rowing from Moscow about the importance of keeping fit for space and why rowing is a smart choice for future missions to the Moon and even Mars.
“The fitter you are to start, the better you are able to meet the physical stresses,” says Saint-Jacques. “It is just part of our daily routine. It is not a luxury, it is a fundamental. You must be fit. You must be strong.”
There is good reason for all of this preparation.
“As soon as you go into orbit, you start to lose muscle strength and bone density,” explains Saint-Jacques, who holds a PhD in astrophysics and a medical degree. “If you are not diligent about maintaining fitness, you will pay the price when you get back to earth. In orbit we treat exercise equipment as part of life-support; it is that important.”
This means two hours of exercise a day for visitors to the ISS. Beyond the physical benefits, “it is a good part of what keeps you sane,” says Saint-Jacques. “It (space) is a very strange kind of alien environment. Exercising is something just like food or calling your family on the phone; it is something you know.”
So, fitness is important. But, what makes rowing such a good fit for space?
“Space rowing machines are very, very simple,” explains Saint-Jacques. “If you remove gravity, you don’t have to be sitting, you could be standing. There is no seat, no track, you have a footplate, a cable and a bar and you pull on it.” It isn’t always easy. “There is an art to standing up always in the same direction.”
The action of standing up while holding a load is precisely why rowing is a good choice for astronauts, who need to stand up when they return to a gravity environment like Earth.
Compactness and lightness also make indoor rowing ideal for long missions with limited space and fuel. NASA engineers are developing a variation of a rowing machine called the Miniature Exercise Device (MED-2). Here is the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S8veP-ZMR7o .
“A prototype is currently on the space station,” says Saint-Jacques. “So far it is successful, but there is a technique to it or your body will unfold in the wrong direction. Just as any rower knows, it is like threading a needle with a jackhammer.”
The development of this space indoor rowing machine has spurred a group of high school students to set up an earth vs. space station challenge.
“It piqued my curiosity and I actually forwarded the request internally,” says Saint-Jacques. While he can’t make any promises, Saint-Jacques says the possibility exists. “There are a lot of ifs and buts on the way, but there is reason to be hopeful. I am certainly pushing for it personally.”
“Rowing is such a great exercise for young people; I really salute this initiative,” he adds. “People have run marathons from space on the treadmill, so why not rowing?
So, what do the students at St. Joseph’s Catholic High School in Barrie, Canada think about their challenge?
“I think it would really raise awareness for rowing,” says Ben, one of the rowers. “It’s a great sport to do.”
“It would be such a cool experience to interact with astronauts,” says Aden, who started rowing in grade 9 and is currently in her final year.
As for race-support and tactics, Jocelyn, the team coxswain says Saint-Jacques will need to rely on his colleagues up in space: “he needs other astronauts to encourage him up there too.”
Whether Saint-Jacques races alone or the crew of the ISS form an international relay team, “we are ready,” says Rick Szerminski, teacher and rowing coach at the school.
For Saint-Jacques, rowing (and potentially racing) in space will be a logical next step in his 25-year involvement in the sport. “I started in university and just kept rowing,” he says. “In Houston near NASA’s Johnson Space Center there is a friendly little rowing club, so it is still a part of my life. I just love it.”
Saint-Jacques years of rowing has seen him at a number of different clubs across the globe including Canada’s Montreal Rowing Club to Houston’s Bay Area Rowing Club in Texas and Cambridge’s Corpus Christie College Rowing Club in Great Britain. He uses these experiences to help him when he is on the indoor rowing machine.
Follow David Saint-Jacques, on Twitter @Astro_DavidS
Information about the initial space race challenge here http://tapir.ca/row/