You could file this one under bizarre, but totally legit.
NASA is currently looking for volunteers to lie in bed for 70 days.
That’s right, you could get paid a total of around $18,000 for lying in bed, playing games on your phone, reading books, skyping with your friends and family, taking online classes – and even go on with your day job if you can get away with working remotely, so long as you don’t get out of bed for that entire duration.
And, for those with relinquished childhood dreams about being an astronaut, there may be an altruistic element to participating in the project: in doing so, you’re actually helping the country further conquer the final frontier – space. In a few years, when astronauts land on Mars, test subjects may be able to say they helped get them there. “Subjects in the study look at it as a way to help,” says Dr Roni Cromwell, senior scientist on the bed rest study. “In that what we eventually do will help astronauts maintain their health while in space.”
Here comes the science bit.
The purpose of the study is to research the effects of microgravity on the human body. The study simulates the effects of long-duration spaceflight by having test subjects lie in beds for the 70 day period. The beds are tilted head-down at a six-degree angle. According to Dr Cromwell, this tilt which causes body fluids to shift to the upper part of the body, sets off cardiovascular events that are similar to what we see in a space flight.
“And by putting someone in bed for a long time, there is also atrophy of the muscle and atrophy of bone density,” she explains.
When astronauts spend weeks and months floating around in space – they don’t need to use more than a fingertip to propel themselves across the room, so their muscles go on vacation – the atrophy described by Dr. Cromwell.
NASA calls bed rest studies such as these ‘countermeasures’, which are used to minimize the changes that occur to the body during spaceflight and to enable the return of normal body functions once back on Earth.
“Being able to test new ideas on Earth saves invaluable flight time,” says Joe Neigut, Flight Analog project manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “What the bed rest does to their [test subjects] physiology and how the exercise countermeasures benefits their physiology helps us better prepare and protect astronauts when they are in space. In fact how it affects the physiology can be applied to everyone on earth.”
Following extended bed rest, subjects are then put through various exercises, such as going on the treadmill or doing squats. Major difference though – it’s a vertical treadmill and squatting is done in a horizontal position. Wow.
Or as my ‘rad’ pseudo-nerdy friend would say: hashtag mind-boggling.
Dr Cromwell goes on to further explain, “We also ask them [test subjects] to do tasks that astronauts would do when they land on a planetary surface. Simulate getting out of a vehicle. Moving heavy objects at a short distance. This gives us an idea as to their functional capabilities.”
If you think this may be a ‘dream job’ for that lump currently taking up space on your couch, you may be severely disappointed. “Couch potatoes is not an accurate description for what we are looking. Subjects need to be very healthy,” says NASA’s news chief, Kelly Humphries.
Those who are short-listed in the application round go through a modified Air Force Class Three physical, which is a rigorous physical exam. In addition, there is a psychological screening in which subject candidates fill out a battery of tests, followed by ninety minutes one on one with a psychologist.
“We want to make sure we select people who are mentally ready to spend 70 days in bed. Not everyone is comfortable with that. Not every type of person can tolerate an extended time in bed,” says Dr Cromwell.
“Once they qualify physically and mentally, we do rigorous physical exercises to test muscle strength and aerobics capacity. We want people who have the physical and psychological characteristics of an astronaut. They should be able to do the kind of activities that astronauts do.”
Heather Archuletta, who now works as a NASA contractor for the studies program, got her first taste of life at the agency while volunteering as a subject in a 2008 bed rest study. “Even when it was sometimes challenging, I tried to remember I was doing this for astronauts, so that we can keep them more healthy in space. The day I got up, after being in bed for 54 days [the study was cut short by Hurricane Ike], my feet hurt like crazy walking for the first time! But, I reminded myself, this is what astronauts go through, too. Being a ground analog tester for astronauts is exciting because you get to experience a lot of the things they do, and you’re also all working with the same doctors. I’ve gotten to meet a couple dozen astronauts now, too.”
For those interested in giving the application a whirl, you can do so here.
* The $18,000 compensation breaks down as follows: $1,200 per week for a total of 15 weeks. While the bed rest component of the study is 70 days, NASA requires subjects for pre-testing and post-testing, which brings the entire duration that the test subjects are required at the test facility in Texas to 15 weeks.
Afterthought: You’re probably wondering how it all works out with taking a trip to the bathroom while on extended bed rest, right? NASA has it covered. In order to ensure that test subjects can remain at a six-degree head tilt at all times, they are able to shower in a specially modified shower gurney. Again, #mind-boggling.