Henry Donahue, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and College of Engineering Foundation Professor at the VCU College of Engineering, will be able to further his research into space travel health impacts when SpaceX launches its Dragon spacecraft bound for the International Space Station (ISS) as early as next week.
The SpaceX flight to resupply crews on the orbiting laboratory will also carry many scientific experiments, including Donahue’s from VCU, seeking to benefit future space explorers and improve life here on Earth.
The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which manages the ISS U.S. National Laboratory, has accepted Donahue’s proposal to analyze age-related changes in muscle and bone function as part of one of the research projects.
“It’s a unique opportunity to look at microgravity in space,” Donahue said. In the reduced gravity of space, astronauts lose bone and muscle from their legs, hips and lower backs because fewer demands are placed on those parts of the body.
Donahue has been investigating the combined impact of space radiation and microgravity on bone and muscle. His team found that while microgravity alone led to both bone and muscle loss, radiation alone did not.
Understanding what happens to the body in microgravity is important for astronauts — but also for most people on Earth who may never venture into outer space. “We know that bone loss that results from microgravity is very similar to bone loss experienced by people over age 35 or 40,” he said.
Learning what kinds of preventive measures could help space travelers maintain bone and muscle health during spaceflight may also help people with age-related bone loss.
In collaboration with Charles R. Farber, Ph.D., associate professor of public health sciences at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, Donahue will also analyze the impacts of microgravity on various genes within bone and muscle.
SpaceX is targeting Dec. 4, 2018, for launch of the Dragon on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.