‘Wheel of Death’ Would Let Astronauts Stay Healthy

The low gravity and increased radiation of space can cause astronauts to lose muscle and bone mass. They also suffer vision issues, a weakened immune system, and DNA damage. One astronaut described how her shortsightedness disappeared in space, although it returned back on Earth, but most effects are detrimental.

A new study has revealed how space goers could maintain their strength beyond Earth. They can run around something called “the wheel of death.”

Astronauts spend an average of six months on the International Space Station. NASA reported that after just five days, astronauts can lose up to 20% of their muscle mass. Six months can lead to the bone loss that typically occurs after a decade of aging on Earth. When Scott Kelly spent a year in space, his heart shrank by 27%. In low gravity, it did not need to work as hard to pump blood around the body and got lazy.

The human body is incredibly adaptable, but returning to Earth after a long space sojourn puts it under a huge strain. The main way to keep your health and strength in orbit is to exercise. Running around a wheel of death is the perfect way to do this, according to researchers.

Too hard on Earth

A wheel of death is essentially a huge hamster wheel laid on its side. Humans are the hamsters. They have to run around the inside of the wheel, horizontally. On Earth, this is impossible. You would need to go fast enough to counteract the pull of gravity, which is impossible for a human runner. Most who attempt this on Earth do so on a high-speed motorcycle.

The Moon has only one-sixth the gravitational pull we get on Earth. Here, it is possible to run around a wheel of death without falling out of it.

Researchers from the University of Milan decided to test the theory. They rented a 9.4-meter diameter wheel of death, usually used by motorcyclist stuntmen. Volunteers were strung up with bungee cords attached to a crane. With the crane taking most of their weight, the participants were 83% lighter than normal. Both volunteers, a man and a woman, ran around the wheel relatively easily.

The results suggest that exercising on a wheel of death in a low-gravity environment is like running on flat ground on Earth. Co-author Alberto Minetti told New Scientist that running twice a day, for a few minutes at a time, should be enough for astronauts to stay fit.

Treadmill not hard enough

On the ISS, astronauts do have a treadmill. They have to be harnessed into it to cope with the zero gravity. But it is nothing like running on Earth and is not particularly effective at counteracting the deleterious effects of space.

The ISS doesn’t have enough room for such a contraption, but it could be important for future missions to the Moon. If NASA builds a base on the Moon, as it intends, ways to maintain astronaut health will be crucial.

Some have questioned how practical it is to build such a structure on the Moon. One workaround suggests that astronauts’ living quarters on the Moon should be cylindrical. Then they could run to their heart’s content without needing a stand-alone wheel of death.

Rebecca McPhee

Rebecca McPhee is a freelance writer for ExplorersWeb.

Rebecca has been writing about open water sports, adventure travel, and marine science for three years. Prior to that, Rebecca worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, and a Wildlife Officer for ORCA.

Based in the UK Rebecca is a science teacher and volunteers for a number of marine charities. She enjoys open water swimming, hiking, diving, and traveling.