Research team and John McFall outside zero gravity plane

Parabolic flight research with European Space Agency

This project is investigating the Gravitational Effects on Lower Limb Perfusion. It developed following a meeting as part of the Centre for Regenerative Medicines and Devices, where I was introduced to Nicolas Miche, who has previous experience with parabolic flight research. We were interested in exploring microgravity research and the group wanted to explore the field of wound healing and microgravity exposure. After some discussion and research into the area I identified that the factor that would be suitable for investigating in the time frames available would be blood circulation.

During a typical parabola you have exposure to 22 seconds of microgravity (0g), sandwiched between two 20 second phases of hyper gravity (+1.75g). The daily parabolic flight would undertake 31 parabolas per day, grouped into groups of five, (one one set is six) and the team would fly for three days. During the flight week the crew would get to experience 93 parabolas which would provide approximately 2000 seconds of 0g exposure. 

Researchers inside the zero gravity plane

As a direct consequence of exposure to weightlessness astronauts experience a number of physiological changes which can lead to serious medical implications. Most immediate and significant are a headward shift of body fluids and the removal of gravitational loading from bone and muscles, resulting in progressive changes of the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems. Weightlessness increases the blood volume in the core of the individual, and thus potentially decreases the lower limb volume. This redistribution may influence lower limb tissue perfusion and potentially tissue healing. Astronauts are not generally elderly and do not present the classic risk factors for peripheral arterial disease, but they do live for several months in a cramped, equipment-packed habitat where they usually move around shoeless. The risk of injury, particularly to the feet, is not negligible so it’s essential to ensure that their healing capacity is normal. Of course it is not possible to test this capacity directly but making sure that the circulation is maintained, particularly in the foot, is a prerequisite.

The main objective of this study is to investigate the effect of changes in gravity on the levels on foot perfusion. During the flight the feet of up to 24 volunteers were evaluated for between 5 and 10 parabolas. 

In order to enable this staff project to become reality, the team, led by Rachel Forss, School of Sport and Health Sciences engaged in a process which took over 18 months to achieve and achieved funding from the UK Space Agency to the value of approximately £127,000.

Once all the stages where completed, the tri-school collaboration, (School of Sport and Health Sciences, School of Architecture, Technology and Engineering, and School of Applied Sciences) were able to utilise and purchase the equipment required to construct the equipment housing. Nicolas Miche and Marco Bernagozzi were pivotal  in constructing the equipment rig, and in obtaining the correct documentation to export and import the experiment to and from Bordeaux. The podiatrists in the team (Rachel Forss, Justine Tansley and Simon Cahill) were essential for their clinical skills for assessing the participants and data collection, assisted by Professor Matteo Santin and Anastasios Georgoulas.

The team used four pieces of equipment to assess the blood flow to the foot. A thermal Imaging camera to measure temperature, arterial oxygen saturation data was collected from the 3rd toe, capillary bed oxygen saturation data was collected from the sole of the foot and toe pressure data was collected from the big toe.

We have currently collected the data and we are analysing the results which is expected to be finished in the next 4 weeks. We are very excited to identify the findings of the research and is keen to collaborate on future projects in this field.

The team flew on the 83rd and the 84th Parabolic campaigns and were lucky enough to be on board with the new trainee astronauts from ESA. This cohort are called the Hoppers. After completing an intensive year of training the new ESA astronaut Sophie Adenot, Pablo Álvarez Fernández, Rosemary Coogan, Raphaël Liégeois, Marco Sieber and Australian Space Agency astronaut Katherine Bennell-Pegg graduated at ESA’s European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany. They were joined on the 84th Campaign, where they underwent 0G training, with John McFall a British Paralympic sprinter and ESA Project astronaut. In November 2022 he was selected by the European Space Agency to become the first parastronaut. ESA are doing a feasibility study on him flying to space and what needs to be adapted for people with disabilities. Follow John on instagram @astro_johnmcfall.

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