Space | 01. December 2021

SANS-CM bed rest study: Subject D1 looks back on his 30 days in bed

medizinische Untersuchungen während der Bettruhestudie SANS%2dCM am DLR Köln
Credit: © DLR. All rights reserved
The daily schedule for the bed rest study includes a number of medical examinations, including intraocular pressure measurement (Fig.1), an MRI (2), an assessment of heartrate and stroke volume via inert gas rebreathing (3) and ultrasound measurements (4)

I 'm at the entrance to the DLR premises in Cologne. Somehow everything seems a bit surreal. The door of the :envihab is about to close behind me for eight weeks. I feel this strange sensation come over me, coupled with keen curiosity and tension. Although it has taken a long time for the study to get started, it's as though someone has only just asked me if I fancy taking part. And now the moment has arrived: as of today, I am Subject D1 in the new bed rest study at DLR.

I'm 42 years old and in my 'normal life' I work as a senior electrician in Facility Management at a hospital specialising in cardiovascular diseases. I'm mainly responsible for building control technology and the power supply. When you have an interest in technical things like I do, it generally comes with a keen sense of curiosity. That's why I'm prepared to lie down for 30 days.##markend##

I remember my arrival at the facility as if it were yesterday. I ring the bell at the :envihab and the door to my special new home opens. I'm a little early. I meet participants A1 and B1 for the first time. I'm assigned a letter – D1 – and a room. Any initial anxiety is dispelled by the warm welcome from the DLR study team.

Credit: © Christian Gahl
The entrance to the futuristic-looking :envihab at the DLR in Cologne

It's very quiet in Module 3 – kind of like being in hospital. Then it's all systems go. There's an alcohol test, a drug test, a safety briefing and the matter of choosing which pizza to order that evening. Test subjects A1 and B1 say, "Last meal!" almost in unison. Everybody bursts out laughing. "We're going to get on fine," I think.

New subjects arrive every day and we are told about the experiments. Everything is explained and I can form an initial impression of what is going to be happening here. Despite the red line on the monitor, which shows the current items on the daily schedule and is constantly being added to, it never feels as though things are too hectic or that people are under stress. There's always time for questions and explanations.

Credit: © DLR. All rights reserved
Reading head-down: leisure time while lying down

It's really interesting to find out about the others: Where do they come from? What do they do 'out there' in real life? How did the hear about the study? Everyone laughs when I tell them that my wife was the driving force behind my application. Actually, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank my wife Sandra – without her I wouldn't have been able to experience all of this.

Then things get serious. Test subjects A1 and B1 are put in the head-down position. And it's only at this point that anyone can really understand what a six-degree tilt means. My curiosity is piqued and I realise that it will be my turn tomorrow. There's a lot going through my mind because I know that from that moment I will be completely dependent on assistance. Where should I put what so that it is as close as possible? But the study staff are full of reassurance; they quell any fears and make me feel confident about what is to come. "Just call," they keep saying. That is precisely what I find so difficult at the beginning. But in the end the friendly team members always brighten my day by helping me with mundane daily tasks.

Credit: © DLR. All rights reserved
Eating in a head-down position is a daily challenge for those taking part in the bed rest study

At the start, I imagined that it would be much worse. 'Lying around' sounds easy enough, and I do like to laze around on the sofa. But not being allowed to get up at all puts things in a different light. I experience back pain for the first three days. I also have to get used to eating lying down. It's not just a case of getting the spoon into my mouth accident-free, but also balancing myself in such a way that the food reaches its destination. Feeling full is par for the course for the first few days and burping head down is not a good idea. But it gets better every day. In the end, I actually stop noticing the six-degree tilt.

The food is really good, too. Looking forward to the next great meal and the occasional meetings arranged with fellow test participants are little milestones that make the days that bit more entertaining. The experiments are other points of interest in the highly structured daily routine. Lots of things are repeated over and over, so you lose the initial sense of newness and anxiety over time and the tasks take on the feel of a real job, which is what you're ultimately here for, after all.

Taking a shower is, in my opinion, the most uncomfortable task while lying down: as soon as I move, I start sliding towards the headboard on the soapy film. In the end, if I had to sum up my 30 days lying down as part of the comparison group, I'd say that it wasn't all that bad. I saw the whole thing as a challenge and I could even go for longer without any issues. That said, being able to stand up feels great.

Credit: © DLR. All rights reserved
Subjects in the 'sitting group' are allowed to leave their beds twice a day

As I'm in the 'sitting group', I can hoist myself into the special wheelchair and sit up twice a day, so getting up after the 30 days isn’t a major problem for me. Still, I’m shocked by the way my legs react. For the first few steps, they feel like jelly. They're strong enough, but I lack coordination or any sense of the distance between my feet and the ground. My calf muscles are extremely sore on days two and three after getting up.

The 30 days of lying tilted six degrees downwards are almost done: the study, which feels like it has only just started, is nearing its end. Every day someone gets up and we really celebrate the occasion – the delight of the test participants is palpable.

Finally, with something of a sense of relief, we get to sit down together and reminisce about our experiences and any mishaps that occurred along the way. There are lots of funny stories and plenty of laughter. Our time is up. I can't wait to get back to my real home.

Despite all the difficulties, I've really enjoyed my time in the DLR's :envihab. I've got to know some really nice people, learned a lot about my own body, contributed to valuable work and gained some fascinating insights into aerospace medicine research. What more could you want? Thank you to the brilliant team for giving me the opportunity to take part !

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About the author

How does microgravity affect the human body? And how can we counteract the negative effects? On Earth, bed rest studies are used to study the effects of microgravity on the human body in order to investigate reactions, effects and countermeasures. to authorpage