27 July 2009

Cosmopithecus (guest post by astronaut Mike Barratt)

The following is a guest post by NASA astronaut and Beagle Project collaborator Mike Barratt, written aboard the International Space Station where Mike is about half-way through a six-month long-duration flight.

by Mike Barratt

As a flight surgeon and specialist in space medicine, I have awaited my own space flight experience with great anticipation. I have spent years practicing the craft of space medicine, studying the world’s literature and debriefing crewmembers following their flights. The prominent topics on my mind have been the specific physiologic problems associated with living in weightlessness – bone and muscle loss from disuse atrophy, cardiovascular deconditioning, neurovestibular reprogramming, etc. I have often said that humans essentially become extraterrestrials in space due to the global multi-system changes that define adaptation to weightlessness. Many physical and laboratory norms shift, and medical problems may present differently against this backdrop. But after 100 days on orbit, what has struck me most is the constellation of fundamental changes in behaviour and motion associated with deep adaptation to weightlessness. Learning to live and work here prompts a metamorphosis of sorts in habits, body awareness, motion control, and hygiene. This is in concert with a remote, expeditionary lifestyle with somewhat sparse provisions, which rather reminds me of being at sea. In some ways we degenerate as compared to what people expect. Let me paint a picture.

The neutral body posture assumed in weightlessness represents the sum resting flexion force of the major postural muscles. Put simply, you assume a posture somewhere between standing and fetal. You have to make a conscious effort to ‘stand straight’, and it is actually uncomfortable to be restrained out of this position for long periods. Shrug your shoulders and let them fall a little less than half-way, then keep them there. That’s us, a posture your mother would never approve of. As for your feet, as my Air Force buddies often remind their Army counterparts, we don’t walk; we fly. The calluses on the soles of your feet slough, part of the process we call the mid-mission molt, giving the word tenderfoot a new meaning after return to earth. Inflight, you go around in stocking feet or barefoot (my preference), and the prehensile nature of the toes rises to the surface. Your feet are used to stabilize the body, allowing you to fix yourself into position to optimize your work envelope, and toe holds are a key part of this. Calluses develop on the upper surface of the feet due to contact with foot restraints, particularly the dorsal aspect of the 1st metatarsal-phalangeal joint.

In weightlessness, every structural surface is used for work and stowage. The concept of walls and ceiling is a very gravocentric construct which we don’t have up here; we change this orientation frequently, sometimes appearing to be hanging from surfaces in the camera views. It has been surprisingly easy and natural to develop the three dimensional spatial awareness to work and move through the ISS, changing orientations quickly and frequently in the course of normal work. And finally, opposite our terrestrial counterparts, up here we locomote with our hands and arms, carrying big loads with our feet and legs.

Add a few behavioural changes that abound up here – letting hair grow, playing with food, and singing primitive chants – and I give you Cosmopithecus. The physiological changes I mentioned are certainly prominent but reside at a deeper level, most below a threshold of appearance or detection without medical imaging, biochemical analysis, or provocative physiologic testing. On the surface that extraterrestrial I have been describing for years is a hunched over, fast flying, spatially versatile creature that functions naturally in 3 dimensions. The pace of work here is quite brisk, and as you might guess the pressure to execute the plan without errors is high. The picture painted is the sum of several forces that result in an efficient worker in the weightless environment. And if there is any doubt, it is tremendous fun up here!

Photo: NASA astronaut Michael Barratt, Expedition 20 flight engineer, holds storage containers with his legs while floating freely in the Kibo laboratory of the International Space Station.
NASA photo ISS020-E-021255.

19 July 2009

Beagle Project Podcast episode 2: Messages from Above

The Beagle Project now has a a dedicated website for its podcasts. We've decided to call it The Beagle Channel (geddit?).

The really good news is that you can now subscribe to the podcast using your favourite podcatcher, or you can listen to the podcasts online by visiting the podcast website.

This afternoon, the Beagle Project's Director of Science, Dr Karen James, and I recorded a brand-spanking-new podcast episode, which I have named 'Messages from Above', for reasons which will become apparent if you listen to it.

Listen now:

Download | Embeddable Player

11 July 2009

Stokes's Journal

What remains of Pringle Stokes's HMS Beagle journal went under the hammer last month. The Brisbane Times had the story.

Pringle Stokes was the ill-fated first captain of the Beagle, who took his own life off the coast of Patagonia in 1828. Unfortunately for poor Stokes, his pistol-aim was far from true, and he took 12 days to die a painful death.

This all happened during the first Beagle voyage. It was Stokes's suicide, combined with a fear of a hereditary suicidal trait, which convinced Robert FitzRoy that he should take a gentleman companion with him when he captained Beagle on her second voyage. As we all know, Charles Darwin was selected for the role.

So, putting it rather simplistically, no Stokes suicide; no On the Origin of Species.

As a Brit, I have to say it irks me somewhat that Stokes's journal - an important artefact of British maritime history - has ended up in Australia (where, admittedly, it was rediscovered in 1977, having been taken there by Stokes's shipmate, Philip Parker King). Having said that, as a Brit, I probably shouldn't complain too much about important historical artefacts' being housed in other countries.

7 July 2009

The Cambridge Darwin Festival

This week I'm at the Cambridge Darwin Festival - probably the biggest single Darwin event in this big Darwin year - where I'm wearing both my NHM Darwin200 science coordinator and Beagle Project hats. There are lots of juicy talks and sessions planned, plus evening events and a fringe festival. In addition to all of this I'm determined to take in Endless Forms at the Fitzwilliam Museum and Anthony Smith's bronze of the young Darwin.

I will be tweeting the festival here: @kejames ...and you can see a stream of all festival tweets here: #DarwinFest.

5 July 2009

Go South young Grrl!

As you may have noticed, the Beagle Project's tag-line is "bringing the adventure of science to life". Now, with your support, Beagle Project supporter and science blogger GrrlScientist will be doing just that in February 2010. Grrl is in a competition to become the official blogger on a trip to Antarctica and to get there she needs our votes! There is one vote per valid email address (and if you're like me you've got more than one... *cough*).

As a proponent of adventure blogging it's great to hear that this journey is going to be blogged and I cannot think of a better person to bring this personal and scientific adventure to life for all of us than GrrlScientist. She is a brilliant and consistent blogger, an excellent photographer, and is endorsed by The Digital Cuttlefish.

Follow this link to vote for GrrlScientist.

1 July 2009

Coming soon: Beagle Project website re-boot and FAQ

Thanks to Tony in comments (and others by email) for your interest in updates and information about The Beagle Project. As a result of personal, professional and other issues (not least preparing for our upcoming British Council-funded feasibility study in Brazil), we're in a bit of a communication lull right now but we are acutely aware that our fans and followers are wanting news and that our website is out of date.

We are planning to relaunch our website soon with the help of a generous offer of support by Sanphire Design, and this will include a Frequently Asked Questions page to answer the ...well ...the most frequently asked questions, but to briefly answer Tony's question: the construction of the new Beagle has not yet begun; we are still fundraising, and we are as committed as ever to ushering in a new age of science under sail aboard the new Beagle!