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Research View is published twice a year by the offices of the Vice President for Research and Development and University Relations at The University of Montana. Send questions, comments or suggestions to Rita Munzenrider, managing editor, 327 Brantly Hall, Missoula, MT 59812, or call (406) 243-4824. Production manager and designer is Cary Shimek. Contributing editors and writers are Patia Stephens, Shimek and Vince Devlin. The photographer is Todd Goodrich. For more information about UM research, call Judy Fredenberg in the Office of the Vice President for Research and Development at (406) 243-6670.
It is one of the most basic of scientific principles: What goes up, must come down. Gravity, in other words, rules.
But University of Montana scientist Chuck Leonard was even more certain of something else on April 12. Namely, that which went down, would come back up.
And it did, just like he predicted, when Leonard and two UM graduate students took to the skies over the Gulf of Mexico.
Leonard, Jim Sykes and Eric Kruger flew on NASA’s “Weightless Wonder,” a C-9 jet that flies a series of parabolic arcs that produce weightlessness on its downhill runs. They were at the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston to test a device called the Myotonometer, which the UM professor helped to invent. It measures muscle tone, and Leonard hopes NASA will use the device in future manned space missions.
The trio’s goal: to determine if the Myotonometer remains accurate in conditions found in space flight. That meant testing it under both excessive G-forces and weightless conditions.
It also meant a flight on the C-9. “Weightless Wonder” is NASA’s preferred term for the plane. Many folks still call it the “Vomit Comet,” and Leonard, who suffers from motion sickness, had no illusions before heading to Texas for the flight. “Even put me in the back seat of a car and I’m throwing up,” he says.
So he lost his lunch on one of the steep ascents that produces two times the normal force of gravity. Leonard knew that was coming. What he didn’t know was how the Myotonometer would react.
This story begins in the days of glasnost, when Leonard was one of a group of American scientists who were invited to St. Petersburg, Russia, in the early 1990s. The Russians wanted the Americans to look over their scientific laboratories and tell them what was state-of-the-art and what was dead-end.
It was there Leonard met Russian scientist Eugene Mikhailenok, who was working on a machine that used tissue mechanics to measure muscle tone. Leonard was fascinated with the research, so he and Mikhailenok collaborated for the next seven years to develop a portable device capable of such measurements.
The result: something that looks like a collapsible telescope, weighs less than a pound and is 6 inches long. It works simply by pressing the narrow end to skin on the muscles being examined. The device is FDA approved and is commercially available through Neurogenic Technologies Inc., a UM spin-off company Leonard helped create.
Information about the company is online at http://www.neurogenic.com.
Physicians can use the Myotonometer to determine if muscle relaxants are effective; physical therapists can use it to tell if exercises are having the desired effect on patients; sports teams can use it to track athletes’ development. If you want to measure the progress or damage done to muscle tone, “We’re the best mousetrap out there,” Leonard says.
Since space flight messes with the human machine on many levels, NASA was interested in just such a device that could tell how conditions in space were affecting astronauts.
The space agency wanted something portable (check), easy to use (check), that doesn’t use much energy (check), that doesn’t involve disposables (check) and that isn’t invasive (check).
Oh, and one other thing: One whose readings are not influenced by atmospheric pressure. The only way to find that out – short of blasting off into space with a Myotonometer in hand, anyway – was to hitch a ride on the Weightless Wonder.
Well, “hitch” isn’t quite the right word. Seats on the Weightless Wonder cost $1,800 apiece. Leonard and Mikhailenok’s research most recently has been funded by NASA’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, administered in Montana by the Montana Space Grant Consortium.
And it wasn’t a matter of running down to Houston and hopping aboard the Weightless Wonder. Leonard, Sykes and Kruger went through a mini-astronaut camp before the flight. Then they loaded up their Myotonometers and the laptop computers that would record the results.
The plane thundered from the runway and into the sky.
Back home at UM, Sykes hits a button, and a slide show of the trio’s week in Houston clicks over to the image of the C-9 beginning its ascent in a parabolic arc, climbing from 30,000 feet to 40,000.
It’s not quite standing on its tail, but it’s close enough to produce “oohs” and “ahhs” from the UM students who are listening to Leonard, Sykes and Kruger recount their trip.
“I had some sense of what weightlessness would be like,” Sykes says. “But this surprised me,” he said of the trip up. When he tried to push the “enter” button on his computer, his hand crashed onto the keyboard. “I got in a position where I could not lift my legs,” Kruger says.
Then the plane rolled over the top of its arc – an even stranger sensation, according to Sykes – and began its steep descent that produces weightlessness.
“When we went into that free-fall ... I thought we were prepared, but we really were not,” Leonard says.
But they had 46 parabolas to figure it out during the two-hour flight – 40 at zero gravity, three at the gravity found on the moon, and three more at the gravity found on Mars.
They had computer problems – the Myotonometer worked fine under excessive G-forces and weightless conditions, but not all computers do, they discovered.
And while one of them would remain strapped down to have his muscle tone measured, the person with the Myotonometer would be floating around trying to take the measurement.
“The reliability (of the test) was lousy,” Leonard admits. “You couldn’t hit the muscle in the same place twice.”
Meantime, scientists from Johns Hopkins University, in the seats in front of them, were doing sensory-motor testing that involved staring at a spinning wheel of polka dots during the roller-coaster ride.
“They were sick immediately,” Leonard says, “and it’s contagious – if one person gets sick, everybody else falls like dominoes.”
The weightlessness was wonderful, Leonard reports, as he shows a video of himself and his students floating around the plane, laughing all the way. “It’s a sensation I can’t explain,” he says. “I’d rate it somewhere between powder skiing and sex.”
Still, the last slide shows Leonard, Sykes and Kruger kissing the Texas ground after the plane had landed.
And the problems with the tests were not the Myotonometer’s fault. “I’m almost 100 percent positive” the device will work fine under the extreme conditions of space,” he says.
There are two more tests to pass: its effectiveness under the influence of electromagnetic fields and a “shake and break” test that simulates a spacecraft taking off from Earth.
But after April’s Weightless Wonder flight, NASA’s still interested. It likes the idea of using the Myotonometer on the International Space Station, and invited Leonard back to Houston in June to make more presentations.