Ball State researcher builds an exercise program fit for outer space

Scott Trappe and his research team at the Human Performance Laboratory (HPL) are working with NASA to develop an exercise program to keep astronauts healthy during long space flights.

To better understand how to counteract the muscle atrophy and bone loss from the lack of gravity, he’s spent thousands of hours reviewing data, exchanging ideas with collaborators around the globe, studying muscle biopsies from astronauts and researching the perfect combination of aerobic and resistance exercise. His research also benefits the earthbound, especially people who are aging or bedridden.

Sometimes, the 49-year-old HPL director takes a break to gaze at the stars, wishing he could be on the first manned trip to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities to send humans there in the 2030s, aiming first to send people to an asteroid by 2025.

“I think about it from time to time, and it really entered my mind after watching the movie ‘The Martian,’ ” Trappe said. “It would be nice to see it happen in my lifetime. We’ve put a great deal of effort in moving this project along, and that has been rewarding to each one of us in the lab.

“When I got involved working with (then-HPL Director) David Costill on the first exercise machine that was on the shuttle in 1996, I had no idea that I would still be working on this evolving project.”

The crazy days of 1990s

Trappe was part of the first team that developed a machine, at a cost of about $40 million, for calf raises and to measure muscle strength and size during a 17-day space shuttle trip — the program’s longest flight of that era.

“We knew that astronauts were losing muscle strength and size on longer space flights, so we had crew members do the machine at the beginning, middle and end of the flight. At that point, I was in charge of the data and found that our exercise machine served as the countermeasure, retaining muscle strength and size. We originally thought it would take a lot more exercise to maintain this.”

Todd Trappe and Scott Trappe, researchers with Ball State’s Human Performance Laboratory, demonstrate leg-strength equipment with doctoral student Kaleen Lavin.

Todd Trappe (left) and Scott Trappe, researchers with Ball State’s Human Performance Laboratory, demonstrate leg-strength equipment with doctoral student Kaleen Lavin. Photo by Domenic Centofanti

Because the data clearly showed that short but intense bursts of resistance training helped keep crew members strong, HPL was asked to continue its research.

“It put the lab into the position of working on longer flights and then on the International Space Station,” Trappe said. “We went from 17 days to six months and then longer. Each time changed the game. Every time we’d solve one issue, we have three to four new ones popping up. But it keeps us actively involved as we move the project along.”

Costill tapped Trappe for his role on the HPL team in the mid-’90s.

“Over the past 20 years, Scott and his team have taken the field of muscle physiology to a whole new level,” said the now-retired Costill. “Their ability to study the muscle at a microscopic level has given us new insights and attracted a great deal of international recognition to his work.

“Scott’s personality enables him to attract intelligent, talented people to support his research efforts. His leadership is exceptional, engaging those he works with and giving everyone credit for the team’s success. While handling all of the administrative responsibilities of the laboratory, he still has time for creative research ideas that help him generate significant external funding.”

Think Gold’s Gym in a box

Trappe is now working closely with other researchers to develop the next generation of workout equipment, but it will need to be compact.

“Our mantra always has been that we are going to train crew members in space like they are athletes,” said Trappe, a former college swimmer at Northern Iowa. “Right now, we have an exercise suite on the space station, but we doubt if we’ll have that kind of room on a mission to Mars. We have to incorporate the latest technological developments as we create something new.

“Most likely a unique device that can do both resistance and aerobic exercise will emerge. But it may have to fit into a small box.”

In the end, when that first human ship arrives on Mars in a decade or two, Trappe’s research — along with that of other HPL members past and future — should have a presence.