Running a marathon on Earth is hard enough; from the Boston Marathon’s famous ‘Heartbreak Hill’ to the trek through the Sahara Desert in the Marathon des Sables, running 26.2 miles is not for the feint of heart. But try running a marathon in space, a feat astronaut Sunita Williams accomplished in 2007. Floating 210 miles above earth on the International Space Station, Williams completed the Boston Marathon in a little over 4 hours, strapped to her treadmill so she wouldn’t float away.
While she didn’t ‘win’ Boston (she ran at the same time the race was held on Earth), she became the first astronaut to finish a marathon in space. Why is her accomplishment so noteworthy? In space, astronauts lose bone-density and muscle mass due to weightlessness because, as Williams said back in 2007, ‘we don’t use our legs to walk around and don’t need the bones and muscles to hold us up under the force of gravity.’
To counteract the effects of weightlessness, all astronauts are required to exercise while stationed at the International Space Station. Still, astronauts lose, on average, 1 to 2 percent bone density each month while in space– comparitevely, an elderly person only loses 1 to 2 percent a year. For astronauts not in peak physical condition like Williams, who was a competitive marathoner before her space run, NASA has developed an exoskeleton that will help them remain in top shape while in microgravity.
The X1 Exoskeleton for Resistive Exercise and Rehabilitation was developed through a joint partnership between NASA and the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC), based out of Pensacola, FL, with the additional help of engineers from Oceaneering Space Systems of Houston, TX and while still in the research and development phase of production, this device may one day be used to help other astronauts run marathons in space. The exoskeleton also shows promise to help Earth-bound paraplegics, people who experience a similar muscle atrophy as astronauts due to the loss of mobility. To help astronauts and paraplegics strengthen weakened muscles, the X1 Exoskeleton adds resistance to make exercise more challenging, strengthening muscles faster than with traditional weight-bearing exercises. In reverse, the exoskeleton can be used to support the wearer’s body weight, taking over for fatigued and weak muscles.
The 57-pound X1 Exoskeleton is worn over the legs and is held to the body with a harness that reaches over the shoulders; the device has 10 separate joints—four motorized and six passive, as well as several adjustment points, enabling a range of motions and the ability to perform many exercises at once. It also has the ability to provide extra power to a human’s normal movements, a function that could prove useful for future astronauts exploring the surface of planets with different gravities.
Michael Gazarik, director of NASA’s Space Technology Program, in a recent press release shared his thoughts on the impact of this type of project:
Robotics is playing a key role aboard the International Space Station and will continue to be critical as we move toward human exploration of deep space. What’s extraordinary about space technology and our work with projects like Robonaut are the unexpected possibilities space tech spinoffs may have right here on Earth. It’s exciting to see a NASA-developed technology that might one day help people with serious ambulatory needs begin to walk again, or even walk for the first time. That’s the sort of return on investment NASA is proud to give back to America and the world.
Watch the video below to see the X1 Exoskeleton in action, and stay tuned for a possible ’2050 International Space Station Marathon’ where more than just 1 astronaut is able to run 26.2 miles as they orbit Earth: